Are Journals Memoir?

March 10, 2021 § 19 Comments

By Rasma Haidri

On Twitter yesterday I saw someone ask if he can call himself a memoirist because he keeps journals. No, I wanted to say, but didn’t. I resist engaging in social media conversations with strangers (although I’m told that is the point of social media). Nothing proves Goethe’s adage, “The spoken word comes not back,” better than Twitter where every utterance is carved in cyberstone. What if I changed my mind? What if I got trolled? Anyway, he wasn’t asking me. And besides, what do I know? 

I know that the word mémoire is French for memory and what we write in journals is not memory. It is the present preserved. We write in journals to explore, confess, deny, blame, examine, discuss. We write in journals so our thoughts are not—what’s the saying—lost to memory? Even when writing about something remembered, it is the present moment of remembering that we record in the journal. 

“This is not a book,” wrote the painter Paul Gauguin in the first line of his journal. Rightly so. A journal is private interior writing that we do for many reasons, none of which is public consumption. A memoir, on the other hand, is a book. We write them to be read by the world at large. Even an unread, unpublished memoir is a book rather than a journal, because it is a rendering, a creation, a work. Even published diaries, like those of Anaïs Nin, or Gauguin for that matter, are works someone has annotated and edited, transformed from journal to book. 

I am writing a memoir based on my mother’s private personal writings that she left unsorted in a box. That box has made me a memoirist. As memoirist I am a thief, stealing my mother’s private thoughts in order to imagine and construct her life. As memoirist I am a Dr. Frankenstein, awake at all hours frenziedly piecing dead fragments into a living whole. It is dark and bloody work. It is a scream in a frozen field where I unveil the body and behold a chimera. I think it’s my mother, but it’s me. The memoirist is not the writer of the journals. She is the one who exhumes them from a box, dissects the body, inspects the archeological find, and renders from the amalgated past a memoir.

All writing is hard work, and the memoirist’s work is among the hardest. Journaling, whether stuttered fragments or flowing spontaneous prose, is among the easiest as it doesn’t have to do anything or go anywhere or impress anyone. No one is going to read it. Journals are where we record the raw material for memoir. The journal narrates ideas, dreams and struggles in a context we are now far removed from. The journal’s narrator always predates who we think we are today.

Some years ago, my daughter told me that if the house burns, I must hurl my several dozen personal journals out the window. She wants to read them when I’m gone. I asked her what she thought she’d find there. She said, “A young woman I never knew.” I told her she can ask me anything now, no taboos. My mother allowed no personal questions, but I am determined to be the opposite. I told my daughter I will answer any question openly and honestly. She said, “I know.” She doesn’t ask. She has no questions. 

I wonder if I’m wrong about my mother not allowing personal questions. In my honest moments I must ask myself: is it possible I just didn’t pose any? Perhaps a mother must die before her daughter realizes that the person she knew is only part of the woman who was her mother. Only when the mother is gone do the questions the daughter never asked begin to form. They are the beginning of memoir writing.

I haven’t decided if I will leave my journals for my daughter. Is it enough that she knows what she knows? How will all that spontaneously written rubbish in my journals distort her understanding of me? I am a writer of poems and memoir. I render the stuff of my life into literary works and offer them to my daughter to read. She hasn’t gotten around to reading much. Not yet. And she has a plan to find me in my old journals.

I might die, as my mother did, before I have decided what I want to do with my boxes of personal writing. If they do end up in my daughter’s hands, she will discover that the work of understanding her mother’s journals is the work of memoir, which ultimately requires a reconciliation between what is written there and what is already known, and what is unknowable.

The memoirist depends on journals for answers to questions that were never answered or asked. Whether it is one’s own journal or someone else’s, the journal once written serves the same purpose: to illuminate the past and inform the present. That’s what I’ll tell the man on Twitter. If I find him. Journals don’t make you a memoirist. Your journey through them exploring the past will.

