Keeping Your Own Data in a Journal. Essays on Writing for Self Development and Education

By: Open Future  06-Dec-2011

Keeping Your Own Data in a Journal. Essays on Writing for Self Development and Education.

By John Stephen Veitch

In my experience very few people keep a handwritten journal today. Keeping a blog or a writing a journal in Word is a similar thing, but lacks the substance of a hard covered exercise book of 132 pages.

It should also be said that if you actively participate in online forums and if you maintain a blog and if you use and RSS Reader to bring you the best sources you can find, that's not a bad journal substutute, and for many people it's easier to do. However, I still write in my journal, and I'll keep recommending the practise.

There are many foolish ideas about journal writing, some of which you may already believe.  In particular people who want to become writers begin to write journals imagining that what they write is suitable for publication.  This has led on the internet to thousands of public "private journals".  I deplore this practice.  Your private journal should be private.  Write; write a lot.  Write a public journal if you must, and keep your personal issues to one side.  You are responsible for who you are becoming, and for what you expose in public. 

That’s the point of journal writing really, to influence who you are becoming.  You write down what you have done, or intend to do, or have read or have learnt today.  Each writing is a position statement saying, "this is what I’m thinking today".  Making that record is important because over time it becomes the record of "how I used to think".  You’ll find, not quickly perhaps, but over time that your thinking and beliefs have changed.  Don’t be surprised, they call it learning.  One of the nice things about journal writing is that you can look back over a few years and see how much you’ve learned.  That's an insight denied to most people. 

Rather disturbingly, you’ll sometimes discover things that you’ve completely forgotten, you’ll discover that "really important ideas" that are not so important with hindsight.  For a time you can get a bit carried away on a faulty notion.  I'm very interested in "innovation" for business reasons.  I believed there would be writing in my journal on that topic every year for the last 30 years.  In the year 2000 someone suggested that innovation was a new topic arising from recent research and publicity.  I couldn’t believe that.  So I looked in my journal for proof that innovation had been a hot topic for at least 30 years.  But I'm wrong.  Innovation is not a long time topic. I have one entry in my journal in 1975, and nothing else until 1981, 1982 and 1983, but each of those were just small references to innovation.  There is no full discussion.  Not until 1990 did innovation become an important topic in the sense that innovation was seen as a driver of competitive advantage.

Here I proved to myself that my memory is faulty.  Because I have a journal that goes back many years I can often demonstrate that to myself.  For instance I remembered a quote, and I wrote it into a speech I was writing.  Then I wanted to check the date and perhaps find some other titbit of information that would give the quote impact.  So I hunted for the item and eventually found it, but the "quote" I thought I "remembered" was faulty, I couldn't use it at all.  But in the process I did find other items that I could and did use.

Telling you that your thinking is faulty, that your memory plays tricks on you and much of what you believe is simply wrong. won’t help to change how you are thinking.  Changing YOUR mind is an internal job, you have to do that for yourself.  Deschooling is also a task only you can undertake.  We come indoctrinated, our parents were very careful to make sure the indoctination was good.  We are slighly imperfect clones.  Much of what we "know" is wrong, but that fact is invisible to us.  For instance some of what we "know" is merely propaganda.  Most of your political knowledge is unreliable.  I expect that wherever you learned your history, much of what you learned doesn't stand up to examination according to modern views.  The economics I was taught, ignores the environment except as an external cost.  The value of environmental services to the production and distribution process, is completely overlooked.  Failure of those services threatens our civilisation, but since the economic model ignores their importance, we carry on pretending there is no problem.  

Most of the ideas we believe are not that badly disfunctional.  We know lots of rules of thumb that generally serve us well. "Look on the bright side" or "positive thinking" is a good example.  That rule of thumb is invaluable for young people, and for people early in their career.  But it's potentially a disaster if it's relied on as a decision model.  Many of the things we believe, are wrong in subtle ways, and it takes experience and reflection on past events to understand how to apply a rule lightly, rather than strictly.

My journal has always been about the things I’m trying to achieve, and the things I’m interested in.  Most people tell me that they write mostly about themselves, about their thoughts and feelings and about how they are relating to other people.  There is a touch of therapy in this sort of writing.  Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, used to tell his patients to write down their thoughts and feelings.  The process of talking to others or of talking to yourself is helpful.

A journal writer from India, Pankaj Kxxxxr, told me of a suggestion that American Dale Carnegie made in a book written 60years ago.  When you are worried, Carnegie said, "You should write down the answers to two questions:
i.  What am I worried about? 
ii.  What can I do about it?"
Try it the next time you are very worried.  It’s surprising how such a simple thing helps.   Every now and then you might find me sitting in the lounge at 3am, writing because I couldn’t sleep.  It helps.

