Make time to journal

On September 11, 2001, I was about three months into a year-long post-college internship at USA Today’s editorial page. I remember the amazingly clear blue sky of that morning, and I remember getting on the Metro and having someone announce to another passenger that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. By the time I got to work in Arlington, VA, it was clear that an attack was underway. One of my colleagues suddenly yelled that his wife had called from their home by the Pentagon to say that a plane had barreled in low. We went to the window to look and, sure enough, smoke was rising in the distance. As the head of the editorial page noted, “Well, there’s only one story.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is a more slow-build event than 9/11, but as with then, there is only one story. We are living through events that we know we will be talking about for a long time to come. In a few years we will be reading books analyzing what happened. While life will go back to something closer to normal, some changes will stick around. Once there wasn’t a TSA. It’s interesting to ponder what will stick from this (one obvious change: few organizations will be able to argue that nobody’s job can be done remotely).

Anyway, in the midst of big events, it can be tough to keep our heads above water. People facing job losses, or who are dealing with the virus in their immediate families, may have no extra capacity for thinking about the future. But for those who do, a suggestion: take a few minutes each day to write in a journal. Record what happened during these uncertain days. Record how people tried to keep a semblance of normalcy (we’ve done Zoom circle time for preschool and Zoom morning meeting for 4th grade. We’ve done Zoom piano lessons, Zoom karate, and have even attempted Zoom choir which…let’s just say is not supported by the software). Record what the grocery stores looked like (pictures might help too). Especially for people working in hospitals, immediate accounts of daily life will someday be incredibly important. Someday, we will be looking back on this. In retrospect, we tell stories in certain ways. But knowing how we actually felt and what we thought in the moment can make these stories more authentic. There will be details that get smoothed out in retrospective narratives. It is good to remember these details.

I’ve been taking a few minutes to write in my journal most nights. I keep my time logs, and I blog here, but I’d been a lax journal keeper in the past few years. I picked the journal back up right after the baby was born to record memories and thoughts about how he was growing. Then, in early March, it became a record of school closures, of trip cancelations, of our world narrowing into the space of this house.

I can’t say I’ve written anything profound. But someday when the baby grows up and asks me what his first few months of life were like, I will have these entries.* I will be able to describe what I was thinking and what we were doing. Since it only takes a few minutes to write these things down, it feels like an easy gift to my future self.

*Ok, most likely, unless we lose the journals, or the house gets flooded or… 

Photo: I took this photo well over a year ago but I’m still in the same journal. Oh well. Consistency over volume.

15 thoughts on “Make time to journal

  1. Yes! Thank you for this– I’ve been avoiding large sections of the internet because I’m tired of posts or articles giving me advice on how to do this crazy era better. (which is funny because I’m usually a huge advice seeker.) I’ve started an online journal. I’m not calling it a blog because it’s not about a particular topic and I’m not interested in building a digital brand as much as being a data point for historians or a story for my great-grandchildren. Also because everything feels too raw and unfinished to package into a personal essay, where you need to make meaning of events. I’m reading The Splendid and the Vile with my son and am fascinated by the diarists who participated in a sociological experiment called Mass Observation, just writing about their days during the Blitz. I love that kind of history, so why not write it?

  2. I’m trying to get back into writing in my journaling app. I did it consistently for a whole year, and I love having that record of daily life to look back on. Everything moved so fast this past month that I got overwhelmed and didn’t write anything. To say my husband’s industry has imploded is an understatement. We are doing ok but his friends and colleagues are seriously hurting. My place of work has closed indefinitely: massage therapy is not something one can do remotely! However, I’m due with our fourth child in May, it has been rather nice to spend days at home, snuggling and reading stacks of books to my 4 and 2 yr old, tidying and organizing in advance of the baby, drinking iced coffee and chatting with my husband. I’ve been sending photos and emails to elderly relatives, and having nice chats with neighbors (from a distance!) Some days I’ve been depressed and anxious, but the weather has been so gorgeous it’s hard to stay down for long.

    And you’re right, I don’t want to forget all those details.

    1. Glad to hear your seminar went well! I teach at a university as well, but this all happened at the end of one term, so we’re beginning spring quarter next week. For spring, I’m mentoring TAs who are teaching 3 hour multidisciplinary writing seminars that they created–they’re a little worried that the students might not be interested in their topics, given all that’s going on. I think students might actually be more interested because they’ll be bored and need an escape from the stresses you just listed. I’ve read a little about prison education, and that incarcerated people are the best students you can ever have because they have nothing else to do but learn. Hopefully, this experience isn’t that awful for our students, but I think there might be a parallel.

      1. @Liz- yes, hopefully the experience isn’t that awful! But if there’s no option to go out and party with your friends, it can nudge a bit more time into the school work category.

      2. yes, I think the students were very happy just to be doing something that felt normal! I teach Victorian literature and tend to save the fun stuff for the end of the semester (in this case Sherlock Holmes). A couple of students dropped off but the rest came, had done the reading thoroughly, and were eager to participate. The prison analogy might be right–many students seemed happy just to have something to do that day!

        Good luck mentoring TAs–that sounds tricky given that many of us don’t have much experience (yet) with remote learning!

  3. Thanks for this post and have also really been enjoying walking the dog and listening to Best of Both Worlds!

    I am a university Prof and would have thought that teaching remotely would stink. Some of it does, but I just had my first Zoom seminar the other day and it was awesome. I’d say 75% as good as being in person. And you are right that college students are very hard hit. Some of mine have already lost jobs, some are caring for grandparents or even living with grandparents (commuter campus), some exchange have had to pack up and go back to England or Germany. It’s rough! But I was surprised at the uptake for the seminar, which went 15 minutes over!!

    I am journaling too. I really like to use a moleskine diary with just a little bit of space for every day. It’s less daunting. I got this idea from archival work reading Victorian diaries. I thought they would be long and juicy but they are almost always short entries in what North Americans would call planners or agenda books and what those in the UK call diaries.

    1. @Karen – I think 75% as good as being in person is a reasonable estimate. And if you think of it that way, wouldn’t it make more sense to do a lot of routine meetings and such via zoom so people could devote the time spent in transit that’s often wasted to planning the fewer in-person events much more carefully? Or maybe we could calculate that 2 zoom meetings would then be 50% better than one in person meeting, and if we can save time on transit to devote to having the second meeting, we’d come out ahead…

  4. I’ve been blogging since 2005. Not a “branded” blog, more of an online journal. And I’ve thought many many times that perhaps I shouldn’t do it anymore because what if someone reads it and finds it me off putting. But I have found it so lovely to be able to go back and read about what I was thinking during earlier parts of my life. I can’t imaging stopping. The community is nice too.

    1. @omdg – yep, the online community can be great. I haven’t been blogging quite as long but it’s still fun to go back and see what we did over a weekend in, say, 2010.

  5. I have one of those five year journals which is amazing. I’m on my third version and it is fascinating to look back on what we were doing last year, the year before, and so on…. I also like the fact that there isn’t much space to write so I don’t feel much pressure. It is remarkable how much you can convey in just a few sentences.

  6. I have started keeping what I call my “highlight journal” every single day since January 1st. It’s in a 5 star notebook with pages of grid paper. I block off exactly 1/3 of a page per day (about 14 lines of the small grid squares). I try to write in very short form, not even full sentences. I just jot down everything I did the day before, any exciting thoughts or events, big feelings on anything, interesting tidbits about the kids or things we did together or accomplishments, etc. I look forward to doing it every morning and also know I will enjoy looking back on it! I agree that keeping it short helps me be consistent and prevents it from taking too much time or becoming a burden.

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