Rasma Haidri writes in a pinewood room on an island off the coast of Norway. She is the author of the poetry collection As If Anything Can Happen, and is at work on her MFA thesis, a memoir about her mother’s box. Visit her at

Writing as My Contemplative Practice

December 31, 2018 § 6 Comments

0045_RaabBy Diana Raab

Writing has been my escape, savior, and contemplative practice. My childhood set the stage for my life as a writer. It all happened the day my grandmother committed suicide in my childhood home when I was ten years old. It wasn’t brutal; it was an overdose of sleeping pills, but the unusual part was that my parents were at work, and I was the one who found my grandmother. It was ten o’clock in the morning on Labor Day weekend, and my friend had called to see if I wanted to swim in her pool. I cracked open my grandmother’s bedroom door, and she lay completely still in her bed with an open book on her chest, a Graham Greene novel, The End of the Affair. On her headboard on its side was an empty bottle of sleeping pills. The sheer curtains on her window swayed in the fall breeze as if waving good-bye. I called her name, but she didn’t answer. With a child’s intuition, I sensed that something was wrong. I ran out to call my parents on the pink dial phone up the hall. The year was 1964.

Within moments, my mother and father, an ambulance, and the police pulled into the driveway. Commotion took over our ordinarily quiet suburban neighborhood. My grandmother was taken away on a stretcher, never to be seen again. I didn’t understand the permanence of death, and my parents wanted to protect me from the experience, so they did not allow me to attend the funeral. Instead, my mother handed me my first journal—one with Kahlil Gibran quotations across the top of each page. My journal became my best friend, confidant, and escape from the reality of losing my grandmother. I poured my deepest sentiments onto its pages.

Many children take events such as these in stride, and only looking back from the adult perspective do we realize the gravity of our earlier lived experience. This all happened in the 1960s, long before therapy was commonplace. For hours on end back then, I sat on the floor of my walk-in closet and wrote about how I missed my grandmother, reflecting upon all our special times together. Writing also helped me come to some level of peace about losing her. That was the beginning of my understanding that the practice of writing really does heal.

Healing Through Words

When confronted with trauma, life transitions, or epiphanies, many writers turn to writing to help them because it empowers and facilitates the healing process. D. H. Lawrence sat at his mother’s bedside while she was dying and wrote poems about her. He also began writing an early draft of his novel Sons and Lovers, in which he explored the complicated, loving, painful, and close relationship between him and his mother. Marcel Proust wrote Remembrance of Things Past while sick in bed with asthma. I wrote my first book, Getting Pregnant and Staying Pregnant: A Guide to High-Risk Pregnancies, in 1983 while on bed rest with my daughter.

May Sarton and Anaïs Nin also used journaling to pull them through difficult times. In her book Recovering, Sarton chronicles her battles with depression and cancer. Nin used her journals to help her escape, and thus cope with her deranged father, who left the family when she was young. Nin’s journal entries became a springboard for her life as a writer, and also a six-volume collection of her journals.

Writing can be used as a contemplative practice or as a way to feel better. This is a common reason that people crack open their journals. These days, therapists suggest journaling in conjunction with talk therapy. Since my grandmother’s death, I have pulled out my journal during other difficult times, such as while navigating a turbulent adolescence and then three pregnancies laden with bed rest. While acknowledging its transformative results, I once again turned to journaling during my two bouts with cancer.

Indeed, the challenges surrounding illness can become a catalyst for writing. During graduate school, one of my writing mentors told me something to remember when navigating difficult times: “When it hurts, write harder.” This made complete sense to me. Writing provides people with an opportunity to vent.

Writing about what’s on your mind helps you make sense of your situation and results in a feeling of release and an increased sense of awareness. Writing can also offer us a window into our ancestors and their legacies. A prime example is when I found my grandmother’s journal many years after her passing. Sometimes journals might even turn into books, as was the case with my first memoir, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal.

Write from Your Heart

Writing from the heart means that instead of just recording something that has happened like a journalist would report, you write about how that experience affected you and the person you’ve become. This type of writing leads to self-discovery and transformation.

The best way to start writing is to find a journal and a writing utensil that inspires you. Then, try doing stream-of-consciousness writing, or as Andre calls, automatic writing or writing continuously for 15 minutes without stopping. Write down whatever pops into your mind. You might also consider writing a letter to a deceased love one, or you might want to write about a life-altering experience. Maybe you wish to write about what you do to escape from reality, or how you cope with your problems.

