[Note: I had promised Chapter Three of "Mastering Photography" for today, but it's just not quite cooked yet and I don't want to rush it. Here instead is a bit of a meditation on blogging that started as a response to Peter Croft. I can't be sure—my email records don't go back that far—but I think it was a question from Peter that inspired "On the Sharpness of Lenses" on mir.com many years ago.
I could be misremembering that. One aspect of my work life is that thousands of names go by without faces attached, and for a person with a primarily visual memory that can get confusing! —Mike the Ed.]
Peter Croft (partial comment—see the Comments section to the previous post for Peter's entire text): "I started my blog in May 2009...I've done 729 posts so far and I usually write something on average every second day. It's just a diary really, on anything and everything to do with my life. I never feel lost for words. It's mundane stuff (my car got bumped from behind on the road yesterday, so I'll gnash my teeth about that). Occasionally I get a bit more profound and I'm quite proud of a few of my posts. I always keep posterity in mind, thinking of Samuel Pepys's diary. Who knows whether someone in 500 years time will read my words about what life was like in the 2000s.
"I'm also an obsessive keeper of lists and notebooks. When I retired in 1999 I started keeping notebooks of every cent I spend. People say, 'I don't know where the money goes!' I do. It keeps my mind sharp too, as I mentally retrace my day's activities and where I was and what I spent.
"I get maybe two comments a year. I don't know whether I'm too boring or too ready to take up the cudgels. I admit I do have strong political views and opinions. Oh well, it's really only my on-line diary, written for myself so it matters not. I just feel the need to write."
Mike replies: It's known that a higher-than-random percentage of successful people keep (or kept) diaries or journals.
I haven't been able to find more about the "theory of diaries" so I haven't written much about it, but an article I read once made an impression on me. It claimed that writing diaries leads to greater accomplishment. It's said to work by improving your consciousness, and bringing into better awareness patterns and habits that are more below the surface for most people, which in turn improves your planning and your direction in life and helps you progress. The writer's conclusion was that maybe it's not that accomplished people keep diaries; maybe it's the other way around, that the process of keeping a diary helps people become more accomplished.
I do have to say that TOP is not a diary and it's not actually personal. As quirky and self-involved as I sometimes get, I have to say I always have the audience in mind and I am always (really without much in the way of exception) writing for others—to entertain or to enlighten or just to provide "virtual company." There's a lot of "me" in some posts, but it's always "for" you. So TOP doesn't function as a diary. In fact, I have a poor memory for what I wrote about on TOP in the past, last month or last year—so it's interesting, to me, too, to occasionally go back and scan over old posts.
As far as comments go, blog-writing is a numbers game. Only something like 2% to 4% of my readers ever buy things through my links, for instance. It's only because I have so many readers that that works. And only about 5% of my readers ever comment. That's one in twenty, though, which seems like a high ratio to me. And the highest percentage of a day's readers who have ever commented on any given single post is somewhere around 1%.
Peter might want to think about "inviting" comments more effectively. I'm almost always genuinely interested to hear from readers—often it's the way that I get to enjoy my own blog! (Since I write most of the posts, those aren't so enlivening for me.) But it's a knack to learn to leave "conceptual space," if you will, for others to step in to. There have been times when I've published beautifully presented guest posts that draw very few comments. It's because they're self-contained—"sealed," one might say. They're interesting to read, but they don't invite conversation. I try to leave some open ends in posts, because I'm eager to hear from readers.
Every day in its day
But back to the Theory of Diaries. Think of addiction: the great insight of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous was to understand the pattern of addiction and turn it on its head. Addiction works one day at a time; we think, "I'll just get high one more day and then I stop tomorrow" or "I'll just get drunk today but this is the last day, then I'll deal with it tomorrow." (Cf. the song by Jane's Addiction, "Jane Says.") Bill and friends got the idea to use the same strategy for sobriety: it's too daunting to quit forever (the idea can be so dismaying that it causes people to give up right on the spot), so all you have to do is stay sober for one more day—"one day at a time" in the mantra of AA.
The advantage of keeping a diary or journal of your life is that it helps you keep better track of all the perpetual tomorrows. It lets you see your patterns more easily. For instance, I've been wanting to write a book. But I've been wanting to for thirty-five years. In my mind it's always something I'm about to get started on—it's an ambition that's always in the present. But actually doing it is something I always put off.
That's the kind of thing a diary helps you with—if I kept a journal, I might be able to look back and think, "jeez, I've been thinking this way since 19xx. I'd better get to it." Or "this never happens; I'd better give up that ambition." It helps track your changes, your thinking, your priorities, helps you be more conscious of actual vs. perceived progress and stasis.
For the Theory of Diaries to work, it specifically shouldn't be literary—just write down what you did, who you were with, what your top concerns are that day, what you're working on and thinking about. But be practical. Think in terms of your life and its direction—your "progress" through your life you might say.
I have a friend who kept a journal for a number of years, and when a new situation presented itself that related to a period of her past, she was able to go back and reread her journals for clues as to how she was thinking and feeling back then. That's another useful feature of a diary. It's data. A record. Mining it can help with the kind of insight that helps you to evolve and progress in your life and understand yourself better.
