skip to content

I Just Sat Down and Wrote Myself a Letter...

Douglas Todd
Religion and Ethics Columnist
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, September 11, 1999

"I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my real life again at last. That is what is strange — that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore what is happening.''
— May Sarton, from Journal of a Solitude

I'm finding I'm anything but alone these days in wanting to use the white, empty pages of my journal to reflect on my more intimate feelings, half-formed ideas and fragile aspirations.

Shelves and shelves of journals — padded, flowery, hardback, floppy, leather bound — are now being sold throughout North America, particularly through spiritual bookstores like Vancouver's Banyen Books, or Vine and Vig Tree.

In the past, journals, diaries and "pillow books'' weren't that common, kept mainly by provocative writers like Anais Nin, who said her diary was the only way she could "keep track of the two faces of reality'' — the public and erotically private.

Japanese geishas were among the first to use journals, or pillow books, in the 12th century. Explorers such as Captain Vancouver later relied on them to record their adventures and discoveries, and besieged girls like Anne Frank turned to them to try to endure the Second World War.

But now every speaker on the motivational circuit touts journals as the best way to maximize your time, increase your efficiency and keep your personal life in balance. They've become a prime management tool, as well as a way to explore your soul.

I took the more psycho-spiritual approach to diary-keeping this summer through a course called "Journal to the Self,'' which is based on a book of the same name by Kathleen Adams.

Adams is just one of many today who are promoting journals as the path to self-discovery and metaphysical insight. In the past decade, the number of books on keeping a journal (which has now been made into a verb and dubbed "journaling'') has grown from 10 to more than 200 titles.

In the four-week course, which was lead by a charming, astute fellow named , I learned about unlocking thoughts and feelings through 22 journal techniques — from writing imaginary dialogues with inanimate objects to penning "unsent letters'' to people you love or hate.

Journals are becoming more popular in part because the world is becoming a more confusing place and people feel more uncentred than ever. Most people's lives seem shaped more by the mass media and American entertainment today than they are by the still, small voice that resides within.

Although people are desperate for someone to talk to, shrinks are too expensive. And many people no longer have a priest, pastor or rabbi to confide in. So they need a place to reflect about what's really going on in their pained hearts. Journals can quickly become a person's best friend.

In the course I took, McGinnis suggested there's a quasi-religious aspect to journal keeping. "The heart of spirituality is the quest to love yourself and your neighbour,'' he says. "And journals help you notice what you're thinking, feeling and doing and how that impacts on people — so you can enhance your relationships.''

If you're a Christian, McGinnis said journals are a way to connect to what Jesus called "the kingdom of God within you.'' If you're more inclined to secularism, McGinnis puts the value of journals another way and quotes Plato's famous line: "The unexamined life is not worth living.''

Another journal advocate, Brenda Ueland, says journals provide a safe place to face your vulnerable emotions, follow new threads of thinking and ride your imagination in ways that aren't always socially acceptable. "Creativity,'' Ueland says, "is very tender and sensitive, and it is usually drummed out of people early in life by criticism, by teasing, by jeers and rules.''

The beauty of journals is that there are no rules about how to keep them. Still, a lot of people who have tried keeping journals soon feel stuck in a rut.

They often make entries just when they need to vent. So their journal grinds over only the tough times; fury with parents, spouses or business partners.

I've found my extremely erratic journal has sometimes made my life seem too worried, when it's actually pretty good. I want to celebrate that more.

That's why I'm a fan of the 22 different techniques in Journal to the Self, not to mention all those other approaches. I picked up some surprising insights about the good and hard things in my life through the Journal to the Self techniques McGinnis' taught (phone [408-4457] if you're interested in his next course).

I experimented with the journal technique of making lists of 100, including of 100 memories of my childhood. I also had a "dialogue'' with money; reflected on the meaning of the word "harmony;'' wrote a five-minute "sprint'' about a well-known quotation; did a stream of consciousness piece on the phrase "purple haze''; wrote a "captured moment'' about an experience I had at a soccer game and did a character sketch of a member of my family.

It was a gas.

As McGinnis says, meditation is a valuable form of spiritual discovery, as is prayer — but journal writing can benefit those who are both explicitly religious and those who are more generically spiritual.

If you can come to know yourself better through a journal, that will not only strengthen your relationships and make you more attentive to reality, it just may bring you closer to the transcendent.

Douglas Todd's column appears Fridays.

Photo of Ray McGinnis Reading from Write to the Heart
Ray McGinnis, author of 'Writing the Sacred' reading from his new book at the book launch.