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On Keeping a Journal

by Roy Hoffman

Spalding MFA Faculty: Fiction and Creative Nonfiction

          In 1983 I published this essay in “Newsweek on Campus,” a magazine for college students, and what I wrote then still holds true for me today, journaling an outlet for writers of any age:

          Wherever I go I carry a small notebook in my coat or back pocket for thoughts, observations and impressions. As a writer I use this notebook as an artist would a sketch pad, for stories and essays, and as a sporadic journal of my comings and goings. When I first started keeping notebooks, though, I was not yet a professional writer. I was in college.

            I made my first notebook entries in the summer of 1972, just after my freshman year, in what was actually a travel log. A buddy and I were setting out to trek from our Alabama hometown to the distant tundra of Alaska. With unbounded enthusiasm I began: “Wild, crazy ecstasy wants to wrench my head from my body.” The log, written in a university composition book, goes on to chronicle our adventures in the land where the sun never sets, the bars never close and the pre-pipeline employment prospects were so bleak we ended up taking jobs as night janitors.

           When I returned to college that fall I had a small revelation: the world around me of libraries, quadrangles, Frisbees and professors was as rich with material for my journals and notebooks as galumphing moose and garrulous fishermen.

            These college notebooks, which built to a pitch my senior year, are gold mines to me now. Classrooms, girlfriends, cups of coffee and lines of poetry – from mine to John Keats’s – float by like clouds. As I lie beneath these clouds again, they take on familiar and distinctive shapes.

             Though I can remember the campus’s main quadrangle, I see it more vividly when I read my description of school on a visit during summer break: “the muggy, lassitudinal air … the bird noises that can not be pointed to, the summer emptiness that grows emptier with a few students squeaking by the library on poorly oiled bicycles.” An economics professor I fondly remember returns with less fondness in my notebooks, “staring down at the class with his equine face.” And a girl I had a crush on senior year, whom I now recall mistily, reappears with far more vitality as “the ample, slightly-gawky, whole-wheat, fractured object of my want gangling down the hall in spring heat today.”

           When, in reading over my notebooks, I am not peering out at quadrangles, midterm exams, professors or girlfriends, I see of a portrait of my parents and hometown during holidays and occasional weekend breaks. Like a wheel, home revolves, each turn regarded differently depending on the novel or political essay I’d been most influenced by the previous semester.

            Mostly, though, in wandering back through my notebooks, I meet someone who could be my younger brother: the younger version of myself. The younger me seems moodier, more inquisitive, more fun-loving and surprisingly eager to stay up all night partying or figuring out electron orbitals for a 9 a.m. exam. The younger me wanders through a hall of mirrors of the self, writes of “seeing two or three of myself on every corner,” and pens long meditations on God and society before scribbling in the margin, “what a child I am.” The younger me also finds humor in trying to keep track of this hall of mirrors, commenting in ragged verse: “I hope that one day/Some grandson or cousin/Will read these books,/And know that I was/Once a youth/Sitting in drugstores with/Anguished looks,/And poring over coffee,/And should have poured/The coffee/Over these lines.”

            I believe that every college student should attempt to keep some form of notebook, journal or diary. A notebook is a secret garden in which to dance, sing, muse, wander, perform handstands, even cry. In the privacy of this little book, you can make faces, curse, turn somersaults and ask yourself if you’re really in love. A notebook or journal is one of the few places you can call just your own.

            Spring of my senior year I wrote: “This notebook shall be/A continuing inner sanctum,/Where my closest confidante/Will seem like a stranger.” It’s hard, but necessary, to sustain that conviction. Journal writing suffers when you let someone, in your mind, look over your shoulder. Honesty wilts when a parent, teacher or friend looms up in your imagination to discourage you from putting your true thoughts on the page. Journal writing also runs a related hazard: the dizzying suspicion that one day your private thoughts, like those of Samuel Pepys or Virginia Woolf, will be published in several volumes and land up required reading for English 401. How can you write comfortably when the eyes of all future readers are upon  you? Keep your notebooks with the abandon of one who knows his words will go up in smoke. Then you might really strike fire a hundred years or so from now if anyone cares to pry.

             By keeping notebooks, you improve your writing ability, increasing your capacity to communicate both with yourself and others. By keeping notebooks, you discover patterns in yourself, whether lazy ones that need to be broken or healthy ones that can use some nurturing. By keeping notebooks, you heighten some moments and give substance to others: even a journey to the washateria offers potential for some offbeat journal observations. And by keeping notebooks while still in college, you chart a terrain that, for many, is more dynamically charged with ideas and discussions than the practical, workaday world just beyond. Notebooks, I believe, not only help us remember this dynamic charge, but also help us sustain it.

            Not long ago while traveling with a friend in Yorktown, Va., I passed by a time capsule buried in the ground in 1976, intended to be dug up in 2076. Keeping notebooks and journals is rather like burying time capsules into one’s own life. There’s no telling what old rock song, love note, philosophical complaint or rosy Saturday morning you’ll unearth when you dig up these personal time capsules. You’ll be able to piece together a remarkable picture of where you’ve come from, and may well get some important glimmers about where you’re going.

   Roy Hoffman, who lives in Fairhope, Ala., and teaches fiction and creative nonfiction in the Spalding Low Residency MFA in Writing Program, is the author of five books, including Alabama Afternoons, an essay collection, and the novels Chicken Dreaming Corn and Come Landfall. On the web:


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