Journaling and the importance of ritual


The last week was uncommonly punishing. In addition to a recent furor in the Drupal community, several server fires erupted at work, and my best friend’s Dad finally lost a year long battle with brain cancer. The funeral was Friday afternoon. Needless to say, I didn’t do much on Saturday. This morning I sat down at my desk, and tried to sort out what to do with my day. As I have for over a decade, one of my first thoughts was to open my paper journal and perform a brain-dump.

For someone that is as technical as myself, it seems an anachronism to rely on a paper journal. Wouldn’t it be easier to just maintain a digital one? I know of at least other technically inclined person who has maintained a journal of simple text files for years. While instead, I rely on a fragile physical medium. It’s an anachronism that I’ve enjoyed and relished even as creeping RSI issues make it easier to type than hold a pen. 

How I started journaling is intrinsically linked to how I started writing. It started, with all things, a video game. Early in high school, I had had little desire to work with stories or words at all. Then, the sequel to Myst, Riven was released. I had either bought (or more likely convinced my Dad to get it for me) a copy of the game. I found it beautiful, haunting, but also utterly impenetrable. I tried for weeks to make any progress in the game, but eventually, I gave in and bought a walkthrough from a nearby computer shop.

What made this particular guide unique, however, is that it played into the mystique of the game itself. If you’ve ever played the original Myst, you know you are handed the protagonist’s journal right at the start of the game. It provides vital backstory and framing, as well as some of your first clues to solve the puzzles you will encounter. The Riven walkthrough dramatized the playthrough by including sidebars of journal entries from the player’s perspective. Not only was the walkthrough effective, but the included journal entries elevated it to an enjoyable experience in of itself. 

As I played Riven, the reverence of page and ink and pen imprinted itself on my teenage brain. I assembled my own journal from a forgotten calligraphy pen I found in the house, a pot of ink from a craft store, and a book made from textured paper and wooden covers secured by twine. I would play the game, then write about my own experiences in character. It made what was a simple point-and-click adventure game into a formative experience. 

When I wasn’t playing Riven, I was teaching myself programming. I forget how the idea started or when, but after coding one evening it occurred to me I should write about it. I eventually picked up a notebook dedicated for code-related writing. I still have that journal today, even if it’s a rather embarrassing read.

This was not my first journal, however. When I was very small, I did have a paper journal I had bought with my meager allowance money from a clearance store. It had a little pen, a lock, and a tiny set of pressed metal keys. I tried to write in it every day, but I often had difficulty. The journal itself had dictated that decision for me; it was formatted for an entire year with a printed date and limited number of pagers set aside for each. I felt guilty when I couldn’t write in it and quickly became avoidant. I no longer have this artefact, as I thrown it away with all my childhood belongings when we moved houses in high school. Nevertheless, when I started journaling again, I remembered the guilt and chose not to repeat it.

Rule 1: Journal when you feel like it, not on a schedule.

After filling the first journal, I found myself buried in another formative game experience, Final Fantasy 7. I built another journal by hand using wood from a clipboard, a steno book, and a velveteen cover I sewed myself. The cover was reminiscent of the short red jacket the character of Aeris wears. It’s a good thing a zipper kept the journal closed as the steno book’s glue binding was terribly fragile. Without the cover, it would have fallen to pieces years ago. That journal saw a growth in my writing. I became more self-examined and introspective. Writing not only my ideas about programming, but also about myself. 

I remember one evening in particular. Some years after my Mom died from cancer, my Dad started dating again. We were invited to stay the weekend his girlfriend’s cabin. I stayed up late writing about my conflicted feelings as I had no computer to distract myself. I didn’t resolve anything, but I found the act itself calming and cathartic.

Rule 2: A journal is a private space, you are free to say and think what you want there.

That seems like an obvious thing to say, almost a stereotype. Growing up I did not feel I was entitled to privacy in my own thoughts. Everything had to be tightly and rigidly repressed to avoid criticism both inside and outside the home. Journaling provided a safe space for me where I was the sole creator and judge. Rarely, if ever, have I handed one of my journals to others to read.

It helped my handwriting was terrible.

Late into high school I found myself in need of a new journal. I was about to go off to college and the simple notebooks I found at the book stores simply didn’t appeal. One evening I was hanging out with my best friend when we came across a selection of leather bound, reusable journals. 

The leather part was simply a decorative cover around a standard sized 4x6” sketchbook. I was captivated by one in particular, and eventually bought it even if it cost me most of the meager money I had. In the same shopping trip I also bought a letter sealing kit. Both the journal and the letter sealer had the same celestial moon pattern. That evening, I melted some of the wax onto the first page, and stamped it before I started writing.

Rule 3: The implements of journaling are mundane, but their little rituals are not.

This “sealing ceremony” may sound silly -- and it is -- but it also gave me something I’ve found increasingly valuable in stressful and troubled times. Ceremony and ritual aren’t meaningless: By using the same journal, the same pen, and the same color ink, I created a prompt for a headspace conducive for writing. They help me refocus and center myself, so that I might think through a problem, express my fear or frustration, or merely enjoy the feeling of a metal nib scratching at paper. Sitting at a keyboard and staring at a screen lacks the same sensory prompts, even if I eventually find the same “voice” by the third or fourth sentence.

I don’t expect my collection of journals to ever be interesting or valuable. I don’t even expect them to be read by anyone other than myself. Perhaps after I’m gone someone will take an interest, but I wouldn’t expect it of anyone.