Why you should never read someone else’s journal

In the long hiatus between my mother’s death on October 19th and her funeral last Friday, I wasn’t able to focus on work much at all, and that felt OK and appropriate. I slept a lot, dreamt a lot, read non-fiction books and wrote in my journal.

I was working through some of the exercises in Change Your Story, Change Your Life: Using Shamanic and Jungian Tools to Achieve Personal Transformation by Carl Greer one morning, when it occurred to me that anyone reading my journal after I died might not understand, as I do in the writing, that it’s an experiment, and not a report.

Slow start warning: I nearly gave up on this book after the first chapter, which felt like puff and waffle. Glad I didn't.
Slow start warning: I nearly gave up on this book after the first chapter, which felt like puff and waffle. A few chapters in, I’m glad I didn’t.

Actually, my whole journal is a perpetual work-in-progress. Every page I write is part of a creative exploration. It isn’t me – it’s a kaleidoscope of all the possibilities of me, and I’m aware of that when I’m writing in it in much the same way as when I’m gathering notes for a work of fiction, knowing all the time that many of my ideas won’t fit the story and will have to be discarded.

A journal or diary is a first encounter with ideas and events, before you’ve had a chance to ponder and decide what you think of them. To get a true sense of a person’s life, I guess you’d need to read their autobiography, because there you have a completed work. Where a journal is a mess of notes, often contradictory or inconsequential, an autobiography is an expression of the writer’s identity, his or her choice of what’s important and how they understand what’s happened.

I was struck by something in Natalie Goldberg’s book on memoir-writing Old Friend from Far Away last week; she says we shouldn’t think we have to be old before we can write a memoir. We don’t need the whole story all in one go, at the end. We can write memoirs from time to time throughout a long life, and each one will be the most complete expression of who we are and how we understand our lives up to that point.

In that sense, I guess autobiography could be seen as a work-in-progress too, but the difference is that in autobiography we are writing what we know about ourselves and our life, whereas in journalling we are feeling our way along the borders of our knowledge, and what we find must be judged as me or not-me, accepted or discarded, as part of the process of becoming.

If you read someone’s journal – as well as the obvious problem that it is private writing and they did not intend it to be read – you will not find the person there, and thinking that you will could give you every which kind of wrong impression, like listening to someone’s dreams and believing you can interpret them. A good dream therapist will simply hold the dream so that the dreamer can look at it from different angles, because only the dreamer can find out what it means.

I love my journals
I love my journals

I include all sorts of things in my journals – dreams, ideas, experiences, book reviews, quotations, drawings, writing exercises and creative experiments. I love them, just as I love my dreams, specifically because they don’t define me.

With both, there’s a feeling of infinite possibility, a continuously forming sense of direction, so that even at the end of a lifetime of journalling and dreaming, I’m sure there will be no conclusion, because the conclusion is always up ahead.

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My children have strict instructions to burn my diaries without reading them when I die. What would you like to happen to yours?

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16 thoughts on “Why you should never read someone else’s journal”

  1. My journals go back years and I’ve kept most of them, but do wonder what would happen to them should I die. Like you I think they should be destroyed, but couldn’t quite put ‘why’ into words. You have done the job for me here so perfectly Jen. Thanks for your clarity and your lovely blogs which put things simply but carry so much deep understanding and meaning.

  2. I loved this post, Jenny. The writer in me needs the freedom of knowing my journals will never be read by anyone else. But the historian in me is aware of how grateful I am that other journals have been saved. A tricky paradox, and I don’t know how I’ll resolve it. Maybe I’ll figure it out through journaling…

  3. I’ve been running a memoir writing group this year and so find much of what you say here (as always!) resonates. I’m fairly confident that no one else can read my writing, certainly not the writing I do while on-the-hoof. I first kept a journal while I was expecting my first child and then again for my second and I have shown them what the books look like so I’m rather hoping they will keep one each – after I’ve gone. In that instance I’m reminded of their potential significance to others – a piece of personal history we might just want to cherish. I can only hope!

    1. Hi Melanie – was it your intention at the time of writing to leave something for your children? I think some diaries are written for readers, such as political memoirs and social or family commentary, and those can indeed be treasured by those who come after. It’s all about the intention for me.

  4. All my past journals are together in my trunk with a note explaining exactly what you’ve just said. They’re just a collection of thoughts, ideas, frustrations, fears, dreams, and joyous outpourings, and cannot ever be the whole me, or the me that family members necessarily know.

      1. No I haven’t. I wrote the note because one day I thought what if I died suddenly and left all this crazy waffle – my family might look to it to find me again, but they would only find pieces of me, which might confuse and upset them. You’ve got me thinking though…

  5. I started keeping regular journals in 1983. I recorded just about everything that happened in my life and in my mind; from my happiest moments to contemplations of suicide. I switched to an electronic journal in June of 2013, shortly after I had a critical accident that severely damaged my right hand. I still have all those journals – spiral-bound notebooks – stuffed into boxes and piled in my study. I’m certain they pose a fire hazard, but I try not to think about that. Since I have no children, nieces or nephews, I’m not sure what I want done with my journals. I’m tempted to follow your route, Jenny, and instruct someone to incinerate them.

    I’ve inspired several people over the years to maintain a journal. Some have done as I did: write things down in a notebook. Others have taken to audio diaries. Either way, I tell people, it’s important to record your thoughts and emotions in some form. For me it’s very therapeutic. I’ve always felt better after writing in my journal.

    1. Me too, Alejandro – writing my journal helps me understand myself better, and notice how complex and amazing life is. I think I would feel inhibited if I thought anyone else would ever read it, and that would make it much less pleasurable for me

    1. I wasn’t aware of this, Karen – thank you! That would solve the problem if you intend your journals should not be read after your death, and for younger people who are ‘natives’ in this internet age, it may be their natural medium too. For me, paper and pen still feels more intimate, and I like the physicality of the hand writing process, which I don’t do much of elsewhere in my life any more, so my journals feel very special.

  6. My journal practice has pulled me out of serious depression. I don’t think we should underestimate the the stuff it can throw up but with support and over time it was the way forward. Now I run a creative writing for well being and a Carers journal/support group. I feel that it’s a privilege to witness people’s stories.

    1. Yes – my experience exactly, Karen. I think journals should be private unless someone tells you they would like you to read them, but sharing our stories around the table at workshops is a wonderful thing

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