Saturday, 9 December 2017


Dawn French has made a really groovy diary — it’s for your appointments, your aspirations, your innermost thoughts; and it has her wise observations on life intermingled, plus delightful illustrations of the quick-charcoal-sketch variety.

It would make a great present. I looked at it a long time online, enjoying it. But I’m not going to buy a copy for myself, and here’s why.

I’ve started journals a couple of times and never get very far with them, because I don’t find myself all that riveting, and I don’t harbour stuff that needs dealing with. One of the exercises Dawn invites readers to do, is write a letter on a specially provided tear-off page. This would be a letter you’ve always meant to send but never actually written, something important. Once written, you file it in a flap on the inside back cover, to give yourself time to consider well before sending.

I rarely write letters, and hardly ever write one of the Important sort. But if I need to, if the time seems right, I just do it. I did exactly that recently, trying my best to express myself kindly and humbly while at the same time bringing an end to a relationship gone sour.

Another exercise is to stick in a head and shoulders photo of yourself, then write below it what you see, and what you feel about that person.

I do sometimes keep a photo of myself in case it’s needed for the bio accompanying an article or something, or to show the hairdresser how I had my hair before when I go back for a trim — but I don’t really know what I think about me, how I come across, or what sort of person I am. I prefer myself lived in than looked at. 

And then, there’s the business of innermost thoughts. A friend once invited me to read their journal, and I was surprised by how boring it was, that person being in real life interesting and good company. Kind of lame. I’d rather not leave that sort of record behind.

Some journals are fascinating, of course — take Thomas Merton's, for example. But wise and inspiring though he certainly was, I still think he'd have done better to refrain from committing to paper his thoughts and feelings about his abbot James Fox, with whom he had such a troubled relationship. Merton being so loveable and so spiritually brave, readers naturally incline to sympathise with his perspective; but I can't help seeing that Fox had a point — yes, he surely did. 

As a teenager I did for a couple of years keep a diary, meticulously and in depth. All written in my left hand (I am very right-handed) and in the lettering style of a young child. The journal of a soul. Perhaps peculiar, but these outpourings meant a great deal to me, and a friend who was doing the same used to read my entries avidly, as I did hers. However I knew I had gone a little too far one Sunday evening when I allowed another friend to read an entry. In typical teenage fashion I asked, “Does that seem odd to you?
The reply — “I don't think it's odd that you wrote it, but I think it's odd that you're letting me read it” — struck home, and summed up exactly the problem I now have with diaries. I just don't want to be that exposed.

As a young child — five? six? — in a moment of fury I wrote in large, emphatic letters on a scrap of paper, “I hate *****” (my sister).
In 2010, the best part of fifty years after I wrote that, my father died. I have a preference for following the old gypsy tradition and burning the vardo with all its treasures and secrets still inside; I’d have called House Clearance and asked them to take what they wanted and dump the rest. My sister is not of the same mind, preferring to sort everything meticulously and conscientiously  — it is for her, I think, an expression of respect and love, as it would be for many people. It took her a long time. Some years after my father’s death — last year? the year before? — I received from my sister a bundle of papers relating to me, that my father had kept. It included some childish early writing done at school, a sentimental story about a dog (that I thought Wonderful and Amazing at the time of writing when I was seven) and a page saying what I wanted to be when I grew up (a poet). It also included that scrap of paper saying “I hate *****”, carefully curated by my father for nearly fifty years, carefully sorted and re-delivered to me by my sister. I have no idea why anybody would do that, but it tells me this: it is never advisable to commit to paper my thoughts and feelings about another person, unless they would comfort or encourage that individual if discovered. So that rules out journalling, doesn’t it? Because if you are writing with a reader in mind, sensitive to their feelings about what you have said, it won’t be an honest record, will it?

So when it comes to innermost thoughts and feelings, yes, I do share them — verbally, with a small group of people I absolutely trust — the negative and the positive alike. I will have left my true record in the memories of people who loved me and understood me well, and I think that’s as far as I want it to go. Which is why, however lovely an artefact a journal may be — and here’s another one I looked at a long time (but didn’t buy) — they are not for me.


Anonymous said...

But isn't a blog a kind of public journal?

Buzzfloyd said...

That all makes sense to me. I already find it difficult not to dwell on small negative matters without giving myself justification to record them in loving detail. Increasingly, I am interested in cultivating positivity.

I kept a diary briefly as a teenager. In it I recorded all the miserable things I wanted to whine about at length. When I found and read it as an adult, I was dismayed by how petty and self-absorbed and boringly adolescent I sounded - a far cry from the creative and interesting intellectual heavyweight I imagined myself to be at the time. The only interesting entry was one that wasn't about me at all, but about our car being set on fire, so I had something to talk about that wasn't my feelings. I ripped all the pages out and burned them.

Anonymous said...

Hi Penelope,
What a great entry! I love journaling myself, and encourage my therapy clients to do so as well, because the act of processing with pen to paper is so healing. But, I let them know they can write it and then shred it if they have privacy concerns, because the act of doing it is more important than keeping a copy of the finished product! Then a cheap spiral notebook is good enough. Julia Cameron's work on one type of journaling (designed to unleash stuck creativity)called "The Artist's Way," is a resource I often recommend. Her "morning pages" (free writing pen to paper, no composition or editing until three full pages have been finished, every morning, first thing), are a way to gain clarity when confusion sets in for me. And they contain nothing rereadable for me ands are infinitely shreddable!

Patricia Yandell said...

Thank you so much for this post. I remember when I saw Dawn French on The One Show that thought this diary would be perfect for my daughter.....and then promptly forgot all about it. Thank you for the reminder...that you did not know would be a reminder!!!!

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello friends!

