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On Keeping a Private Journal

Writing has always been a therapeutic endeavor for me. I turned to poetry when I had no other voice. I realized quickly that my will to live was intertwined with the art of writing when I channeled my teenage rage and post-adolescent hangups on paper.

I graduated from poetry eventually to deciding to major in English at the college level, writing short stories, creating modern-day fairy tales, participating in virtual television shows, scholarly essays, maintaining my own blog, and the like.

“The preservation of our scattered thoughts is to be considered an object but of minor importance.”

In order to preserve these thoughts, one must write them down. One way to appreciate such meditations, as proposed by Thoreau, is to keep a private journal. There are many reasons Thoreau presents that advice on why maintaining a private journal is crucial. The argument is that reflection should be the primary intention.

Writing down an internal thought is one step in the process of reflection. Reflection is a philosophical concept that allows a person to examine themselves on a deeper level than normal. Human beings are the only animals in the natural world that have the ability to retain and recall memories easily.

These contemplative moments may or may not be in their best interests, but at least the option to do so is inherent to humans. Thoreau argued that:

“If each one would employ a certain portion of each day in looking back upon the time which has passed, and in writing down his thoughts and feelings,” the author of those thoughts could settle “accounts with his mind.”

These thoughts and feelings could be compared to a list of goals to see if they were achieved during the day, to their hero to see if they are near their level of greatness, or even to the greater good to see if the decisions they made would be considered positive or negative.

There is no limit to how reflections could be interpreted by an individual. Thoughts written down could be used to compare to anything that could be conceived by one’s consciousness. Problems could be solved, symbols could be deciphered, anything that had been an obstacle during the day. 

There are many ways to control the act of reflection. However, Thoreau advises that the most desirable way is to write down one’s thoughts and feelings in a private journal. The physical manifestation of a person’s jumbled thoughts on written paper is more easily comprehended on a page.

Writing down feelings could make the act of reflection more formidable than if those very same thoughts were spoken out loud. He says:

“His feelings and ideas would thus be more clearly defined, but he would be ready to turn over a new leaf, having carefully perused the preceding one, and would not continue to glance carelessly over the same page, without being able to distinguish it from a new one.”

It is one thing to reflect on thoughts but they do not do much good if they are not written down, Thoreau argues. Writing down daily inner reflections helps one to control the daily grind. Once it is committed to a private journal, one could move on from that point, whether physically or mentally. The writer could start fresh if they so choose. 

One thing I did not agree with Thoreau on was the idea that:

“Everyone can think, but comparatively few can write.”

This is incredibly problematic. It creates a gulf of exclusivity between writers and non-writers. The argument discourages anyone who believes their writing is a weakness from taking up writing in a private journal at all. Literacy is like a muscle. It should be exercised at all costs, no matter the skill level of the athlete.

To me, it does not matter if one was formally trained in writing or not. If you want to write, write. No one will hear the thoughts you put down in your private journal unless you want them to. Forget your audience, fire away, throw open the floodgates. These reflections are for you, and you alone, to do what you wish.

You can burn them in the fireplace, you can hide them in a box in the attic, you can fix it up and try and get it published in an international magazine. As I noted earlier, human beings are the only animals capable of reflection. If the primary mode of reflection is done through the written word, one should be allowed to express themselves through the medium without fear of reprisals or judgment. 

Thoreau goes on to support this line of thinking when he says:

“Most of us are apt to neglect the study of their own characters, thoughts, and feelings, and for the purpose of forming our own minds, look to others, who should merely be considered as different editions of the same great work.”

I would then argue how can one reflect if they are being judged on how they write to begin with? The expression of internal thoughts by writing them down should be open to everyone without any restrictions at all. The envy and need to compare oneself to another person is inevitable in life. We are cursed as human beings to want to continually compare our lot in life to the person next to us.

When writing down our reflections about our lives, and overcoming our internal challenges, we are lessening the urge for comparison to those who may have it better, or worse, than ourselves. If anything, written reflection allows us to pinpoint the good and the bad and create a comfort level that allows us to succeed from that point on in our own lives. 

Thoreau makes some admirable arguments about why one should keep a private journal. It provides an author with the chance to reflect on their daily lives. It opens the doors for new thoughts while giving meaning to previous memories.

Furthermore, it allows one to find a deeper explanation in symbols and situations that might not have been clearly understood at the time. However, the education level of an author should not prevent them from undertaking a private journal. Freedom of expression is available through prose if one makes the conscious choice to pick up the pen.

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Icon of a hand, hoding a pen, writing love, peace, and adobo grease, Guilliean