Nonfic: Revising and journals

Here’s a post I’ve been thinking about since receiving this comment from lucewriter on this post about the role my journals play in my writing life:

It seems that revision is a large part of writing and it doesn’t sound like you revise your journals. So are they shapeless and in need of revision to be an enjoyable piece for the reader to engage with? Or do they manage to come out in a form you think the reader would like to read in some quantity?

I have a short answer–that I don’t revise my journals, and I don’t publish them–and I have a longer answer that I’ve been working out for, well, most of the 20 years that I’ve been writing journals.

First, I want to step back and say that revision itself seems easy and obvious, until it doesn’t. In the academic-essay-writing classes I teach, I have tried to stop using the word “revision” in favor of “editing” and “proofreading.” In these classes, I show students models of the type of essay I want them to produce. In a sense, this is a bit of write-by-number, and it seems a shame to teach this way, and yet, there are a lot of instances (standardized tests and most composition classes, for two) where students are expected to be able to produce these works. So while I sometimes have my students freewrite to find a topic, we mostly just find the words needed to fill in the blanks of the model (for example, find 3 reasons to support your argument).

In my creative writing classes, revision is different; there, I tend to promote the idea of revision as re-envisioning, seeing things anew, by taking the most-interesting aspect of a freewrite and doing a rewrite, or several, until the writer comes up with something he/she likes. (For an example of this with poetry, see this post.) Yet, I’m not always sure that revision is necessary. I play with a creative text until I like and/or am surprised by what I’ve written, and sometimes that happens on the first draft (as with this story, which had only a few minor changes as I typed the handwritten first draft to the posted version. These changes I made based simply on my taste — what seemed to be more interesting or have higher quality —  at the time of typing). I want my poems and my stories to have a sense of moving forward, of not stopping to explain and examine — but that’s the type of writing I like to do in my journals.

The only things I’ve published from my many journals have been tiny excerpts earlier on this blog. I’ve long thought that, since I’m writing these things and they’re interesting to me, that they ought to be interesting to others, too. I’ve long been inspired by the story I heard, from a source I no longer remember, of Thoreau polishing his journals into Walden.

But I’m not sure anymore that’s what I want to do. Partly, I’ve been stymied by not knowing how I’d want to present the journals as published work. The journal texts include some descriptions of events and experiences, but also my thoughts and interpretations of these experiences, along with my attempts to understand, through theorizing, sundry ideas. They are texts, made of words, and so they are ostensibly readable by anyone (who can decipher my handwriting). But they are a unique sort of text, written to myself more than they are written to anyone else. It seems difficult to excerpt parts of them out of their original contexts. They include many references to things I’d have to explain to readers (other than my family members, and even then).

There’s no unity of purpose to a journal text, nothing holding it together except that the words are the output of one person’s consciousness. There’s no sense of progress toward any larger goal, no conclusion of an argument or of a narrative — that is, there’s no particular reason for anybody who doesn’t know me to want to read them. If the three purposes of nonfiction, broadly speaking, are to inform, persuade, or entertain an audience (as we high school writing teachers generalize), then the journals do none of these.

I’m writing these just to write them — I don’t even read them myself most of the time. When I do go back, I generally am looking to see details of my life at the time of the writing. When I’m writing, I’m fulfilling my somewhat-obsessive need to record the daily aspects of my life before I forget them, and I’m also writing down my thoughts as a way of working through them. As I said in the previous post, sometimes I learn things about myself and about the world as I write.

I’m not conscious of anyone else reading them, and if I thought others would read them, I would not be able to be as open as I am–I’d be much more concerned about whether what I was writing would be accessible to and interesting for others to read. The caveat here is that I am conscious of my closest family members potentially reading these journals, and so I am careful not to gripe about my loved ones too much. That’s an important point: rather than indulging in excesses of criticism or self-pity or self-justification, my journal-writing tends to be aware of when it’s becoming indulgent, when I’m writing things that don’t even interest me. It’s this sense of honesty-to-self  (for lack of better term) I have as I write journals (which sense I don’t have when I write fiction or poetry) that gives each day’s journal-text its characteristic integrity-to-the-moment, its integrity as an image/record of my mind, my consciousness, at the time of writing. There’s no purpose of me-in-regards-to-others, no attempt to establish a persona (of informer, arguer, or entertainer) for the reader. And this lack of persona, which is a kind of self-protection, is why I can’t publish the journals. If I knew I were going to publish, that would change how I would write them.

Short-story-long, then, I think I cannot revise the journals. At most, I can use the ideas therein as ideas for new writings (in this blog perhaps), and I can continue to learn and grow as a writer and a person by the practice of journal-writing. I suspect that these difficulties named above are why so many of others’ journals that have been published have been edited by someone other than the writer, and often, after the writer has died. Those, like Thoreau, who have published their journals have often had to adapt them into memoir or argument, and this, it seems to me, would be more tedious than just writing the public document anew.

But in the name of boldness, in the name of challenging myself to go a bit beyond my comfort zone, I will publish in the next post a journal entry from three years ago. I suspect that text will be confusing and will look self-indulgent to readers. It will look raw and blunt. It has changed already from the handwritten text because I have had to interpret it in order to type it. But once I put it up there, I can use it as an example to talk about why journal texts are so weird.

A Day-After Addition: After thinking about this issue some more as I journaled this morning, I had the clarity of this insight/explanation: Writing the journals helps me to let go of memories and ideas so that I can clear my mind and have new thoughts. In a way, the act of journaling is what helps me; the written journals are almost a byproduct of this, rather than the goal.

And the journals that I have written have value because they are written in time, soon after the events described occurred. I am not as interested in stories told from experience long after that experience took place, and so that’s another reason I’m not very interested in revising my journals.

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