A Notebook by Any Other Name

I bought the first one several years ago in a drugstore in Alexandria, Virginia. At 77 cents it was the least pretentious bound notebook I could find. At the time, I didn’t know I was starting a journal, I only knew I needed a place to organize my thoughts.

Before then, I had written ideas on any convenient scrap of paper—on the backs of tithing slips, on church programs, in small spaces on calendars. As I lost those bits of paper, I lost my only record of my best insights. The time had come to make them more lasting.

From the time I learned to write till I was about 18 years old I had kept diaries, but the small, hand-size pages didn’t allow for long entries. And the word diary on the front seemed too lofty, like the record an explorer would keep of an Antarctic exploration. I wrote only the activities of my life in them, never my thoughts. (A typical entry: “Today I almost failed my history test, but tonight Mike in my French class called me.”)

There was little emotional substance to those entries, but at least they were entries. Regrettably, as I attended college, I became “too busy” to keep a diary.

Therefore, when I bought the 77 cent notebook, I was just tired of losing those insights that would make good Sunday School talks. As I wrote in that first notebook, I was fascinated by how easily words came. I began looking forward to writing in my notebook at night. Sometimes during the day I would write myself a note about ideas to record that night. Some mornings I awoke before dawn and wrote fervently for five minutes or even an hour, undisturbed by the need to get up and get dressed. Some nights I wrote several entries; some nights I wrote none.

I liked the inexpensive notebooks because I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes in them, or to write about the mistakes I made in living. I began setting aside time to write. I wrote in the same place—sitting on the sofa, by the lamp. I recorded in the margins events that were significant, such as a new car or the date of my cat’s vaccinations. The actual writing space was used to record my reactions to the day, my observations and conclusions.

It was only when I went back to the drugstore several months later to buy another notebook that I realized I was keeping a journal. I decided to give the series of notebooks a name: Janet. The first volume, Janet I, hadn’t exactly assumed journal form, since I had dated few entries, and none mentioned daily activities and impressions. As I realized I was keeping a journal, I modified the format so that I would at least know what day each entry was written.

It became interesting, too, to note where I was each day I wrote. No matter where I went—on trips or to stay with nearby friends—I found that I was the same person, with the same personality.

When I was visiting a friend once, I realized the journal’s potential for encouraging spiritual and emotional growth. After hours of discussion with a philosophy student who wanted to argue about the gospel, I wrote a long entry about my beliefs. Putting it on paper was like testifying. That night, as I wrote, I realized how open and honest I was with my journal—probably more candid than I was with any friend.

Writing out my ideas gave me a chance to analyze them. Sometimes, in writing, I realized that my attitudes were based on selfishness or faulty judgement. Other times I was glad to realize that my ideas were good.

Sometimes I found myself laughing out loud at my reactions to the traumas of each day. Once on a bad day I wrote “PHOOEY” in letters 15 spaces high. It helped.

I started titling each entry. One of my favorite titles—and favorite entries—came when I was trying to develop greater faith. That title was “Doubt Creeps in and Janet fights Back.” Some titles reflect a calmer attitude. One in Janet 3, “Days and Nights and Things I Love,” leads into a paragraph I love to reread:

“I love nights that are chilly and clear, when I can see the stars and talk aloud under them. And I love early mornings, being up, being alive, and being outside on a day that is only starting. I love new beginnings that are just getting organized. And clean sheets, clean nightgown, clean body, clean hair, and a reason to be happy. I love the world when my soul brims with hope.”

My soul doesn’t always brim with hope. Sometimes it brims with frustration. When that’s the case, I can look back to the rejuvenating entry I wrote that September night. I can find encouragement from another entry, written soon after that one: “When I can understand what I’m going through, I find that endurance becomes easier.”

Not every entry is profound or even interesting. But each, in its own way, traces my daily conversion to the gospel, my struggles with myself, and my delight with the discovery of living “… for the Lord gives unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept to try you and prove you herewith.” (see D&C 98:12). Each helps the others assume clearer perspective. Not only does each entry reflect my life, but it affects and becomes part of my life.

It was during Janet 4, when my best friend moved, that I wrote: “I hurt too much to write.” And it was during Janet 5, after I had written a thoughtless letter that hurt a friend, that I wrote in my journal: “Through the many confusing voices that ring through my mind, one calming voice pervades and tells me the whole matter will be of no consequence.” After writing about that “calming voice,” I listened to it more carefully. The “voice” was right; when I later asked the friend to forgive me, he said he already had.

One day, when I felt that life was cruel to me, I started what has become a tradition. I wrote an entry titled “Things I Am Thankful For.” It amazed me that day, as it still does, how varied and plentiful are my blessings, and how obscure and sometimes even humorous are my trials.

Through moves from one side of the United States to the other, through vacations, at each peak and plateau, the volumes of my journal have been a constant friend, on a bookshelf or in a suitcase along with my copies of the scriptures. They have become a vehicle for working out personal challenges of each day.

I thought, at the beginning of the journal keeping, that I would neatly record my most profound thoughts, making them more accessible when I had to give sacrament meeting talks. Once or twice I have used a journal for that, but that is only part of the full benefit. The journal isn’t a reference book about my life, nor does it map my life. It isn’t a status chart; it’s a dynamic artwork, though it is rough.

The Janet series is vigorously continuing in its 15th volume. Some volumes span a year, and others a few months. I am the only person who has read all of them, and I may keep it that way—for a few decades, at least. The volumes have graduated from inexpensive notebooks to actual hardback books with blank pages.