Is Keeping a Journal Old-Fashioned?

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Barbara Florio-Grahamby Barbara Florio-Graham

I think that what my generation called “journaling” has now become blogging. The problem is, blogs are public, and unless you blog on your own website, you don’t own the material and have no control over what happens to it.

That defeats the very purpose of journaling, which is to capture your private thoughts, perhaps expanding some of them—if you find the germ of a larger idea—into an article, a poem, a short story, or even a book.

I was privileged to take one of the first journal courses ever offered in the Ivy League, and it was a major turning point in my career.

When I entered Barnard College (Columbia University) as an English major, the head of the department was John Kouwenhoven, already a respected author, expert on American culture, and a former associate editor at Harper’s Magazine.

I haven’t been able to verify this, but I believe he invented the journal course, which later became popular at other Ivy League colleges. This was a weekly seminar with only twelve students, and no tests or exams. I had to bring a sample of my writing to an interview with Professor K. Competition was keen and I was thrilled be selected.

He explained we were to write 500 words every day, seven days a week, including Christmas! We could write about anything, but might be called on in class to read an entry out loud at any time. He also collected our journals at random, reading them and adding his comments. For the few days the journal was in his possession, we wrote our 500 words on notebook paper and inserted these pages when the journal came back.

The journal itself had to be bound in such a way that we couldn’t remove pages, so there was no opportunity to edit or delete. We were to write only on the right-hand pages, to leave room for his comments and for any notes we wanted to take when other members of the class made suggestions.

Just a few weeks into the course, Mr. K’s daughter was killed in an automobile accident, and he disappeared for the entire year. The former head of the English department was called back to take over; he was a wonderful man who was at that time teaching only Chaucer. Cabell Greet was a notable scholar who wrote the introduction to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

He told us he’d do his best to fill in for a few weeks as he searched for someone to take over the course. Needless to say, our journal entries became more bland under his scrutiny!

Within a few weeks he brought us George Plimpton, editor of the Paris Review. Just a few years older than us, he had never taught before, and was a disaster. Mr. Greet continued to search on our behalf, and when we returned after Christmas (having written our requisite 500 words between opening presents and having dinner!) he strode into the room in triumph.

Standing before us was John Cheever, whose latest short story in The New Yorker all of us had just devoured.

Cheever taught more by example and gentle suggestion than criticism. His notes in my journals were brief and pointed: “More of this,” or “Stop here,” or “Expand this thought,”” or “She’s interesting – a good character for a story.”

What I really learned is that writing every day is how you perfect your craft. I already had talent, having won a National Scholastics Regional Award for a short story in grade nine, then winning the Hartley Literary Award when I graduated from high school.

But I had no real craft. I was one of those students who created an outline after I wrote the essay, and never learned anything about the proper structure of an article or story.

Cheever taught us to start “where you are.” He explained that sometimes he had an entire story blocked out in his head before he started writing, and sometimes he had nothing but a fragment of dialogue, a visual of one scene, or a “what-if” question.

Following that one piece of advice means I’ve never had writer’s block. If I don’t know how to begin, I start to write the part I’m sure of, and move forward or backward from there. Works every time!

My college journals contain a lot of banal garbage. Once, when I was exhausted from an exam in another subject, I spewed my frustration in my journal. Another time I poured out my feelings about a boyfriend, hoping I wouldn’t have to read that one out loud.

But I also captured dialogue I overheard on the subway, impressions of plays I saw on and off Broadway, and a description of the girls in my dorm as they huddled around the sole TV, in the basement lounge off the cafeteria, watching some stupid soap opera. That entry was not kind, but my classmates in the journal course applauded.

Decades later, I see that most of us became professional writers. One ended up at the Children’s Television Workshop, which developed Sesame Street. Another won many awards for her poetry. Another became an editor of a prestigious magazine.
Cheever had such an influence on our lives that when we gathered for our 20th reunion, I suggested we get in touch. We took a Polaroid photo, which I enclosed in a note and sent to his publisher.

He clearly remembered us as well. When I went to Venezuela in 1981, I saw that he was giving a reading at a cultural center in Caracas. At the end of the program, I approached him and he turned away from the next person in line and opened his arms to me, saying “Barbara!”

Cheever died a year later. I wrote about it in my journal—the one I still keep—although now it’s on the computer rather than in a paper notebook.


Barbara (Bobbi) Florio Graham stays in touch with friends from Barnard. She writes Class Notes for the Class of 1956 in the Barnard Magazine, and also writes for many other publications. The author of three books, her website http://SimonTeakettle.com contains a great deal of free information, including resources for writers and publishers, contract advice, and many pages of interesting facts about science, history, food, animals, culture, and inventions.

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