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Thoughts on (Not) Journaling

February 17, 2009 by · 4 comments

Elayne Clift

Photo: peregrineblue

As a writer, I commit the cardinal sin: I don’t keep a journal. But I journal constantly.

Although I didn’t have a secret diary as an adolescent, I wrote poetry. Now my “journal” is comprised of commentaries I write compulsively. As Edna O’Brien once said, “I’m a tuning fork, and twanging all the time.” I’ve published three collections of essays; if there was actually a market for my musings there would be a fourth volume. I write a newspaper column and have an eager listserv, so my non-journaling journals do see the light of day.

I’m happy about that because I have a big ego. I want my words out there, not squirreled away in a drawer in the hopes that I might achieve posthumous fame. Processing life gives me more satisfaction in print than in private. My egotism is largely what inhibited me from spilling my guts, unedited, into a journal; I cannot write without imaging an audience.

What I write is often like a journal entry crafted with care. I am out there in terms of what I share with readers. I’ve written about politics and public matters, but I also write about being Jewish, having an ill mother, grappling with childrearing, work disappointments, travel experiences, broken friendships. I’ve “talked” about betrayal, sibling loss, mood swings, fear of flying, marital angst, and “The Day I Was a Moll” (figuratively speaking.)

I couldn’t do any more justice to journaling than I do to being a journalist. Nor could journaling in the traditional sense give me more as a writer than writing for public consumption does. Writing, in any form, particularly in my journal-columns, tells me who I am and what I think. Writing these pieces restores my essential self, reminds me what I stand for, where my striving has brought me and may take me still. Here is what I know about myself, so far, from some of my journal-essays.

I thrive on change and challenge. “Marx may have been right about some people when he declared religion the opiate of the masses, but my addiction is to something different: I get high on change. My credo is ‘variety is the spice of life.’ It’s not only that I like change; I positively need it to survive.”

I’m addicted to travel. “Those content to muse without movement must think me, who finds life’s newest drama in every train station and hotel lobby, an aberration. But I prefer, in the name of fullest living, to cast my lot with those addicted to the pursuit of discovery and the fulfillment of fantasy. As Edna St. Vincent Millay once wrote, ‘There’s that in me must up and start.’”

I am a rebel. “Once a teacher told me, ‘The trouble with you is you ask too many questions!’ I was astounded that a teacher could think you asked too many questions! But I was delighted by the designation. My inclination toward rebellion continued into adulthood, fueled by life’s absurdities and outrages. That thinking has served me well.

My rebellions have grown broader, mellower, more measured. Somewhere along the line I stopped struggling to identify my own causes, which are still about truth and social justice, and started questioning those of others, which always brings me back to the why and why not questions. Why war and not peace? Why outer space and not public health? Why poverty? Why not privacy?”

Once I wrote an essay called “The Gift of Pain,” because I needed to understand suffering. “How can pain be a gift?” I asked rhetorically. Then I tried to answer myself. “Consider the alternative – a life without feeling, without growth, with a diminished sense of pleasure because it has no antithesis. None of us wants to embrace psychic pain as though it were a masochistic mantra.

But when it is part of our vulnerable and stressed lives, perhaps we can learn ways to let it guide us into awareness and growth. As a fever warns of infection, so pain can let us know that something in our lives needs attention. Far better to keep our fingers on the pulse and honor the power of our own healing than to succumb to emotional coma. With that as an alternative, who would not choose, reluctantly, to receive the paradoxical gift of pain?”

I do not confuse this perspective with religious belief. I am a secular Jew with a healthy dose of agnosticism. I do, however, believe there is some higher force in the universe, so I object to the trivialization of that higher force, which many people call God. “If there is indeed a God, then what extraordinary disrespect we pay to such a higher being by expecting Him (is God really gendered?) to care who wins the ballgame, or the war.

Doesn’t the God of Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jains and Jews, to name only a few religions, love us all without regard to our politics or place? Personally I don’t believe that God has ever called me, saved me, or told me what to do. I exercise my own judgment and make my own choices as I grapple with, enjoy, survive and come to terms with my unique life.”

Organized religion aside, I value tradition. I wrote this about my observance of Yom Kippur every year. “I enter the temple, open a prayer book, my eyes clouding over. At the beloved prayer, ‘And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart…’ the tears spill. At the singing of Kol Nidre I feel I shall weep uncontrollably. For I am bound to every Jew in every place and at every time.

As far as I can reach side to side in my imagination a Jew stands beside me, moved also by the eternal chant. In California, in Kracow, in Belgium and Bulgaria, in Russia and Romania, in Europe, Africa, Asia – in every corner of the globe, a Jew is standing, swaying, weeping, praying with me. I share Kol Nidre with the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Jews of the camps.

I share it with the Jews who prayed in fear during the pogroms, and the Jews who petitioned the leave the Soviet Union. I stand beside the Jews who pioneered Israel and the American West and the European frontiers. I am on Hester Street, and in the factories and sweatshops of old New York. I am suddenly everywhere and in every time in which there is a Jew to remember and reach out to. A million lifetimes flash before me and bind me forever to Jewish being. And than I understand why I always come back.”

I constantly grapple with identity (and now with aging). I contemplate the wonders of life, and its limitations. “Despite my years of activism on behalf of the world’s women, I’m never going to be on Gloria Steinem’s Rolodex. I must come to grips with the fact that, at best, in the world of feisty feminists, I’m second string.”

I struggle with conflicting feelings and “I can’t bear feeling marginal. I want to feel that I’m still part of the action. At the same time I want out. This odd dichotomy feels like a dysfunctional relationship.”

Female friendship is so important to me that most times, if put to the test, I’d probably choose my girlfriends over my spouse. Thanks to them I have a stronger sense of who I am and I’m living better and more wisely. “I’ve stopped worrying so much about my appearance. I don’t mind, at my age, being a size 14 or having salt-and-pepper hair, although the thinning is alarming.

I don’t become (so easily) depressed when people say things about me that aren’t true or nice. Nor do I feel (quite) so inflated when being flattered. I (nearly) accept the fact that I’m unlikely to be remembered for great deeds. I am outrageously honest.”

Reading my non-journals gives me a lot of pleasure these days. I grow nostalgic remembering my childhood. I feel pride in my achievements. I revisit all the magical places I’ve visited and embrace again the people who gifted those journeys with meaning. I reflect on the tough, scary moments in my life and am deeply grateful for having survived them.

So this confession about not journaling is not a mea culpa. It’s not even a confession. It’s just a writer’s thoughts about writing as a clarifying experience. What greater purpose could any journal serve?

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Elayne Clift ( is a writer, journalist and adjunct professor of women’s studies and English. Her latest book is ACHAN: A Year of Teaching in Thailand (Bangkok Books, 2007).

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