It Does Not Really Exist Until It Is Put Into Words

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I’ve been thinking about my journals lately, about how long before I began putting words to keyboard I would put them to paper. Even at six years of age I took my little red leather journal with lock and key to Canada, recording every grilled cheese sandwich (and time I saw the Golden Boy), while constantly having my spelling corrected by my grandmother. It daunted me not one bit, for the urge to record what I saw, and what I felt, was far stronger than any reprimand.

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train. ~Oscar Wilde

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One of the things I love to read best is my old journals. They are more significant than a scrapbook, able to take me back in time and place better than a photograph. The handwriting on the page, subtly changing as I grew from child to adult, brings me back to the person I was. The life I lived.

For any writer who wants to keep a journal, be alive to everything, not just to what you’re feeling, but also to your pets, to flowers, to what you’re reading. ~May Sarton

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Writing a blog is not a substitute for keeping a journal. At least it isn’t for me. When I physically write, with my favorite pen, the thoughts seem to flow with greater alacrity. The inner critic is silenced, for I know the words will not be seen by strangers’ eyes. I am writing purely for myself in my journal, uncensored and uninhibited about expressing vulnerability.

It’s different with a blog. Somehow my writing stiffens up, and pales in comparison with those whose writing I feel is so erudite. It doesn’t flow, it doesn’t even express my self the way my handwritten words do.

Writing, then, was a substitute for myself: if you don’t love me, love my writing & love me for my writing. It is also much more: a way of ordering and reordering the chaos of experience. ~Sylvia Plath

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Yet even a journal is not sacrosanct. Last summer I looked at a whole decade of journals, a box of memories I no longer wanted to remember. The entire carton went into the dumpster at school, and I cared not if mice gnawed the edges should they come across the discarded books. The mice, the rodents, the insects underground had more use for those painful words than I.

Will I live to regret that decision? Is it, as Dodie Smith suggests below, somehow cheating?

I should rather like to tear these last pages out of the book. Shall I? No-a journal ought not to cheat. ~Dodie Smith

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As of today I do not regret it. Even though I am not foolish enough to believe that by discarding the journals one can also discard the pain, I know that half of the healing lies in the writing. Keeping the books perhaps, is not quite as important as putting one’s truth into words.

There is, of course, always the personal satisfaction of writing down one’s experiences so they may be saved, caught and pinned under glass, hoarded against the winter of forgetfulness. Time has been cheated a little, at least in one’s own life, and a personal, trivial immortality of an old self assured. And there is another personal satisfaction: that of the people who like to recount their adventures, the diary-keepers, the story-tellers, the letter-writers, a strange race of people who feel half cheated of an experience unless it is retold. It does not really exist until it is put into words. ~Anne Morrow Lindbergh

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18 thoughts on “It Does Not Really Exist Until It Is Put Into Words”

  1. You have once again confirmed that we are of like mind. I’ve been thinking about my journals and getting rid of the old ones. I think about what I wrote and how I no longer need to see it in print. I think about how its much easier to write to myself in these colorful books, since its for my eyes only. I think about all I share in these pages and how much I want to forget or remember. Journals are my favorite means for recording my thoughts, favorite quotes, my poems, and photos I tear out of magazines. I’ve got a box full of them and wonder what to do with them. I have a box of new journals yet to be filled and think about what I’ll write in them. The quotes you’ve included are wonderful and I’m already jotting them down in my journal. I love how you describe the difference between keeping a journal and writing a blog – they are such different mediums and I can agree with you how different my voice sounds for each one. I share a small part of myself with my blog, but I bare my soul with my journal. This post is really making me think and feel so much – thank you, dear friend. P.S. Happy Halloween!!

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    1. What a thoughtful comment you’ve left me, Nadia. I’m glad to see, as always, that I’m not alone in my thinking. The last quote, by Anne Lindbergh, is my very favorite. Oscar Wilde’s has always made me laugh, but hers reflects my position exactly. And while Sylvia Plath is a bit dark for even my darkest mood, I agree with how writing tends to sort out the chaos.

      I would love to see some photographs of your journals, and read a post about your thoughts on journaling. Should you have the time and inclination. 😉

      and, Happy Halloween to you, too!

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    1. The one with the red “flap” is really a red leather binding. I bought it at Home Goods store (do you have those?) for a song! It’s actually from Florence, Italy, and I can’t imagine why it wasn’t snatched up by some fellow writer. However, one of the drawbacks is that it is quite thick, and therefore difficult to balance one’s hand on top…

      None of the journals in the post have been used yet. I tend to buy them, because they’re beautiful, and then wonder if I dare write in them. Normally, I write in a Moleskine. From Target.

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  2. I don’t do journals normally, but I’ve been thinking of using them to store sermon notes. These are gorgeous btw.

