When I stack my journals on my desk, they make two columns, each eighteen inches tall. That makes one yard of notebooks—a record of my adult writing life. Stacked this way, they have a presence somewhere in between a minimalist sculpture and a game of Jenga about to begin. I’m reminded of the slow accretion of earth on granite ledge after the glaciers receded. Word after barely legible word building up soil until seeds find their way in and grow. Or perhaps it’s more like compost, those piles of images, laments, and aspirations heating itself into humus.

There are a few journals I’ve lost, like the small book with the blue and white marbled paper cover that I bought in Florence when I traveled to Europe after college. I tucked it into my jacket pocket and went to cafes where I drank cappuccino, smoked cigarettes, and tried to write. I imagined beautiful poems. I was after perfection, which may be why it was hard to get going, until the beautiful pen I’d also bought to help me with writing the perfect words made a big ink stain on the cover. After that, it got easier to write. I was able to begin with a mistake.

Writing is always a self-conscious process, but it’s amplified when I’m writing in my journal. I know that I’m not writing anything for others to read. It shouldn’t have to be good or right, but I often need to remind myself of this because there are mornings when I’m aware of watching myself write. I need to get to the place where it’s like physical exercise. Let my breath even out. Find a rhythm. Fill the blank page.

I try to write every day. I do it to track my spiritual state. Over the years I’ve tried to avoid too much abstraction about happiness and sadness, which doesn’t tell me enough. I want to be grounded in the specific place, in the season. I want to know what I ate for dinner. I want to find images that express the inner and outer world. I want to know the names of plants and birds. I want to remember the books that I’ve read. Sometimes I’ll paste in a travel receipt, ticket stub, or an exquisite corpse drawing to make a visual break in this river of words.

I don’t usually go back to look at the journals after I’ve finished them, but today after arranging them into the stacks, I page through five or six years. Here’s a random sample of the raw material that I re-discover:

“One summer rainfall was 3 inches below average.”

“At a silent retreat the words ‘inexplicable holiness’ entered my mind.”

“One Christmas in southern Arizona I went to a Spanish Colonial mission glowing with luminaria.”

“A list of words to use in a writing exercise: rain, yellow, bruise, forget, photocopy, green, margins.”

“The moon has an elliptical orbit.”

“I dreamed I tossed my hat over a candle.”

“Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere.” (a quote from William Zinsser)

This list of notes from my journals begins to feel like a found poem. Or maybe just moments. For whatever reason, these events and observations were necessary to record at the time. In Kabbalistic numerology, the number eighteen represents the Hebrew word for life, chai. Multiples of eighteen also equal life, and thirty-six—the number of inches in my writing—is double life. And maybe it is a double life: the life within and without, the one on the surface and the one beneath. A dialog. An embrace.


Image at top: Stuart Kestenbaum, Journals.