WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
JOURNALING AND OUR BOOK CLUB
Nov. 2, 2011
There are, in each of our lives, certain days that prove pivotal in our journeys. One such day had to do with a lecture of the top information literary specialist in America to the faculty of Columbia Union College. Looking around at us, college professors from many disciplines, she asked us a simple question: “Let’s say you gave your students an examination earlier today. Then, a week from today – completely unannounced -, you give them the same exam. How much of what they knew today . . . will they remember a week from now?”
None of us even came close to the correct answer. “Your top student,” she pointed out, your four-pointer, will remember a week from today, at most, 17%! Most will remember far less – and it will be all down hill from there.” I’ve never taught a class the same way since. For if the most brilliant student in the college forgets at least 83% in one week, what pitiful retention rate does that imply for the rest of the class? Hence the preposterous exercise in futility of end-of-the-semester exams three and a half months later!
As for thoughts, rarely do they come when you most want them to. In fact, many insidiously come to us just as we’re drifting off to sleep. Have you ever thought, What a beautiful thought! Can’t believe I came up with it. In the morning, ho hum, I’ll write it down . . . I’m far too comfy to get up now.
And in the morning, what do we remember? Not much. Chances are, we won’t even remember what the thought was about. If it does come to us, it will be in such muddled shape it won’t even be worth writing down, for thoughts only ring their golden bells once in life. Another put it this way: “God only gives you a great thought once.”
One of England’s great writers, Matthew Arnold, in his poignant poem, “Despondency,” described this phenomenon in eight lines:
“The thoughts that rain their steady glow
Like stars on life’s cold sea,
Which others know or say they know –
They never shine for me.
Thoughts light, like gleams, my spirit’s sky
But they will not remain;
They light me once, they hurry by,
And never come again.”
America’s greatest poetess, Emily Dickinson, took the same number of lines to express her own frustration:
“Your thoughts don’t have words every day
They come a single time
Like signal esoteric sips
Of the communion wine
Which while you taste so native seems
So easy so to be
You cannot comprehend its price
Nor its infrequency.”
You no doubt noticed certain words in Dickinson’s poem that are a bit archaic today. Unless you keep by your side a full-sized Webster’s Collegiate dictionary (or equivalent on-line), you’d miss key portions of Dickinson’s meaning (especially when trying to understand what Dickinson meant by words such as “signal,” “esoteric,” “native,” “easy so to be,” etc). It is no exaggeration to declare that unless each of us not only has, but uses, such a source, we will unquestionably cripple our ability to understand what we read. Really serious readers also access an unabridged dictionary, and for archaic words the monumental Oxford Unabridged.
SO WHY JOURNAL?
Some years ago I had in one of my Freshman Composition classes a second-generation student (I’d taught her father in high school a generation before). She asked me one day if I’d had my students journal in my classes when her father was in my English classes. Her face fell when I answered in the negative. She then added, “Oh it’s sad because Dad and I aren’t getting along very well—he’s just an authority figure rather than a father. I just thought if I could read journal entries written by Dad when he was young like me, perhaps we could meet in our journal entries.”
Up until that time, I’d never really given much thought to journals as vehicles to freeze our thoughts into time periods. Since then I’ve discovered that a number of renowned writers have capitalized on that reality to find out how they thought when they were much younger, or described people, places, experiences immediately after they took place. I’ve ruefully discovered that while my writing has greater depth and breadth now than it used to have, I’ve lost the ability to think and articulate as a 50-year-old, a college student, a high school student, or a child. This is a major reason why journal entries penned at each stage of our lives are so significant.
As for travel, travel writers will tell you that, in visiting places for the very first time, you have only moments in which to jot down those first impressions. When you first arrive, everything jars, for everything is new. Each sensory impression has an echo: a flashback to its counterpart back home. But by the next day, sensory impressions are already blurring—you are no longer sure what is new and different and what is not.
Several days ago, on a Southwestern Airlines plane, I was privileged to sit next to a delightful young couple. We got into a far-ranging discussion of books (e-books versus paper) and quotations. They were most interested in my daily quotation tweets, for both seek out memorable quotes in their daily reading. In truth, had I not many years ago begun writing down in the back of my journals the most memorable quotations from my reading, I’d not have near the vast repository of memorable quotations I draw from today. We use quotations in so many ways in our lives (family, school, church, public speaking, writing). I also paste in poetry at the back of my journals.
But the same is true with vivid metaphors and similes. These too I write down in the back of my journals. For such figurative language reveals to us how much more vivid and fresh our spoken and written communication can be if we avoid hackneyed words and cliches.
Then there are powerful beginnings and endings (in both short stories and longer works). For unless a beginning sentence or paragraph sucks us into the story, article, or book, why write something no one will remain interested in beyond the first page? This is a key reason why, when I find such a riveting passage, I write it down at the back of my journals. The same is true of endings. All too many writers just run out of gas at the end, are seemingly unable to close the sale. But some writers spend a lot of time with their conclusions, so structure them that but one additional word would wreck that last page. The endings are so deeply moving that you couldn’t forget them if you wanted to. They ring like a giant bell. These too I write down at the back of my journals.
So it is that while my journals also record the nuts and bolts of my life: who I write to or phone every day, who I meet with, where I travel to, etc. (and these can prove to be extremely significant when I need to retroactively find out where I was and what I did on certain days), even more valuable to me are the things I write down at the back of my journals, for they synthesize my creative involvements. I also record goals and objectives in my journals.
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I hope you can now see why I am urging each new participant in our Book of the Month Club to immediately purchase a full-sized journal from your local office supply store. Mine are ledger size and contain around 300 pages; they generally last me three to five years each. What you’ll discover, over time, is that these journals will not only end up capsulizing and chronicling your life, they will also become so much a part of who you are and what you do and say and write that you’d feel empty without them.
I look forward to hearing back from you as you make your journals part of you.
SAMPLINGS FROM MY JOURNALS
“Parting is all we know of heaven
And all we need of hell.”
“It is nothing to die; it is horrible not to live.”
“It is better to be silent and thought a fool than to open the
mouth and remove all doubt.”
“Now there was a chasm as wide as the world between them and only
the child to span it.”
“A little mouse of thought went scampering across her mind and popped into
its hole again.”
“The softness of a kitten’s feet–like raspberries held in the hand.”
–Anne Douglas Sedgewick
“And his little feathered head drooped like the head of a wilting poppy.”
“A sharp clip-clip of iron-shod hooves deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.”
–Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done;
It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
—Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities
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Next Wednesday, we’ll begin the Southwest National Park Lodges series.