Rereading Journals is a Valuable and Powerful Activity
We not only keep journals and find the process of writing in our journal valuable. We also often reread our journals, for all sorts of reasons. This rereading experience can be just as valuable and powerful as the initial writing experience—sometimes, even more so. In her chapter contribution to The Great Book of Journaling, Judy Reeves chats with us about this important rereading process. Judy explained:
Re-reading old journals from the perspective of storyteller in search of material can be a sentimental journey down memory lane, the patient dig of an archeologist in a historical site, or a canoe ride along the river of a life with all its curves and bends, its rapids and calm, its depths and shallows.
If you choose to take the journey, a few suggestions to consider in re-reading:
+ Decide if you want to focus on a particular time—months, years, decades. You can read chronologically to determine the progression of story over time or dip in at random for the surprises that might occur.
+ Set aside time when you can be uninterrupted for a few hours or longer. Consider a day or weekend or even longer “retreat,” where you can focus on reading, reviewing, making notes. I have a ritual of spending New Year’s Eve re-reading my journals of that year.
+ Create a note-taking or marking system to help organize the material. I use different colored sticky notes to identify various categories—blue for possible narrative essays, yellow for memories that might be part of a memoir, pink for potential fiction, green for recurring themes which, in their repetition, may inspire a deeper dive into a particular story. I also use highlighters to mark sections within the journals themselves. I always have a notebook nearby to write notes on which I may want to follow up—reconnecting with someone, finally reading a book I made mention of, remembering a quote or play or movie.
Going forward, as you continue your journaling practice, some suggestions that may enrich your journal’s storytelling voice:
+ Write specific details: the names of people, places and things. Write the kind of bird that sings outside your window at the Airbnb place you’ve taken on your vacation. Note the place you had lunch with your old friend, and what you ate. What’s the book you’re reading now, the song playing in your head?
+ Use concrete descriptions: write bungalow or Craftsman or Spanish style, rather than just “house.” Say chocolate raspberry mousse instead of merely “dessert.” A willow, not just a tree; red geraniums rather than flowers (and give the red its name, too).
+ Do a sensory inventory: write what you see, hear, taste, smell, touch. Include light, air, atmosphere and mood. Color them and shape them with lively detail.
+ Capture dialogue: who said what to whom. Note: eavesdropping is allowed, even encouraged.
+ Describe others: Tall? How tall? In comparison to what? Eyes? What color? What does it remind you of? Here’s a line from Margaret Atwood’s story, The Edible Woman. “She wore her usual Betty Grable hairdo and open-toed pumps, and her shoulders had an aura of shoulder pads even in a sleeveless dress.”
+ Use concrete words rather than abstract: I read once that “it’s harder to write about God than to write about God’s hat.” Writing our emotions takes us into murky territory. How do you describe love? What can you say about anger? What are the words for sorrow? This is where the common advice, “show, don’t tell” comes in, and where, as writers—in journals and otherwise—we must slow down and go inside the experience. Writing a small scene, describing what you might see in a snapshot of the event or, as Anne Lamott suggests in her book, Bird by Bird, write what you can see inside a one-inch picture frame. Showing the tender hand of a grandfather on the shoulder of his small grandson who is smiling up at him, illustrates “love,” in a way that brings the emotion of the word alive. As writers and storytellers, this is what we aim for.
+ Each day or each journal writing session, write one moment that mattered, one surprise or astonishment or joy—large or small, one troubling thought or worry or concern for yourself or others or the world, one thing you know for sure which may or may not be true the next day, and one “I remember…” memory.
Journaling allows us to go deeper into story, especially if we slow down and take care to use the language of storytelling.
Writing these stories, piecing them together, we come to better understand ourselves and make meaning of our lives, and who knows what stories our journals might tell others and thereby connect in a most human way.
Might you like to create a small plan for rereading your journals? You might find that rereading experience at least as valuable as the initial writing experience! Give rereading a try.
“Writing our emotions takes us into murky territory. How do you describe love? What can you say about anger? What are the words for sorrow? This is where the common advice, “show, don’t tell” comes in, and where, as writers—in journals and otherwise—we must slow down and go inside the experience.”