Something else to write about is what obsesses you. For example, what do you think about all the time? Or what you’re grateful for, or what you can do to bring greater joy into your life. It’s okay to begin writing about one thing, and end up writing about something completely different. The beauty in journal writing is that it is not like an essay that needs a beginning, middle, and end. It can wander aimlessly through the forest of your life. The idea is to just let it rip and get the words onto the page. This, in and of itself, is a transformative and empowering experience and can be a great escape from all else that’s going on in your life!

Diana Raab, MFA, PhD, is a memoirist, poet, blogger, speaker, and award-winning author of nine books. Her work has been published and anthologized in over 1000 publications. She frequently speaks on writing for healing and transformation. Raab blogs for Psychology Today, Medium, and Thrive Global. She’s editor of two anthologies: Writers and Their Notebooks and Writers on the Edge; two memoirs: Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal and Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey, and four poetry collections, including Lust. Her latest book is Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Program for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life, along with Writing for Bliss: A Companion Book. Visit her at:

An Open Letter to Brian Arundel

April 4, 2018 § 9 Comments

arundelDear Brian,

In lieu of a Thank You note, I should be sending you a royalty check for all the times I have printed your essay The Things I’ve Lost published in Brevity 22. Perhaps writers should team up with musicians to claim monetary compensation for their intellectual property.

Brevity will also want a piece of the take, as will state and federal entities. I don’t know about you but, I am not feeling very generous toward the government these days. As I watch your imaginary check dwindle in size, it occurs to me that cutting a check is as antiquated as placing a stamp on a letter. I feel, however, that I should publicly give credit where credit is due and since I cannot find you elsewhere this is as good a place as any to connect with you.

I work as a nurse who works with patients receiving chemotherapy, and, thanks to a generous donation, I have access to a healthy supply of notebooks and journals. Some are jeweled and bedazzled, while others have faux leather covers. I delight in selecting just the right one for my patients. I imagine I am kin to Ollivander who selects the perfect wand for fledgling wizards.

There is time to talk in the space between lab work, pre-hydration fluids, and administering the poison that may be their salvation. Shelly was interested in alternative medicine options and I discussed a body of research demonstrating improved health outcomes for people who write about their illness. Shelly said she wanted to journal during her first cancer treatment, but the chemotherapy made it difficult to clear her mind enough to write a coherent sentence. Now, on her second time around, I suggested she make a list of the things she lost. Start with: I lost my hair. I lost my fear of hospitals, I lost my virginity…. Shelly and I talked about how writing helps take you out of the moment and allows the writer to look at the totality of their experiences. It is not illness that defines us but all the other things that make up the lost and found of a life.

Illness is the door most apparent when I write with my patients, but the illness is not who they are. It is a place to start. Shelly embraced the idea and held tight to the journal I gave her — a striped journal, reminiscent of Fruit Stripe chewing gum.

As I talked with Shelly, her mother-in-law sat quietly on the sofa. She later came out to the nurse’s station and asked if we could talk. The HIPPA alarm was raging in my head since there was nothing I could discuss with her about Shelly’s care. My brain said “No” but my lips said, “Of course.” As we stepped into an empty hallway she explained that she had been listening to the conversation.  She is a high school teacher and she wondered if I had heard about the shooting at her school. She said she hated going back to the school until today. She said, “For the first time, I can see a path forward. I can write with my students about what we have lost. I can help them through their grief” She thanked me and gave a sincere and tender hug.

Both the hug and thanks are yours to claim and do not belong to me.

I cannot begin to send you a royalty check to cover this exchange. Please know you are rich in good karma credits even if your 401(k) is feeling rather depleted.

With your permission, I will continue to use your essay for inspiration because even teenage boys show enthusiasm for a writing project that begins, “I lost a lot of blood.”

Your appreciative fan,

Joey Elizabeth is a mom, MFA student, and registered nurse who tries to insert biblio-therapy between rounds of chemo-therapy because healing is not the same as curing. A fellow nurse calls her an anecdotal artist. Her work can be found on the back of envelopes, via Blackboard posts, and in notebooks in the bottom desk drawer. You can find her in the kitchen making dinner or at

Going Analog

January 9, 2018 § 26 Comments

Photo of stationery store, three aisles of pens.

