I began writing in journals in 1974. Over all these years, I have accumulated a collection of 360 journals. In the summer of 2016, I completed a fourteen-year project during which I read through my journals and took excerpts on approximately seventy different topics.
Click on the link to listen to my explanation of this journal project.
YouTube video about my journals
Beth Jacobs, Ph.D. and a poetry therapist, and I did an interview with Kathleen (Kay) Adams for The Journalverse, which is a learning community of journal writers and facilitators worldwide. It is a gathering place for those who know the power of writing to heal. Below is a link to the interview.
Journaling has many benefits. Among them is writing for wellness. Below is the article I wrote on the magic of the written word and how journaling has made a difference in my life. It was published in the launch edition of Thrive Global.
INTROSPECTION, INTEGRATION, REFLECTION
EMERGING FROM MY COCOON
August 18, 2016
I long for open time with no obligations except toward the inner world and what is going on there. May Sarton
After seventy-seven days of immersing myself in my journals, I am preparing to return to my former life. How does one emerge from such an experience of isolation, introspection, and intense emotions? Before leaving this space, I feel compelled to reflect on where I’ve been.
When first considering a summer devoted solely to my journal project, I thought about ways to carve out the space. I knew it would mean big changes in how I had been living my life.
I had decided I would neither initiate nor accept social invitations. It meant keeping my calendar clear—which I had done throughout the summer. From the start, I limited my interactions with others and instead, worked on my journals non-stop.
I followed a rigid schedule. I slept no more than six hours a night and sometimes as few as four hours. Early morning meditative walks along the beach or canal helped me prepare for my days of solitude.
My goal for the summer was to read as many journals as I could. As the days passed, my pattern fell into place. Each day, I read and tabbed one journal (which took on the average of four hours) and entered one in the computer (which took on the average of seven hours).
During these three months, many questions have surfaced for me. I will attempt to answer them in order to best reflect on where I’ve been, what I’ve learned, and what this all has meant to me.
How has my journal process changed over the years?
Beginning in 1974, I wrote down all the details of my daily life regardless of whether they were significant or mundane. When I started reading my journals in 2002, I realized I had recorded so much that held no real meaning for me. That’s when I became much more selective about what I wrote.
At some point, I began to run out of room in my fireproof safe where I store my journals. I then shifted from writing in beautiful hardbound books to notebooks which took up less space and had narrower lines. Then when I retired at the end of 2011, I reverted to writing in lovely journals. I had had enough of the sameness of the notebooks and figured I would deal with the space issue when I could no longer stuff a journal into one of the drawers of my safe.
In 1997, I had begun reading The Artist’s Way and as suggested by the author, I was writing three pages each morning upon awakening. Those I kept in different notebooks apart from my regular journals. That writing focused solely on my thoughts and feelings.
Also, besides writing in simultaneous journals while doing the morning pages (which I did from 1997 – 2011), I kept a smaller journal in my purse so I could write wherever I was. The dates in my journals often overlapped—sometimes in three different places.
I generally write with a fountain pen and use black ink. Years ago, in the beginning of my journaling, I used peacock blue for a few years and then started writing with blue, green, pink, purple, and even red ink. Mostly though, these days I use only black ink.
And so, those are the logistics. It seems important for me to have a record of these details and how I managed to accomplish all that I did. Otherwise, I am afraid some of the nuances will fade from my memory as often does a dream upon awakening.
What is my journal project and why have I chosen to do this?
In the summer of 1994, I had decided to go back to some of my earliest journals, read them, and extract a variety of excerpts. My goal was to compile them into a book at the end of this process, which I did.
Then on January 4, 2002, I chose to begin again, also with a similar focus and end-product. However, there were a few differences from that project to this one. In ’94, I was taking excerpts on only about twenty topics. The majority were the “fluff” in my life—not this time, though. I have committed myself to take my most painful memories and examine them in a way I might never have dreamed I would do. Plus, I am now extracting approximately seventy different topics. Also during the earlier project, I was working full time, so the experience was not nearly as concentrated as it has been this summer.
Aside from my purposefully-focused effort over these past three months, I have been working on this in a random fashion over the past fourteen years. I always took journals to work on whenever I traveled. When I was working, I would often spend my lunch hours reading and tabbing the volumes. For sure, in any spare time I had, I would be knee-deep in my journals.
