A Notebook by Any Other Name …

by Janet Brigham

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    I bought the first one several years ago in a drugstore in Alexandria, Virginia. At 77¢, 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 grade school through high school 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 did horrible on 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 l attended college, I became “too busy” to keep a diary.

    Therefore, when I bought the 77¢ notebook, I wasn’t thinking “diary” or “journal.” 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—curled up 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 1, 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 bantering 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 with a purple felt-tipped pen, I realized how open and honest I was with my journal—probably more candid than I was with any friend. Because of my frustration with my ability to think and express myself I wrote: “My brain has been like a vacuum cleaner, sucking in all sorts of garbage and dirt. And gold dust. So I must empty the bag and sort out the particles one by one until only the gold dust is left.”

    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 judgment. Other times I was glad to realize that my ideas were sound.

    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 Strikes Back.” Some titles reflect a calmer attitude. One in Janet 3, “On 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 each line-upon-line discovery of living. 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 picking on 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, through each peak and plateau, the volumes of my journal have been a constant, a friend, tucked on a bookshelf or into a suitcase along with my copies of the scriptures. They have become a vehicle for working out personal answers for the curious 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 it’s far from 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, if rough, artwork.

    The Janet series is steaming ahead 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. I have to confess—I bought a leather-bound journal last time (but it was on sale). And I did make quite a concession on the journal before that; it actually says “Journal” on the cover!