Thirty years of personal notebooks.

Should everyone keep a journal?

In the early 2000s, the sleepy, murky, and definitely private tradition of personal journal-keeping was ripped from its moorings, enthusiastically and optimistically disrupted even before anyone realized that disruption was going to be a thing. It was given the rather dreadful name of blogging, and it had become a rage.

We were told that blogs are simply journals, and that everyone should keep a journal. Most of us already knew the latter concept from grade school. Journal keeping has been an esteemed ideal for a long time, even if most of us fail to keep one.

There are at least a couple of interpretations for the dictate that everyone should keep a journal. It could simply mean that everyone would someday be glad that they did so. I certainly thought so, when as a child I sporadically would keep a journal of my day to day activities (all now lost, and yes, my teachers were right — I would have treasured them today, had they survived). But these would have been, and were, private journals containing unedited, spontaneous expressions of usually mundane and sometimes private events. It says nothing about the very different decision to keep a public journal.

On the other hand, it could also be that the truism simply expresses an ideal — that everyone should nurture in themselves the thoughtfulness to generate ideas that the rest of us would like to hear about, and then record them, so that we may.

The first interpretation suggests that a journal is private, but the second suggests it can be public.

I personally knew some people who kept online journals, and began to wonder what the difference was between them and those who did not — or more specifically, those who may have kept a private journal but chose not to make it a public spectacle. I had begun to form an opinion that for an average person to take what naturally begins as a private journal and make it a public blog was rather self-important and, yes, narcissistic.

Thinking about it occasionally, I kept being reminded of an exchange in the screen adaptation of Dr. Zhivago, where Yuri is informed that his writing is “not liked” by the Party because such things are now seen as “personal, petit-bourgeoise and self-indulgent.” While certainly I would not agree with such a broad declaration about literature in general (his character was a poet), I began to wonder if in some cases a line does exist between worthwhile and irrelevant, and where it might be drawn. After all, why should the idle observations of any and every average person be assumed to have importance to the public at large?

One week in 2003, I was on a visit to a woman in New York City, and she had just received a prestigious fellowship, which her blog was now going to have to compete with. One of those evenings, sequestered in her tiny Manhattan apartment, we talked about blogging, her own popular site, and my own doubts about the value of blogs in general. I recited my thoughts about what makes people start blogs, and what my feelings had come to be. Suddenly, in a newly interested tone, she posed the question: “And what have you decided?” I had decided to defer to that maxim, probably started by Ralph Waldo Emerson (if not directly, then by the collective judgment of generations of his readers), that everyone should keep a journal, and its contents should not be questioned. The only difference still before me was that a blog is public, and a journal is private — hence the resistance to questioning the contents of a private journal; it only needs to please the author. Does this still apply if the journal is presented to the public? Possibly — I enjoyed reading many blogs, including hers, and they did not seem to be excessively personal or petit-bourgeoisie to me.

But taking a closer look at my friend’s blogging habits, as we sat in a Manhattan cafe and she obsessively pulled out her laptop to work on her blog, she actively kept two separate blogs. One was public, and very popular among her peers; and one was intensely private. Although the private blog in theory could be viewed by the public (free blogging platforms did not allow truly private posting), she wrote anonymously and did not let anyone, including me, know the name of that blog or how to get to it. Any reader who might stumble upon it would have no idea who she was, and I imagine that the content was so tortuous, hand-wringing and personal that it’s doubtful anyone would have had any idea into what kind of mire they had suddenly landed.

So then, perhaps a blog is that portion of a private journal that the author deems acceptable and/or instructive for the public. That definition I am willing to live with. It assumes that the author has exercised some editorial control, suggesting that he or she does not think that every thought they generate is a nugget of wisdom for us all to behold.

A case in point — currently I am reading a compilation of the journals of Henry David Thoreau. The introduction makes clear that although these are generally private journals containing a variety of matter, they are also public, in that during his life, Thoreau regularly returned to earlier journals and re-copied them into smaller volumes, discarding that which he deemed unimportant or irrelevant and distilling and condensing the remainder. He may have done this for his own benefit as a writer (some of his condensed journal entries can be found almost intact in Walden), but it’s also possible that he was thinking of posterity — he thought of his journaling as a lifelong project, and that some day, they might be made public, and so he had better get them in order. One of those thoughts that made the cut: “A journal, a book that shall contain a record of all your joy, your ecstasy.”

In the end, content has to stand on its own merits. Narcissism, self-indulgence, and self-importance are all motivations that are personal to an individual, and from our perspective as readers, they can only be judgments. These same motivations can result in the publication of anything, including content that is relevant and valuable, and content that consists only of hacked-together strings of words shilling for Amazon referrals. Yes, understanding motivation does matter, in some arts; as Watterson’s Calvin once said to Hobbes when preparing for a school play starring vegetables, “What motivates an onion?” This question can also apply to the majority of political dialogue, today. But as readers, judging an author’s motivation has to take second place to judging its literary outcome.

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