Nothing Has Really Happened Until It Has Been Recorded.*

February 5, 2010

We are well advised to devote effort to understanding what has happened to us and what it means–what we are trying to achieve and whether we have succeeded. At a premium here is the activity called reflecting–regular, conscious consideration of the events of daily life in the light of longer-term aspirations.
• Howard Gardner (1997),
Extraordinary Minds, New York: Basic Books, p. 146

When Jacqueline Kennedy became First Lady, she said that she did not want to keep a record of events in the White House, that she preferred to live her life instead of recording it. Students, friends, and colleagues sometimes say the same thing to me about journaling, and because I am a poet, artist, teacher, as well as an autoethnographer who keeps copious field notes on my life, I am wary of asking others to do something that I love and believe in.

But here’s what I know from years of working with teachers to improve their practice and from years of encouraging students to learn mindfully: it is difficult to learn anything from your life if you do not track your thoughts in ways that make it possible to revisit them. Memory is seldom reliable, and recording things allows you to be first-person present in your life, capturing ideas and experiences that can be useful in understanding yourself and your preferences.

Here’s a little test of your memory:

What was the last thing you said to someone before you went to bed last night?

What did you have for dinner three weeks ago today?

What did you wear on February 5, 2009?

Name the last five movies you’ve seen (theatre or television) and their stars.

List the last five books you’ve read.

I could go on. We forget many trivial things, but we also forget many meaningful things, observations on life that—if saved—would give us insight into what matters most to us. Over time, revisiting what you’ve written can allow you to find the throughlines that represent your overarching objectives and purpose for your life.  Capturing things in writing—or with sketches or other memory evocateurs–also allows you to create and test theories as you review the data collected from daily living, particularly important for developing skills of lifelong learning and problem solving—and plain old common sense. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks (1994) notes that her theories emerge from her life, from “efforts to make sense of everyday life experiences, from my efforts to intervene critically in my life and the lives of others” (p. 70). You are a theory-maker any time you gather information deliberately and systematically.

Harvard psychologist  Stephen Kosslyn, referenced in Twyla Tharp’s (2002) book, The Creative Habit, notes that there are several ways ideas are acted upon:

First, you must generate the idea, usually  from memory or experience or activity. Then you have to retain it—that is, hold it steady in your mind and keep it from disappearing. Then you have to inspect it—study and make inferences about it. Finally, you have to be able to transform it—alter it in some way to suit your higher purposes. (p. 101)

I noticed that Kosslyn’s protocol forms the word GRIT, and I use it to help me remember that it isn’t enough to have good ideas—I need to record and revisit and use them. Journaling, whatever form it takes, helps you to retain ideas and then to re-view them through reflection. These processes help you move forward creatively into synthesis and analysis and application. As an artist, I find that this capturing takes many forms, and I liken it to collecting scraps for a patchwork quilt. My re-viewing allows me to make connections that lead to new creative activities. My journals also help when I craft an artist’s statement since I can see the origin of my ideas and am better able to understand both what I do and why.

Mrs. Kennedy had many others who recorded her life for her, but since the rest of us don’t, it’s a good idea to begin recording bits of your life for yourself. Be sure to date your entries.

Scientists, mathematicians, artists, writers, teachers, doctors and people in many other professions keep journals of various kinds. What are your career goals and what kind(s) of journaling could help you achieve insights into those goals?

This is a mystical path. You walk on it daily without knowing what will come tomorrow. But you trust, by writing down the daily fragments of awareness, that a larger network will gradually emerge, that images will come forth, a theme or direction may appear, all of which you could never have outlined, but which emerge out of deep necessity within us.
• Burghild Nina Halzer

• Thanks to Virginia Woolf for the title quotation.



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