Another friend kept notebooks for years, in which he wrote down useful ideas, quotes he liked, reactions to art, all sorts of things—they were like creativity-incubators. I always thought it was the same book he was carrying around with him, but then in his college room I saw about nineteen identical volumes lined on his shelf and I realized he was filling up book after book. Then the time came when he stopped. But he retains the metal habits that he developed while he was journaling—he's still very good at recalling quotes with exactitude, and he remembers names of artists and book titles. It was as if his period of notebooking groomed his mind, and eventually his mental habits were secure enough that he no longer needed the physical notebooks.
Can't do it
I've never been able to journal or keep a diary myself—I always got too distracted by ideas to keep a suitably simple record. I used to joke that if I had my life to live over again, the one thing I'd do is take better care of my teeth. But actually there are two things I'd do—take better care of my teeth, and keep a journal or diary.
Perhaps it's true that the great decline in the habit and practice of writing things down augurs against this for younger people today. Nobody works on penmanship, nobody writes letters (especially on paper)—the traditional arts known collectively as "letters" are in decline and disarray. Still, I believe that to write a diary or journal is great advice for young people who want to monitor their progress in life and improve their chances for success, accomplishment, progress, and for "knowing thyself."
(Thanks to Peter)
P.S. Notice how the third- and second-to-last sentences invite comment. See what I mean about that?
"Open Mike" is the off-topic weekly editorial page of TOP, not that I don't editorialize at least mildly throughout the week. "Open Mike" appears on Sundays.
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
jeffrey K Hartge: "I started 'journaling' around 2010 (at the age of 42). I did it as a check against my changing recollections of the past. I wanted a more accurate accounting of my perceptions at the moment that I could look back on and see how much 're-imagining' I do with respect to my past.
"One of the first byproducts of my journaling efforts was an explosion in productivity. Most days my journaling starts with "to do" lists for both the day and the remainder of the week.
"These to-do lists, in my mind, have several clear effects:
- Just the act of writing the list down allows me to be free of the mental energy of trying to remember the list. Now, I can move on to processing the elements of the list.
- The act of writing it 'makes it real.' I now feel compelled to do something about it. This also leads to my thinking about each item on the list more realistically. I stop wasting time with pipe dreams (that I don't have the resources to accomplish) and focus on what I really think I can accomplish.
- Seeing different activities on the same page causes me to prioritize. I think about what I really want versus what would be nice to do versus something that just seemed like something I should do. I find that I start with the items on the list that I can get done quickly—this gives me an immediate sense of accomplishment.
- It also allows me to realize the longer term tasks as longer term tasks. I then create sub-task lists for those items. I then, simply, 'nibble' at the sub-task lists each day.
- By revisiting the lists each day, it helps me keep in perspective the 'down the rabbit hole' type tasks/activities.
"The other major consequence of 'journaling' was an improvement in my recollections of events from the immediate past. Just writing things down allowed me to lock in the events more clearly.
"Journaling is an activity that I hope to impart on my sons. I definitely can see the benefits and have a level of regret that I did not start earlier.
"I started my journaling by writing in little black sketch books. About three years ago, my brother convinced me to get a tablet computer with a stylus. I was uncertain about spending so much money and so I purchased a refurbished one. That turned out to be one of the best purchases I ever made. I carry it with me everywhere and add notes throughout the day...every day."
Speed: "My photographs are my journal."
Mike replies: I used to try hard to do that, because I'm visual as well as verbal and my memory is mainly visual. I tried to make half my shooting a "diary of my days" and half for more artistic purposes.
The job I did was only "okay" at best. Many of the things I really wanted to remember most I didn't get shots of, and many of the quotidian things that happened that I did get shots of, I didn't need to, or care to, remember.
A further problem is similar: that the quality of a photograph is not commensurate to its significance or importance. Even among the pictures I did take, often I got wonderful photographs of things that were not meaningful to me, and woeful snapshots of things that were extremely important or dear to me.
Terry Letton: "There has to be a hell of a story about that picture. Inquiring minds want to know."
Peter Croft: "There's a big smile on my face at seeing my words and that image used. Thanks Mike. The Yalta scene was a Photoshop exercise in a course I did in 1994. May I recommend Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin as the reading about Samuel Pepys. I've read it twice and might even read it again, as I enjoyed it so much. I find it fascinating to read what he did in the 1660 period, and especially to think that he never knew the music of Bach or Handel or Mozart or Beethoven. Even Shakespeare's plays were young then. His writing was not especially literary; it's just the small details that fascinate me, such as getting a builder to make alterations to his house. I hope someone in some future century might see my minor musings and find them interesting."
JK: "I started a travel journal when I went to Japan as a student in 1976. But then I ended up staying on in Asia and my travel journal became, well, just a journal. Which is to say a bit of daily meditation, a kind of regular calisthentic program for writing, an aide memoire (and digital since the mid-80s, so easily searchable), and a 40-year conversation with myself. I can't imagine my life without it."