My approach is more general, I write about what concerns me.  I don’t try to write neatly of even sensibly, I just get on paper all the things that are racing about in my head.  That has the surprising effect of stopping the panic, and draining the anger and perhaps of allowing you to see what you should do. 

Some Journal Writing Methods

In "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan it is suggested that journal writers should write "morning pages" to nurture our innate creativity. These writers suggest we do the following: Write three pages (or one if you like) first thing in the morning.  Write whatever comes to your mind.  Don't bother about writing well.  Don't read what you have written for about two months.  Don't show what you have written to anyone.  This exercise is a form of meditation. 

Personally I find much of the discussion of creativity or worse our "innate creativity" rather sickening.  I react in the same negative way to "let the universe be your guide" and similar fanciful notions.  "Go with the flow", is a denial of responsibility for the outcome.  Every person is creative, work at it.  The environment does contain constructive feedback for you: Are you listening?  You are responsible for these outcomes, there is no Hand of God process going on here.  You don't need superstition and magic to make your life work.

Pankaj Kxxxxr has a small list of routine subjects he writes about as a discipline.  I set up a new journal to do that, using the same topics he suggested.  I wrote a gentle reminder in the front of the book to remind me why I was doing this.  Rather than give you a set of ideas I suggest you choose some of your own.  I discovered that when I sat down to write on a specific topic I often had rather negative thoughts about starting.  I found that if you just write the unwelcome title, and a sentence of two about why you were feeling so unmotivated today that you soon fall into something interesting and worthwhile.  Having started I was soon writing about something that was challenging to me.  I have not continued that practice, but it works quite well.

Some people subscribe to a list-server which provides daily topics for writers.  That idea works in the same way.  Essentially start with whatever you like, do what you need to do to get started, from then on the writing will go where it needs to go.  If you like to follow rules, if that helps you to get started, then by all means do that.

Your Own Primary Experience

I want each of you to give emphasis to your own primary experience.  When you record your primary experience in your journal you are doing something very valuable.  Something nobody else can do.  If you give your primary experience structure, if you can measure, count, compare or make categories you may be collecting data that is very useful at some later time.  Even writing in a loose way, "this is who I am today" is useful.  In a years time you'll know that you are not the same person in many ways.  Most of us never examine our lives.  I’m continually surprised how the simple business of counting a few things gives me a REAL measure on what is happening that is often not what people think is happening.  We all lie to ourselves, and our refusal to count and measure things makes it possible to continue that behaviour.  We prefer our myths to the truth.  Most people are forever trapped exactly there.  Unable to progress because their minds tell them that they remember accurately.

Journal writers on the other hand have the benefit of long term memory.  You know that your memory plays tricks on you.  You can catch yourself out telling yourself lies, making mistakes, making assumptions that turn out to be wide of the mark.  This can cause you to be more reflective, and a bit more thoughtful in future.  More willing to do some counting and measuring, more willing to examine what’s really going on.  Reading your own words, ten or twenty years later, can be very surprising.

Why do we journal?

Journal writing helps you record and structure events so that you can live life with less tension and stress and with a greater sense of control. 

Journal writing reinforces your own current knowledge and gives you a base on which to build new knowledge.

A journal is a workbook in which you can make plans and resolve difficulties.

Journal writing is a key way to record your own data about your own life and the world around you.  Having your own data is critical if you are to stand for anything.  Too many people are easy to sweep aside because most of what they know is something someone else told them.  As soon as they are challenged, they fold, their ideas are not grounded in their own experience.

Journal writing allows you to gather data upon which you can claim to be better informed.  Opening many journals written over ten or more years, where you've discussed the same topic, provides you an amazing historical perspective.  Information of that quality, based on your own experience, very few people have.  Such knowledge allows you to be strong when faced with opposition.

Creating a Better Future

We don't live in an information society.  We live in a society where too much of what people believe is delivered by the news media.  We are fed with other people’s propaganda and encouraged to believe it.  As a result we live in a society that agrees to ignore the information, a society that constructs a fabric of mis-information or dys-information and agrees to call it "truth" if it helps us to get our own way.  We live in a society facing serious issues, that continues to avoid the issue and calls it "politics".  We live in a society where our leaders say they will do things they have no intention of doing, and where they do things they swear they did not do, and could never do.  It's impossible to live in an information society when those we are supposed to trust are themselves the most unreliable source of information.  Politicians who wonder why people don't vote, need to go and look in the mirror.  Leaders who wonder why people are so disinterested in community work and ideas might look at the example they set.

There is no quick cure for what ails society or for what ails us as individuals.  The only cure either way is achieved one person at a time, one life at a time, by taking small steps forward day by day.  One life, your own, you have some control over.  Do that.  If you do it well more than one person may follow your lead. 

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