“There’s an awful lot of writing going on that nobody knows about.” – Edward Gildea, publisher of The Diarist’s Journal

When I was about 8 years old I received a journal as a gift.  I felt grown up and responsible as I wrote in it, and I filled all the pages.  I kept writing as I grew up, and through college.  But not surprisingly I wrote with less frequency the older I got.  Eventually I all but stopped.  Then when my son was 2 I discovered blogs and started my own, recording in posts his life and the lives of his parents.  Blogging had replaced my journal.  But the trouble with blogs is that they’re made for public consumption and there’s some inevitable self-censorship that goes with that.

A private journal has the advantage of, well, privacy.  It’s a place where a person can put down what happened and how she felt about it, with the thought of someone else reading it being remote enough so as to almost not matter.  Think of this journal entry* from Eleanor Coppola, wife of the filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola:

“A few days ago I got a vision of a house that I would feel at home in.  It was made of eucalyptus, glass and adobe.  A contemporary structure in a natural setting.  I would have to build it.  I walked up by the old water tank today, looking for a site.

Through the years, Francis and I have argued over and over again about our house.  He has said all he ever really wanted from me was to make him a home.  Once, in a crazy argument in the Philippines, he told me that he would spend a million dollars, if necessary, to find a woman who wanted to make a home, cook and have lots of babies.  I could never tell the truth, even to myself, because I thought it would be the end of my marriage.  I am not a homemaker.  I have always wanted to be a working person.  But the kind of work I have done over the years hasn’t earned any money, so it looks like I am playing and lazy.

Right now I am feeling a giant relief.  I am off the hook.  The other woman in Francis’s life is not the ultimate homemaker either; she is not dying to step in and take over the mansion.”

-Eleanor Coppola, 1977

There is information in the entry: she had an interesting daydream, she repeatedly has the same argument with her husband, and her husband is apparently having an affair.  But what makes it so interesting to me is the insight into how she feels the lack of a home, or at least a home she can comfortably and authentically occupy.  A place to rest and be herself.  I don’t know anything about Eleanor Coppola’s life, but I’d imagine understanding her inner homelessness would go a long way toward understanding her life in general.

That is the kind of thing I’d like my kids decades from now to understand about me, and the kind of thing I’d like to understand about myself.  I want a journal as a history, and a journal as therapy.  In some sense journal-keeping is a selfish, or self-absorbed way to spend your time.  But I think selfishness isn’t always bad.  I think there should be another word.  Self-care, maybe?  Writing in a journal is caring about your life enough to think it’s worth recording, and caring about your feelings enough to think they’re worth remembering.


Do you keep a journal?  What’s the format?  Do you write daily, according to a schedule, or just when it seems important to write?


* Eleanor Coppola’s journal entry comes from The Assasin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists, Irene Taylor and Alan Taylor, editors.  It’s a fabulous book.  You should put it on your Christmas list.


  1. I love the idea of journal writing. I love journals and pens of all types. I love to take time to ponder and reflect. I just never know where to start. I feel like it would take so much time to explain the background pieces of information, I’d never get to the exciting stuff. And the exciting stuff is boring, without a proper beginning, middle and end.

    I bought the Day One journaling app for my iPhone (set to require a password every time it gets opened), and I’ve started recording single sentences. I get more imaginary points for shorter entries, and for consecutive days of entries. It’s working pretty well so far. I’m figuring out which things I think I’ll remember but don’t, so those entries don’t make sense. I’m noticing many that still do, even though they’re very brief and don’t explain the context. You can print it as a PDF, too, so I’m not worried about losing my entries in some e

    • (sorry, my phone keyboard disappeared as I was typing and I hit “submit” by accident)

      ephemeral digital wasteland. I still have a paper journal, and I like to use colour and make diagrams in there, and record more longform pieces. This combination seems to be working for me for now.

  2. I actually think I do a better job of recording my life in blogs and letters than journals. I like to write so I have a pretty good collection of both, but journal entries, maybe because I do use them for self-soothing, tend to come out whiney. I think when I write for public consumption it sounds more like my own voice.