Somehow, through the years, I managed to make a significant dent. Yet, there were times when I would let it all slide and never even work on my journals for weeks or even months at a time. Always, the project loomed ahead in the background. And, of course, I never stopped writing, so my journal collection continued to grow.
My intention was to have this project completed by the time I turned seventy, but as that birthday edged closer, I realized it wasn’t going to happen. In a rare move on my part, I gave myself permission to let my goal slide. I decided it was something that need not be rushed—that, in fact, had a life of its own.
But somehow as this summer approached, I knew I needed to tackle this daunting task and make significant progress. And so, I did.
What is my purpose for taking these excerpts and how was that experience?
Ultimately, I am hoping to write a series of books containing the material from my journals that I have extracted. Each book will be written from those journals that are housed in one of the five drawers of my safe.
I have a total of 359 journals which cover a span of over forty-two years. At the beginning of the summer, I had completed reading and entering into the computer 268 of those. By last night, I had finished an additional seventy-seven, which means I have fourteen left to do.
The writer in me has always known that I could easily live on a deserted island as long as I had pen and paper and could write. And even if I didn’t, I would write in the sand. So, putting myself in a cloistered situation like I did this summer wasn’t difficult at all. Never once did I want to be doing anything but working on my journal project. I was perfectly content. In fact, on most days, I would look at my calendar hanging on our bathroom wall and would count the days left—always wishing there were more. Once I turned the page to August, I felt sad that this peaceful but also intense existence would soon end.
And so, it is that today is my last day of this isolation, concentration, and in-depth exploration. As of tomorrow, I will be heading back into my life. My lists have lists. There is much I’ve neglected as I have concentrated and focused solely on my journals. This has been the most contemplative experience of my lifetime.
What insight did I gain from this experience?
Because a friend of mine from National Association of Poetry Therapy had mentioned that it might be interesting to do a workshop on our journal retrospectives together at the next conference, I have spent more time considering the process than I might have otherwise. I’ve paid attention and have taken lots of notes. Besides the actual excerpts that I culled, it’s these nuggets that I want to examine. They are where the value of the experience resides.
Before I started going through my journals this summer, if someone were to have asked me what percentage of my life experiences has been positive and what percentage negative, my answer would have been drastically different from today. Then I might well have said 91% positive—9% negative. That’s truly how I looked at my life. After this experience, if someone were to ask me, my answer would be closer to 50-50. So, why the disparity? Where does it come from?
As I read these more recent journals covering the periods from June 1999 until August 2012, I experienced many painful days, weeks, months, and even years dealing with a variety of difficult and heartbreaking issues. While I hadn’t forgotten any of them, how I processed them and what my attitude was throughout is what has made the difference in the lens through which I have viewed my life. From this vantage point, I could sit back and observe how I pulled myself up—how my resilient nature has been a gift throughout my life.
Always when I have given journal writing workshops, I’ve talked about the therapeutic component of journaling. I understood the value of putting one’s thoughts and feelings down on paper. In fact, I knew, in some measure, my own journals had served that purpose for me. However, until reading them in this concentrated way, I had no idea the extent to which that was true.
The majority of people I’ve spoken to about keeping journals has said they write mostly when experiencing difficult times. Many have told me they’d never want to go back and read about those painful experiences. Some who have ventured to that place are quick to destroy their journals after knowing they have no desire to hold onto those unpleasant memories, and for sure, never to want anyone else to see them.
Only once have I heard how sharing a pain-filled journal was helpful. My friend kept a journal while she and her husband were separated. When they began couples therapy to work through their marital issues in the hopes of reconciling, she shared her journal with him. After reading the journal, he told me he had had absolutely no idea of the mental anguish she had experienced. For the first time, he saw her side of the issues. Many years later, they are still together. For them, that painful journal made a difference.
What do I know for sure from reading my journals?
- I wrote strictly for myself.
- These journals are for my eyes only.
- Since I can remember, I have had the desire/need to record my life.
- For years, I have felt as if there might be life lessons to share with others.
- This is my legacy—my lifelong body of work.
- My intention is to teach.
- I do not want to hurt anyone with anything I’ve written.
What are the gifts I have given myself by keeping these journals and then reading them?
I have a detailed record of my life for the past more than forty years, which allows me to look back on it and reflect. Seeing all of what I’ve committed to paper from this perspective allows me to learn from my past experiences in a way that I wasn’t able while writing them. This summer as I read my journals, I had new awareness surrounding many of the major events and issues in my life.
