Every year about now, I feel the need to keep a journal. I recognize in this urge all my worst instincts as a writer. I walk past the blank books gifts of nothingness that pile up in bookstores at this season, and I can almost hear their clean white pages begging to be defaced. They evoke in me the amateur, the high school student, the miserable writerly aspirant I once was a young man who could almost see the ink flowing onto the woven fibers of the blank page like the watering of some eternal garden. It took a long time, a lot of pens, and many blank books before I realized that I write in the simultaneous expectation that every word I write will live forever and be blotted out instantly.
It's hard to keep a journal under those conditions. It's harder still when it becomes clear that the purpose of a journal at least of those journals begun in earnest on the first day of January is not to record, day by day, just a fragment of thought or observation but to herd all one's days, like so many sheep, into a single pasture and prevent them from escaping. What drives the impulse toward New Year's journal keeping is also the shocking realization that the only thing left of the old year is a few tufts of wool caught in the barbed wire. What I want a journal to do could be done just as well by a more aggressive savings program.
A conscientious journal keeper is really the natural historian of his own life. His model is the amateur naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, writers like Gilbert White or collectors like George Eliot's Camden Farebrother. It often seems as though science in this century has little use anymore for amateur observers of that kind, that science has grown too institutional, too complex, to value the private watcher of a small patch of ground. It seems that way too when it comes to our own lives. They're cross-referenced, indexed, cataloged, and witnessed by the public and private institutions whose job is to tabulate and codify us. Even the task of introspection has been jobbed out to the professionals. A personal journal in our time comes to seem less like a valuable cache of perceptions than a naive recitation of symptoms that the writer lacks the authority to analyze.
But many of the great journals I think especially of Samuel Pepys's seventeenth-century diary and James Boswell's eighteenth-century journalare not marked by self-consciousness. They're marked by a dogged absence of self-consciousness, a willingness to suspend judgment of the journal itself, if not of its author, in order to keep the enterprise going. The value of Pepys's diary and Boswell's journal is the world they depict and only incidentally the depiction of their authors. Their journals weren't read until long after the authors had died. Both men wrote for an audience of one. Judging by my own fragmentary journals, that's one too many. It's not enough that I should be dead before anyone else reads them. I should be dead before I reread them myself.
So at the beginning of this new year, I'll try to hold out against more journal making. There are lots of good reasons to do so. I have enough to write as it is, and I know enough about writing now to distrust the words that seem to flow onto the page. A journal always conceals vastly more than it reveals. It's a poor substitute for memory, and memory is what I would like to nourish.
But if I do give in, this is what I have in mind. I want to count the crows in the field every afternoon. I want to record the temperatures, high and low, every day and measure the rain and snow. If a flock of turkeys walks into the barnyard, I want to mention the fact. If one of the horses throws a shoe, I want to say so, in writing, before I call the farrier; and I'd like to be able to tell from my journal just how many bales of hay I have squirreled away in the barn. It's no longer the writer in me that wants to keep a journal. It's the farmer or rather the son and nephew and grandson of farmers.
This is a complete excerpt of the chapter entitled 'January' from The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Copyright 2003 © by Verlyn Klinkenborg. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Little, Brown & Co.
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