Writing on Wednesdays: Maps and Legends

May 23rd, 2012

Journaling as a navigational aid


Character sketch with grocery list.

For the first time in many years, I’m keeping a paper journal. I’d written diaries on and off since I was a little girl, but I stopped when I started blogging. They were mostly torrid and angst-ridden, the kind of thing you write knowing you’d be horrified for anyone to read it. A personal blog can be a journal, but it’s an open one, which necessarily alters the nature of the thing. You write it with the hope someone will read it.

I never really considered what might exist between those two forms, until I attended Karen Walrond‘s session on creative inspiration at the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop, and saw how she uses journaling as a kind of global capture system–a portable, external hard drive for the brain. I’d read about this on Karen’s blog before, but it took seeing the actual pages–covered with scrawls, lists, doodles, and various ephemera tucked in– to grasp the breadth of it.

As a person with a sideways brain, I’ve come to rely on digital tools for capturing and dumping practical information–appointments, deadlines, errands, and to-dos. But I didn’t have a way to capture and contain the kinds of thoughts that don’t fit neatly on a list or grid. Also, there’s something about writing longhand that orders my mind in a way that typing or tapping doesn’t. I often find clarity at the end of a pen.

Karen uses her journal as a wide net, cast across the entire stream of her experience. It catches everything, the mundane, practical, creative and transcendental. The processing–sorting, evaluating, picking, prioritizing–can happen later. I love that, because it’s so easy to filter our thoughts prematurely and miss the glint of gold.

I’m also discovering it’s a useful tool for helping me stay focused. One of the drawbacks of an inventive mind is the constant distraction of shiny, new ideas. I barely fix my sights on one, and I’m swarmed by other possibilities. By capturing them in my journal in raw form, as they arise, I can return to the task at hand, not panicked by the fear of letting something good get away. It’s a powerful form of permission, which seems to be one of my watchwords this year. My journal lets me say yes to everything, at least on paper.

Life Legend.

Another watchword is intention, which is what my journal is meant to serve. It’s a map I’m using to figure out where I am, where I want to be, and what lies between. One of the first things I wrote in it was a diagram of key inputs and outputs–the things that serve my purpose, and the purposes I serve. I even color coded it, like a map legend. My legend for my life–the story I want it to tell.

I use my life legend to help me evaluate the things I capture in my journal. Where does this idea fit? That task? These errands? Are they inputs or outputs? How much do they matter? Where does it all fit in the big picture?

For my legend, I identified two major inputs: physical health and spiritual wholeness. These are the uptake pipes. What flows through them informs the quality of my output. On the output side, I put the two areas of accomplishment that matter most to me–the things that warrant my consumption of oxygen. Those are work and family.

The input side is where I take in sustenance. The output side is where I convert that to energy. Knowing which is which helps me strive for dynamic balance. If I attempt to serve work and family without attending to my inputs, I’m running on fumes. If I’m taking in plenty of spiritual and physical sustenance, but not converting it to something that matters beyond me, I’m simply self-indulging.

I think I’ll begin each new journal by redrawing my life legend (my current Moleskine is already half-full). It will interesting to see how it changes with time. For instance, my definition of “family” is pretty nuclear these days. I expect that will change, as will the nature of my work. There’s also novelty in the idea of being able to review an old journal without cringing. It’s very freeing not to write with an audience in mind, but the practical intent of this kind of journalling keeps it from being too vulnerable. Put it this way: if I leave it in Starbucks some day, I won’t have to move to another country under an assumed name. I seriously doubt anyone would make it past the tedium of the first few pages, interrupted as they are with phone numbers, random dollar figures and grocery lists.

If you use journaling as a navigational aid, or for any other purpose, I’d love to hear about it. If you don’t, what are some of the maps that help give your life direction?



6 Responses to “Writing on Wednesdays: Maps and Legends”

  1. Alexandra says:

    I agree. I remember b eing in karen’s workshop and thinking, “to put it out there gets it out of the mental chatter that is non stop in my mind.”

    I’d like my mind to be more Ikea shelves and not so much freeform jazz.

    I can at least try..

  2. Amy says:

    Kyran, just, thank you for existing. I’m really grateful for your outputs.

  3. Jen says:

    Sort of echoing the previous comment but Karen’s website is a treasure trove. Thank you, I can’t wait to sit down to her site this weekend and really explore it.

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