By Sophie Hayssen
There is a special place in my room where I keep them, sealed and sequestered from my other possessions. These sacred objects are my journals, which are among the most treasured things I own and, in some cases, my dearest of friends. I have always attributed a sacred power to my journals. Their ultimate end is to encapsulate my essence, and in doing so preserve my current world for future selves. However, this assumption, that journals are an embodiment of ourselves, rests on precarious circumstances with one example being my sixth grade journal. My sixth grade journal is a fascinating study in self-consciousness. It was an age where beauty was defined by the ordinary and whatever it took to fit in. I approached journaling with a formality and passion for technical correctness that aimed to make my journal extraordinarily ordinary. Entries had to be dated, eloquently written, and without cross outs or spelling errors. I liked buying thick leather bound journals that felt grand and important, but would always feel self-conscious when it came time to write in them. I thought my untidy, childlike scrawl would ruin their lofty beauty. This kind of psychology categorized an entire phase of my life, spanning most of middle school and early high school where journaling felt like more of an obligation than a source of pleasure. The root of my dysfunction was ultimately a lack of self acceptance. Being ashamed of my inherently flawed humanity forced me on a quest for unrealistic perfection that manifested itself in my journals.
The greatest irony is that all these rules I imposed on myself to help make my journal perfect made me miss the point of journaling entirely. Journals are not places for perfection or eloquence or even coherency. We all deserve a place to be our rawest, unaltered selves. In fact, I would argue that it’s very hard to function in society without that space. Journals can provide just that if you approach the process from a place of self-love and acceptance. A journal can never be perfect in any objective sense. Perfection goes against its raison d’être. At its best a journal is like a mirror to the soul, a well in which to pour your rawest expressions of emotion in whatever form you like. Joan Didion wrote in her essay On Keeping a Notebook that when we talk about journals, “we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.” The self-contained nature of journals gives them their raw power. In this platform, the creator has total control. Good writing and language filters go out the window; to worry about either would suggest there is someone outside yourself you need to please, when really there is no one else. There are no standards. There are no rules, in other words: anything goes.
After a couple of years long break from journaling I started to liberate myself from the rules I had formerly imposed on myself by replacing them with flexible preferences that fit the way I think and support my self expression. In this new phase, I take great pride in capitalizing on the freedom of journaling. I love notebooks with unlined paper because they allow for more eclectic entries. Somedays, my mood is best represented with a carefully coordinated collage other times, especially on bad days, entries can simply comprise of a page filled with sloppily written expletives without context or explanation. A significant portion of my entries are incoherent babble, but within that babble are fossils of my thoughts, frozen in motion as they whirl through my brain. On the whole, my entries tend to discuss my feelings and thoughts about things instead of strictly what I did that day and when. I stopped writing about my day so concretely because I found that nothing about that kind of entry felt compelling or inspiring to me. I’d like to think of most of my textual entries as the equivalent to holding a megaphone up to the small voice inside my head and then just seeing what comes out.
One of the most important aspects of all my most recent journals is the design on the front cover, which I create myself with the help of stickers, tarot cards, magazine clippings, and sometimes even my own photography. Over the past three journals I’ve created using this method, this step has transcended from simple habit to deep-rooted ritual. As one journal draws to a close, I begin to collect bits and scraps and test out different arrangements for the next one. While it can sometimes be stressful, that stress is ultimately for a good cause. At its core, I think of decorating the cover as an act of respect for the journal and content I’m about to fill it with. It makes the statement that my thoughts deserve to exist in something beautiful because they themselves are beautiful. Creating that beauty myself empowers me and protects the contents of my journal from outside judgement. Since I made the journal what it is, I alone can say what content is worthy enough to fill its pages.
Whenever I tell adults about my journaling they always remind me how useful journals will be when I get older and want to remember my past selves. Even though it has only been two years since I started journaling on my terms, I have already begun to see its merits when it comes to retrospection. My sixth grade journal reads calm and composed, two things I know I wasn’t at that age. The visceral impression of what it felt to be me got lost in guarded subject matter and measured language. I get hints of my sixth grade self in small asides and jokes–beginnings of my current sense of humor that slipped through the cracks. I don’t think I was even half as awkward or strange as I thought I was, and it’s sad because modern me would have liked to get to know old me better. In contrast, my more liberated journals are far more joyous, heartbreaking, and cringe inducing, full of rants and terrible angst-ridden poetry. However, I love them infinitely more than any of my previous journals, and continue to love them more everyday because at least they feel honest. “Which came first, my confidence or these journals?” is a chicken and egg scenario. Ultimately, I believe they worked together and that I wouldn’t be who I am without these notebooks. They represent me in all my imperfect glory, and I’ll stand by that any day.