Another gift in doing this project in a concentrated manner is the huge impact it has had on me. I tracked the ebb and flow of my days. I better understood how each volume, while a different chapter in my life, was part of a continuous journey. I felt tremendous gratitude as I worked my way through my journals, all the while realizing the treasure I have given myself.
What is it like to take selections and how do I determine which to extract?
Early on in this process, I made a list of all those subjects I might possibly share with others. In addition to those, I wanted to keep a record of family members, my women’s group, and a few other significant people in my life.
What I was doing at the time of writing sometimes determined the topics. One might appear during certain periods in my journals and then may no longer be mentioned in future journals.
In many cases throughout this project, I have shared excerpts with family and friends that won’t be in my future books. But because they pertain to an individual and I thought he or she might enjoy the memories, I’ve sent them along. Since this is such a solitary journey, it has provided me with the opportunity to connect and bring others into the project.
Some topics and excerpts are just plain painful. While I would have loved to have avoided them, I forced myself to read and absorb every word. I saved many of those excerpts which I might never share. However, I knew they were important to my life. I still may want to revisit them and will eventually discard them—but not yet!
There are plenty of passages in my journals which will never see the light of day. Some of those are either confidences and/or secrets people have entrusted me to keep between us. I honor that and am clear that no one will ever see those. Then there are entries in which I might have written about someone to work through a thought or feeling I had about them. Those too will remain in my journals. As I read all which I have no intention of ever sharing, I became 100% sure that I have written for myself and no one else.
Unless I live long enough to realize my ultimate wish, which is to sit down and read my journals as I would a series of books from the first one until the last with no interruptions, this might be the only time I go through them. I’m hopeful that I’ll see the whole story from beginning to end at least one more time.
What am I capable of enduring and for what purpose?
There were many times throughout this process during which I would be drudging through what felt like quicksand. Through the years, I have filled volumes about a certain situation in my life or a problematic person. Repetition seemed to be a tool I used to work through an issue.
If I mentioned to my husband how difficult it was to revisit, he would ask why I wouldn’t just skip it. Why would I put myself through that agony a second time? While it was a valid question, I could only answer, “Because I have to.” Somehow, something has dragged me back to that situation or person. I looked at my role in the scenario. I needed to understand the how and why of it all. I had no choice—or so it seemed. True, I knew the end because I had lived it, but it didn’t matter in those moments.
In some cases, I had to face loss all over again. I had experienced it in my regular life as I had lived it. Now as I read page after page and volume after volume, I found myself right back in the moment feeling pain that I hadn’t felt for years. Tears would roll down my cheeks. I would feel a heaviness in my chest. I was gripped with anguish. In some cases, it felt like I was losing someone all over again. That’s how real my words had become to me as I read them.
Was it worth the pain and heartache—the sadness, anger, confusion, and all the rest I was experiencing? Yes. And why? Because I know it is from the tough moments that we learn and grow. I believe I am all the wiser as a result of having read and revisited those dreadful times in my life.
Nobody has done anything so awful that someone else hasn’t done. It’s what I hide that makes me weak and vulnerable. Isabelle Allende
What did I learn?
Most people have selective memory. We might remember something one way, when, in fact, it didn’t happen that way at all. We sometimes choose what we want to remember and block or suppress that which we would rather forget. This journal project has not allowed for that. Because I wrote daily for years, it is all there.
Of course, we view each moment in our lives from our own perspective. So, our reality is based on that. Within that parameter lies our truth. In going back in my journals, I have the most accurate record of my life as I lived it through my eyes. There is no hiding from it—no sugar coating it.
Synchronicity has been a huge component of this project. From the very start, I could be talking about a random subject to someone. I would then go home and open a journal to work on it, and the first paragraph I’d read would be on that same topic. It happened in countless ways, and after a while, I started to write down the incidents. There were too many to ignore. It fascinates me and leads me to better understand the flow of the universe, and especially when I’m open to it.
What else did I encounter as I culled through my journals?
There were many moments that were exactly the opposite of those painful parts. I looked at my life and saw where I would plant a seed and through the days, weeks, months, and sometimes years, I would watch the seed grow. I felt great joy in tracing those steps and in seeing my life then knowing what I know now. In some ways, it was empowering for me to have this telescopic view and then step back from it and absorb the panoramic scene in front of me.
I saw the patterns of how I negotiated my world and the ways in which I approached situations. I observed who I am and how I navigate through my days. I understood that I am the same person I’ve always been. The changes have been in my attitudes and behaviors.