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    1. Sermon notes are a good thing to put in journals; I’ve used them for that before, but also for verses I especially love as I’m reading through the Bible in the year.

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  3. I’ve journaled since I was 8 or 9 and find it fascinating to go back and read through my old ones. Sometimes it’s painful, and I’ve written some hateful things, but it shows me how I’ve grown and, often, how I’ve stayed the same. I look forward to the time when I’m elderly and have an entire stack to go through. The autobiography of my life, often written when emotions were at their highest.

    I’ve never had the urge to throw any away, though I’ve always wanted them to stay absolutely private, but perhaps that will change as the years go on.

    I loved this post!

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    1. I always thought that in a fire, I’d grab my journals too. Now there are so many I know I couldn’t grab them all, and my thoughts have come to, “What happens to them when I’m gone? Who will read them, who will care?” I think they’re just something I write for myself, for the moment in which I’m dwelling. (Except for when I reread them, and then what a flood of memories comes back.)

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  4. You are brave to get rid of the old ones. My journal writings are scattered in different notebooks.
    My daily musings got mixed up with poetry and travel.
    I like the feel of writing on paper which I do before I transfer the words to my blog.

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    1. I can’t imagine writing my posts all out by hand first, then transferring them. But, I think here has been research done which suggests we use a different part of our brains when we write by hand than when we type. Your method would solve any gap which may occur.

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  5. I haven’t kept a journal in decades, but I do still write in my book journals in spite of blogging. I have a few travel journals that I enjoying re-reading every now and then and I’ll probably hang on to those forever, however, I’ve been re-reading a few boxes of old emails and letters that I sent to my mom, which she saved and has since sent back to me. It’s been nice re-reading all of them, but once I’m finished, they go directly in the trash. I just can’t see hanging on to them for my daughter to go through some day, although knowing her, she’d probably just throw them away without a second glance. (Forgive me for the awkward paragraph — trying to type this in between trick-or-treaters!)

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    1. You bring up a question for which I have no answer: what becomes of what we’ve written? I can see my son just as easily tossing away my written accounts of tears and joy. Ultimately, those writings mean more to me than anyone else I guess.

      No awkward paragraph; I’d never have known you were entertaining little goblins and witches (so to speak) had you not told me.

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  6. Do you happen to have a source for that Lindbergh quotation? It’s wonderful. If you happened to read my “Treehouse” post, where I list the ten most influential books (or writings) in my life, you’ll notice that both Lindbergh and the Gospel of John are on the list. I hadn’t really thought of the connection, until I read this quotation.

    After all, the distance between “It does not really exist until it is put into words” and “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” isn’t so great. And just to add one more layer, the creation story told in Genesis has God speaking the world into existence. Oh, rich, lovely stuff here!

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    1. Shoreacres, the quote from Anne Morrow Lindbergh is from North To The Orient. It is a book I’ve not yet read, but the quote took my breath when I was searching for “back up” of what I wanted to say in this post.

      I’m so intrigued by your connection between her and the Gospel of John. Both of the passages of which we speak here are about the coming into existence; ourselves and Him. I was thinking that I have a part in bringing myself into existence when I express myself through words. But perhaps, the connection for me lies more accurately in my coming to existence through Him.

      Your comments amaze me. They always make me stop. Think. Mull over something in a whole new way. I thank you for each one.

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  7. I hope that one of my children or grandchildren (or great-grandchidren?) will read my journals – that’s one reason I write them…but I really wonder, the way the society is now, whether there will be very many people with the patience and interest for old journals, written on paper in books. I myself am old-school and have letters and journals of relatives long dead which I am trying to transcribe.

    But I also write to help me think, which may be reason-for-journaling #2, and #1 is for a record to go back to of my life and journey. In the 40+ years that I have kept a journal I never have had adequate time for this kind of writing; I think it’s because like Chesterton, to me every detail seems as potentially important as every other and I want to document everything tangible and intangible.

    Writing my blog is hard, but it’s easier than journaling because the scope is so much smaller on several levels. I can finish one little blog post, that might just consist of a photo and a few paragraphs, and it’s satisfying to complete something. Journaling is so open-ended I can never feel satisfied. (But even when journaling I put some limits on what I write because if people do read it in the future there is the potential for me causing pain by things I might say.)

    Just now writing about this makes me wonder if I need to come up with some structure to make my journaling more convenient and do-able. At this stage of my life I have so many responsibilities more than filling my time, that when I do make time for something creative it is easier to blog, and when I am tired it is easier to read…

    Thank you for a very stimulating post! You should ask your son in advance to not throw out your journals, but to keep them or offer them to other friends or family. I hate the thought of lost journals!

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  8. How beautifully you write expressing how the journals have affected your thinking and then writing. I keep hoping you will find a book in between the journals, blogs etc.

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