Anonymous — yes indeed, some blogs are exactly public journals, chronicling self-development or travel experiences etc. Others can be topic based, for example the ACW writers' blog where members take it in turns to offer articles about writing. I don't regard mine here as a journal, more a place to begin a discussion when something I've been thinking about grows sufficiently to feel worth sharing. To me, a journal is essentially about the individual, where my blog is more community based — it's for sharing and conversation.

Grace — that's just what I mean. I feel sure if I kept a journal the look-back-and-cringe element would overwhelm all others!

DMW — oh yes! I know The Artists Way and the morning pages! Such a brilliant idea, as was also the artist's date. That kind of purposeful journalling makes sense to me when someone is developing a skill or losing weight or embarking on a health journey. But though it's a great idea, and I have kept such records in similar circumstances, I never share them and always destroy them when the journey is complete, because I don't want anyone to be able to stumble across such personal information about me.

Patricia — yes, I saw her promoting it on the Graham Norton show, which prompted me to look it up. Glad it jogged your memory in time for Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Hello Pen,
So good to see you posting again - and , no, not journalling but simply airing interesting perspectives and liberating viewpoints. It's nice to think that as we grow older we can lose the need to stamp ourselves onto anything, and to find a certain freedom in that. I confess to ruminating quietly, personally and probably more than is healthy but I am getting better at watching what I'm doing and am better able to let things disappear into the ether; good and bad. I sometimes wonder if that means I don't care enough...other times I feel broken wide open. Either way, the freedom is key, I think, and writing it down hampers that. Baggage.
P.S. Since the summer I have been enjoying your archives, and this Advent the school where I work is collectively supporting our local foodbank. Thankyou!

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello Anonymous! Who are you? I only ask because everything you say here resonates with me entirely, and I find it comforting to have someone put into words exactly how I feel.
On the food bank, yes, it makes a great Advent calendar — one item a day. I'm not good at doing that, I've discovered, but I've certainly upped what I put into the collection points as the numbers depending on what we give continues to rise steeply.

Anonymous said...

Hello again Pen. Isn't it lovely to feel that connection through ideas and inclination; can you imagine how I felt when I discovered your entire blog?! Goodness, peace, and love thoroughly mixed in with indignation, and disbelief at the discord and chaos in our world. I'm a dreamer, an idealist, a mum and a pacifist, and yet I recognise the maelstrom in myself too, which I guess connects me to the majority. I would love there to be humility, acceptance and tolerance EVERYWHERE. As I said, I'm a dreamer; a square peg more often than not. But maybe not here, with kindred folk of the quiet way :)
I'm intrigued by your books and think I might well find them a happy way to spent time and money.
I only sign in as anonymous because I'm not entirely sure of the other options, but my name is Rumple...
no, no, it's Deb

Pen Wilcock said...

Well, we Rumpelstiltskindred have to stick together because it's sometimes very dark in the forest.

Rebecca said...

I wandered over (as I have for over a month) and was delighted to find not ONE, but TWO posts! I do SO miss it when you don't post.

Re. journaling: I do. A simple blank book with small grid-lined pages. I've used the same style for years...purchase at Barnes and Noble. I have found it extremely valuable to me personally. No one else seems that interested around here. I frequently go back to check on past events and am always amused by the jottings that accompany some of my notes.

I don't always emote on paper, but occasionally do so. Write simple poetry, copy significant quotes, record questions re. current Bible study or other topics, primitive sketches, dreams whose details I remember in the morning,and my reactions to what I'm currently reading, etc.

I'm weird like that :)

Pen Wilcock said...

Writing down dreams is a very good way of acquiring insight into motivations and transformations, I think, because dreams are elusive and slip so easily from the memory. I had an astonishing one recently — my liver actually spoke to me. That made me buck my ideas up!!

Lynda said...

It's all looking very festive!

And could you please send some snow over here!? xx

Pen Wilcock said...

Heheh. That's why took the photos! Blink and you miss it down here on the south coast.

Deborah said...

I love, love, LOVE blank journals with the WHOLE of my heart but I tend to shred them too. I love writing in them but rarely keep them forever. I also love all the pens in the world too. :-D

Pen Wilcock said...

Ooh, pens, yes! A whole rainbow of pens. Do you do Bible journalling?

Nearly Martha said...

I love the idea of journalling but whenever I do, it looks so pretentious, I just get embarrassed. This is probably because I have a higher opinion of my opinions than the evidence suggests. Lovely to read you again and love the Christmas decorations.

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes — opinions that seem so enlightened and convincing at the time can make sorry reading ten years down the line! I guess at least that of itself is an education.

Pen Wilcock said...

What's with this profile photo? Why does it make my head look so strangely tall?

Deborah said...

I don't do bible journalling, Pen. I've seen some beautiful bible pages painted with fab stuff but I'm not sure I could do that lol Plus I'm not really sure how to do it.

Pen Wilcock said...

Same with me. I've seen some lovely examples but never actually done it.

Rapunzel said...

Bible Journaling.....had to look this up.
A classmate once accused me of sacrilege for marking scriptures with color coding (ie blue for faith, pink for promised blessings,red for commandments etc)

My how the times change!

I grew up in a pro-journaling culture, but never was consistent at it and eventually stopped because my own past thought processes are appalling. No need to die and leave things that will horrify the surviving generations, haha.

Loved reading this post and comments!

Pen Wilcock said...

Bible journalling is at the same time wonderful and slightly hilarious — ladies who love to ornament and beautify have seen a niche for making all things pretty and swirly and sparkly and colourful — even Holy Writ!

Rapunzel said...

Well after all, it was good enough for those Book of Kells chaps.

Pen Wilcock said...

Just so!