I also became aware of how some themes in my life constantly repeated themselves. I was forced to see the mistakes I made and the moment when I finally knew I needed to do something differently. It wasn’t always easy to look at this. In fact, there were days when I was wishing I could rewrite my history.
While I was going back into the past in my journals, I was also writing in a current journal. In the earlier days when I would tab several journals at a time before entering them, at any given moment, I could be simultaneously working in three different years. Periodically, I would start to put the day’s date on something and would end up writing the year I was working on. Always during this project, there has been the juxtaposition of the present and the past. That continues today.
Some of the lessons that came from these three concentrated months of this project were:
- Unless you have something that is positive and/or helpful, it does no one any good to repeat something negative someone said about him or her. In most cases, in fact, it’s hurtful to the other person and not something he/she needs to hear.
- Standing up to the bully is the way stop abusive behavior.
- I can only control myself.
- Sometimes, as much as we might not want it to happen and as painful as it may be, relationships end.
- Shame, when spoken aloud, dissipates.
- Honesty is power.
Discoveries I made:
- From the greater majority of reading my journals, I was surprised at how much I remembered. Throughout these last seventy-seven journals, there were only a few people I had mentioned whom I could not recall. Aside from not remembering an experience, none of the others were “new” to me. Sometimes I might have forgotten a sequence or a nuance of something, but that too was rare. For me, writing about an incident, thought, feeling, etc., has always been a way to help preserve my memory.
- I noticed how much I repeated some of these feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Over and over I would say the same thing—ad nauseam at times. I understand now that this is something I must do to work through an issue. It’s my way of processing. It helps me to come to terms with something and eventually move on.
- I learned about others in my life in a new way. From this perspective and over a long period of time of reading my observations, I saw some traits and behaviors that I had never noticed before. It will be helpful to me as I move forward.
Who am I as a writer?
When I was a young child, I used to love writing letters. I remember telling myself early on that I needed to lead an interesting life so I will always have something to write about.
While I have written four books, I have only published one. Yet, there has never been a time when I haven’t been writing. It is who I am.
Throughout my journals, I have written about being an untrained writer, about dreams of becoming a noted author, and everything in between pertaining to writing. I’ve been on this journey for a good part of my life. In going through my journals, I’ve seen the struggle, the self-doubts, the vulnerabilities, the dreams come true and the broken ones, the joy of calling myself an author, and so much more. While I have learned and have realized the benefit of revisiting my journey, I understand that this is ongoing and is part of the creative process.
The future of my journals—archives and what’s to become of them?
Since the beginning of journaling and especially once I had a sizable collection, I began to think about what I would do with my journals. At first I thought I wanted to leave them to my daughter and son, but I eventually realized what a huge mistake that would be. If I’m not around to talk to them and explain some of what I wrote, it could be extremely difficult for my children.
But besides that, I have written these journals for myself. In every volume, there is at least one line and sometimes pages on end that I would never want anyone in my life to see. And as if all that weren’t enough, people have confided in me through the years. There were times when what they’ve told me was too much for me to contain, and so I often went to my journals to process the information. On rare occasions, a few people had asked me not to put what they’ve told me in my journals. I’ve always honored that. But for all the above-mentioned reasons, I have known it would be best to burn my journals when I die rather than leave them for my family. It’s not what I want to do, but it is what I feel is necessary.
I have considered willing them to a future great grandchild—should I be fortunate enough to have one someday. That would require a storage situation and perhaps some complicated maneuvering. However, I have not ruled out the possibility.
During this summer, I posted a piece about my journals on Facebook. In one of the responses, a friend mentioned her colleague, a historian, who believes strongly in preserving documents and journals. She made it clear that my journals should be put into an archive. That has me thinking, and now my next step is to research the possibility of this. After spending so much time with my journals this summer, I am beginning to understand their potential value for generations to come.
Wrapping it up
I must get back into my life. As I write these final words, I am preparing for the transition—for leaving my sacred space and rejoining my life as I normally live it.
Yesterday morning, I saw a rainbow. For me, rainbows are a sign of hope. They’re also a reminder that my mother is watching over me. My mother, who always reveled in my projects and especially in my writing, let me know that she is shining down on me.
If you are interested in attending a journal writing workshop, please contact Merle R. Saferstein at MerleRSaferstein@yahoo.com or fill out the contact form.