“What Do You Mean By Writing, Exactly?”

When Boyfriend and I moved into a bright new Lisbon apartment last weekend — long on light, short on space — he looked at a leaning tower of my journals and asked if I needed to keep them all.

The answer was an immediate and unequivocal yes. I can’t throw those out. Those are my life. Those are my bones, I thought, they’re what made me. They are the record of every thought, feeling and decision of my long stumble towards myself.

He looked startled at the force of my answer but went on his way.

Later, he asked me about them again. He said he didn’t really know what people did with journals, or what exactly I meant about ‘writing’ if I wasn’t working on a client project.

After this much time together, it seemed like a terrible oversight on my part that this had not come up sooner, and so let me not repeat my mistake here.

Ah, journals. So many ways to love thee.

Some people like to have expensive designer hardcovers with gold ribbon placeholders. Other people like a spiral bound scratchpad that cost $2 at the newsagent.

I’ve tried them all, and these days I like something in the middle — a bound journal that I feel can stand up to the rigours of a particularly intense writing day, without feeling worried about wrecking something precious.

It might not seem an important point, this question of what type of journal you write in. But it is.

You need to feel psychologically confident in the page in front of you, and if it’s too pristine or too flimsy, the words can be tentative, shy — too slow to make an impact.

You want to be able to let rip and not worry about what gets left in the dust.

The question of which journal to use is trés importante, obviously, but of far less consequence than what you actually write in there.

Journals are where you can write about your thoughts, feelings, the emotional death spirals you find yourself in, the hideous things you want to shout at someone you love, and that dang to-do list you can’t stop fretting about at 3am.

And journalling doesn’t have to be serious all the time. You can write about the outrageous day of fun you had with your lover. You can write about the icecream you ate at the pier, the holiday you’re dreaming of, what your body has been up to lately.

Really, the beauty of the journal is that you can write whatever the hell you want, because it is for absolutely no one else to read but you.

(Unless you become a famous person and upon your death your descendants mine your journals for profit. In this case, I suggest that if you are nearing the age of kicking the bucket and don’t want your deepest thoughts getting away from you, that you find a nice trash can in which to have a little bonfire.)

But that won’t happen to most of us, and my point is that journals are intended to be completely private.

The integrity of your writing is vital.

You must feel absolutely free to put down everything that comes into your mind, unvarnished, uncensored, if this process is to lead you to the truth of who you are (and this, , is the whole point of the exercise).

This point of privacy is mission-critical. We have so much stuff to wade through to get to the truth of our own thoughts and feelings as it is, without the anxiety-cranking possibility of someone else spying on us while we do it.

If you can’t trust the people around you not to read them, keep the journal somewhere they can’t access it (and once you’ve found a safe spot for it, maybe you could write about why they think that would be an acceptable thing to do).

But it’s not just other people for whom we censor ourselves. The greater risk, in truth, is that we censor ourselves from ourselves.

That we resist looking at the truth of a situation, or avoid putting down the words that need to be expressed, just so we don’t have to look at them and deal with the consequences.

Self-censorship is so powerful, and we have all learned to do it in one way or another. I can’t say that to her, she’s so sensitive. I can’t ask for that, he’ll explode. I can’t tell them how I really feel, they’ll never understand.

We think we’re keeping the peace, being the good child/friend/insert-your-role-here.

Often we think that the benefit of telling the truth will be dwarfed by the negative consequences of speaking up.

So we learn to fear the truth of our own experiences. We learn that it’s unwise to voice our own views, for fear of judgement, shame and exile.

Eventually, after so much practice of not allowing other people to see our truths, we stop seeing them ourselves.

This is what journalling is for. It’s a place to start filling in what has been redacted. To sound out the unspeakable things and to see all of yourself from every angle.

It’s about reclaiming the boundaries of your own mind, deciding what belongs and with whom you’ll share it. It’s about defining yourself, solely for your own benefit, and deciding what you’re going to do next.