Creating a legacy: Why now is a great time to start journaling

Creating a legacy: Why now is a great time to start journaling

“This has never happened before here, at least not since 1918,” said the writer George Saunders in a recent letter to his students. “We are, and especially you are, the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this.”

Obviously, George was talking about the current pandemic. He was encouraging his students to pay attention, and to take notes — not necessarily to make them better writers, but so they would have a record, down the line, of what happened during this crisis and what it felt like. But this advice doesn’t only apply to writers. For anyone that has ever toyed with the idea of keeping a journal, now is the time to begin.  

Imagine how valuable it would be to be able to revisit this moment in history in 10 or 30 or 50 years — not the newspaper articles or the podcasts, but your own personal record. It would be coloured by thoughts and feelings and details unique to you. The moments of kindness shown by friends and neighbours. The strangeness of navigating new ways of communicating. The things that brought you joy or solace amid the struggle. 

Franz Kafka, who was a committed journaller, once wrote that “In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations.” 

The COVID-19 crisis probably won’t turn out to be a “highlight” of your life in the strictly positive sense, but it will stand out as a once-in-a-lifetime event. When your children or grandchildren ask what it was like to live through a pandemic, you’ll be able to draw on direct evidence, rather than the bits and pieces that remain in your memory. 

In the meantime, keeping a diary can help you process the strange new world we’re living in. And it turns out there are other health benefits to journaling: University of Texas psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker tells us that journalling helps strengthen our immune cells, while other researchers have found that the practice can reduce stress levels and the symptoms of autoimmune illnesses like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.  

So, how does one go about beginning a journal? The first thing to know is that there are no rules, although you might like to choose a certain time of day to sit and write so that it becomes a habit. It helps to write freely, without worrying about spelling or grammar. Some journalers write in a stream-of-consciousness where all thoughts and feelings are recorded; others prefer to record details of conversations, historic events or ordinary moments they observe while moving through the world. 

If you’re in need of inspiration, countless well-known writers have published their diaries — from Virginia Woolf to Kafka; Anais Nin to David Sedaris (remember, these works have been written by professionals, and also edited). Australian Helen Garner’s recently-published diary, Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1 1978-1987, which is a patchwork quilt of news events and the writer’s relationships, conversations, dreams and more, is a great place to start. 

Remember, your journal doesn’t need to be a masterpiece — in fact, it isn’t meant to be. Write for the simple pleasure of writing, and for your future self, and as a gift to generations to come. It’s never too early to begin writing your story. 

“It’s all-important,” writes George Saunders. “Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened… What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this, and what you are able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you’re paying now, and what records you keep.” 

By journaling, you’ll have created a “capsule” of your experience — a legacy to pass on to future generations.