Just pens.

In Taiwan, there are historic shophouses, cliffs crumbling into the Pacific Ocean, and a glorious day where gods are processed through the streets, heralded by firecrackers and bands.

There are also huge stationery stores. The first one I saw–9X9 Stationery Expert–I walked right into four aisles of pens. Just pens. Not erasers or pencils–those have their own aisles, thank you very much. Upstairs were rows of stickers, file folders, calendars, art supplies, and shelf after shelf of notebooks, lined and squared and blank and ready for absolutely brilliant and world-changing writing.

That’s my secret hope for every blank page I buy. But usually new notebooks end up on a shelf, because they’re “too nice to use” or I’m on a kick where I only write in composition books or hotel notepads or primary school tablets from Austria. I finally solved that quandary by buying the same notebook every time, in packs of three, so I can write on nice paper without feeling like I’m committing desecration.

Still, I wanted the cute notebook that said “Everything Is Going to Be OK” on the cover. Or the one with the old-fashioned folded pages, to be slit apart with a paper knife. Maybe the one lined vertically for kanji writing, with anime pandas on every page. Before my husband hauled me out of the store (after waiting patiently for almost an hour), I’d bought gifts for friends and paper clips shaped like the Eiffel Tower.

I got sucked into an artsy independent store in Kaohsiung. In Tainan, going alone at night to 101 Stationary Paradise felt like meeting a lover. On my birthday, my husband indulged me. We walked almost five miles to hit every stationery store in Hualien for the right set of rubber-stamp letters.

It’s the promise of the blank page–not only are we going to write something on a fresh, clean space free of previous failure, we’ll do it with the joy and abandon of an eight-year-old with a brand-new box of still-pointy crayons that haven’t yet been forcibly shared with siblings.

I’ve moved away from paper. I have a habit-tracker and a list app and a calendar and everything syncs with my phone. It’s too easy. Every idea gets put in a digital list and forgotten immediately. Perhaps twenty projects have been broken into steps and abandoned. I dutifully tick off exercise and birthdays and groceries. Meanwhile, my notebooks sit half-filled, pulled out for a workshop when I’m doing “real” writing.

But I wanted those Taiwanese notebooks and pens, and I didn’t want them sitting on a shelf. There had to be a plan. I found the Bullet Journal. Beautiful, hand-lettered calendars, habit trackers and moon charts sprawled across Instagram and Pinterest, hashtagged with the notebooks and art pens used to create them. It was way more than I could handle. (If you’re interested but easily overwhelmed, start with #minimalistbujo)

Instead, I resurrected an idea from Lynda Barry’s marvelous book Syllabus: use the same notebook for everything. Class notes and errand lists. Brainstorming and doodling. Real assignments and rough drafts and fresh ideas. Barry proposes that putting everything in one place sparks connections from proximity, even among unrelated items. And really, what more relationship do they need than all coming from the same head?

I stuck with the same notebook because I had a new one with me. I’m not sure I love the pens. I bought the wrong color stamp pad. I’m not a great visual designer, my pages bleed through and my handwriting is shitty. But so far it’s working. Everything in one book, the joy of playing with colored pencils and a cute sharpener and washi tape. If an idea is worth keeping, it’s worth writing down, flipping back to when I need something to write (like this blog post). If a job is worth doing, it’s worth copying to next week’s list–or let it go un-copied and undone, instead of popping up as an automatically scheduled “priority.”

When I first workshopped with Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore, he required all in-class writing to be done on paper, because (paraphrasing) the veins in the hand connect to the heart, and we can write more truly and deeply without the mediation of the keyboard. I do feel more connected to what I’m writing, even “cancel credit card,” and I’m finding things easier to remember (science!).

I probably won’t go completely analog, because typing is fast. But I’ve woken up five days in a row eager to get to the page, to color and write and make things. I’ve felt more focused, and the paper page doesn’t let me click through to Facebook.

New year, new notebook. Maybe it’s a gimmick. But for now, sign me up.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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