  3. I love this post, Emily. Thank you for the E. Coppola journal excerpts. I’ve been thinking lately about the value of an entirely private journal. I have some of those from years-past. It seems like there is something really important (especially in this age of social media) about having a place to record one’s private thoughts, where one’s dreams can blossom without public scrutiny. Or one’s sorrows can be expressed in a quiet room – as opposed to on facebook. . . still thinking about it.

    Since blogging became a thing, that is where I’ve journaled most often. I like Olea’s idea above. I also agree with April about our voice and how writing for others sometimes brings us to our truest self.

    I will say, that I have told my children that when they want to remember me, they should look in my composition books where, for many years, I wrote poetry. Now I compose poetry electronically. Claudia Bushman has suggested routinely printing our electronic writing on archival-quality paper. This is something I aspire to do.

    P.S. This poem is how I expressed the idea that I have “journaled” my life in poems. I think journaling can take many forms. All forms are good and worthy.

  4. Olea – Thanks for your comment. I like the idea of an aesthetically pleasing paper journal, too. But I find I have no patience for writing longhand anymore. Maybe printing out my computer-written journal entries on nice paper like Melody mentioned could be my solution.

    April, I know what you mean about writing as your best self when writing for others. I’ve looked back on some of my journal entries and I’m appalled at how whiney I sound! It was probably therapeutic at the time, but it’s not the kind of thing I really want to remember, or have others remember.

    Thanks for sharing your poem, Melody. It’s lovely, and I’m going to share it with my book group in December! We meet monthly and do poetry one month per year. It used to be my least favorite month. But it’s becoming my most favorite.

  5. It has been years since I kept a journal. But when I did, I found it tremendously useful for venting purposes. Needless to say, my mission journal was particularly helpful in this regard. Like several people have already mentioned, I’ve been kind of appalled at my complaining tone when I’ve gone back to read what I wrote. I do like having it, though. It’s an actual primary document from my past–something I can compare my current memories against.

  6. I started keeping a diary in third grade when my mom bought me one for a family car trip. I didn{t start writing regularly until middle school though (sorry about typos, a computer in a foreign land). I haven{t kept it quite as regularly since the advent of blogging. It definitely is a place to vent, but also an avenue to discuss really private thoughts. I especially like it when I{m hilarious in my journal because then it feels like a really special joke. I just buy little notebooks and write. I usually write at least once a week, typically during church. I figure it is family history and is a perfectly acceptable alternative to listening to a talk I find offensive. It helps me not to engage when engagement is unnecessary yet sitting listening is infuriating. As a consequence I talk a lot about saturdays in my journal. I also am careful to be faithful when I travel so Ic an properly remember all the things I see.

    I don{t reread all that often, mostly because there is too much anger and it isn{t a fiathful portrait of who I am. I do see change over time though, I mean my journal from when I was 14 is quite different from my diary now. It adds a weird dynamic for me because I{m writing my dissertation about a journal so now I constantly self analyze and am more aware of what I{m doing. It adds a sort of unpleasantly analytical level to writing when it used to be just a pleasure.

    My momk keeps a journal and so did my grandma so I think someday it will be fun to have them all for someone to read. I think journaling helps you to become a better writer as an added bonus. I emphatically disagree with the line you sometiems hear in church that you should self censor so that it is edifying. I feel that what is really uplifting are stories of real people with real problems and foibles who managed to move forward with faith.

    • “I emphatically disagree with the line you sometimes hear in church that you should self censor so that it is edifying. I feel that what is really uplifting are stories of real people with real problems and foibles who managed to move forward with faith.”

      Me too.

    • Em, I love the idea of journaling during church! I’m going to have to start that.

      EmilyU, thanks for this great post. I don’t journal, and I wish I did. My blogging is usually centered around contemporary issues, and not so much around myself or my family. And I worry that I will regret not recording more of my kids’ lives when they were little.

  7. When I was small (think Elementary School small) I had a pink diary with a tiny lock and a tiny key. Now I mostly journal in moleskins when I journal at all, and it is rare. Mostly on Sundays. Mostly during church. I can’t remember the last time I wrote in my journal, or even the last time I blogged a real post on my personal blog (which like you has somewhat replaced my journal).

    I found I journaled on my mission when I wasn’t happy. When I was happy, I never wrote.

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