Drawing
from Life

Dan Eldon:
The Art of Life

Drawing from Life

Visual journals are created in a secret language of symbols. Intentional or not, they are private maps only their makers can follow. No one else can look at a page and understand the specific meaning of a punching bag or a set of arrows. And no one else can remember the moment of its making. Joni Mitchell blaring on the stereo. Sage wafting in a hidden garden. The discomforting echo of last night’s argument.

That said, visual journals may provide stronger records of the cultural milieu in which they were created than their purely written counterparts. Rather than describing the stuff of the day, they’re often made from it. I first encountered the power of personal artifacts from research I did in graduate school about Josephine Herbst, a writer of the 1930s. Reading her letters, housed in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale, I was delighted when a recipe for sticky buns or a note written on a bar coaster fell from a yellowed envelope. There was a much-folded newspaper clipping about the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and many letters from one fellow author on hotel stationery with a blocky masthead typical of the era.

Like Van Gogh’s masterfully illustrated letters to his brother Theo, which bring to life so many aspects of the artist’s daily existence and creative process, as much from the drawings as from the prose, Herbst’s letters shed light on her life in a way no purely written record could. They immersed me in the sensual life of a woman who resided in rural Pennsylvania in the first part of the twentieth century. They allowed me to envision hollyhocks growing outside the window where she typed and to smell bread in the oven.

What is a journal? Herbst’s letters were certainly journal-like, and several people told me their journals had been supplanted by email. One man who keeps dream journals on individual sheets of paper, some of them poster-size, argued convincingly that his work constitutes a journal, as did another who keeps computer spreadsheets of his daily activities. When I asked people for definitions, the responses were varied and metaphoric: A habit. A map of consciousness. Internal maps. A security blanket. Memory banks. A one-stop shop. One man who keeps a variety of journals—large ones for recording things of interest from the newspaper, tiny ones that operate as to-do lists, medium ones kept by the telephone for doodling—asked, “Doesn’t everyone keep a journal?” Meaning, whether we call it journal or not, don’t we all keep something that serves its purpose?

If we work with the broadest possible definition of a journal—a place where we record personal reflections, observations of our world, playful meanderings, and plans—then date books, notebooks, sketchbooks, wall calendars, letters, and address books can all serve as journals. As Alexandra Johnson writes in Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal, “A journal is as much an intention to record and save as it is a physical form.”

Journal is the widest term, encompassing diary, sketchbook, and notebook. In his exploration of written journals, A Book of One’s Own, Thomas Mallon writes of the difference between journal and diary: “The two terms are in fact hopelessly muddled. They’re both rooted in the idea of dailiness, but perhaps because of journal’s links to the newspaper trade and diary’s to dear, the latter seems more intimate than the former.” He goes on to cite Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary which defines diary as “an account of the transactions, accidents and observations of every day; a journal.”

Author and cartoonist Lynda Barry refers to the writing and illustrations she does on loose, yellow legal pages as a journal, though she still pines for the diaries she saw as a kid at Woolworth’s. She hopes she might yet complete one of the three-sentence-a-day diaries and has two in her collection that she can’t bear to write in. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that looked as good to me as those tiny keys hanging on a string from the latch,” she says. “I still get giddy when I see diaries. There is something so hopeful about them. Diaries assume there will be a future.”

Because of its largeness of purpose, a journal can include anything and the kitchen sink. Serving as a collection point for life’s contradictions, moments of intense feeling, and factoids that compel but seem without obvious use is one of the journal’s greatest virtues. In From The Writer’s Journal: 40 Contemporary Writers and Their Journals by Sheila Bender, Naomi Shihab Nye remarks, “I’ve heard someone say that notebooks are the kitchen drawers into which we place all the little  scraps of things—bits of string, ragged recipes, nails and screws, half-used birthday candles, coupons. Where is it? Oh, it must be in there. Where else could it be?” Or as illustrator John Clapp said of his journals, they “are a collection of things I’m curious about, like the Smithsonian: ‘the attic of mankind.’”

In this way, journals serve as file folders for future works. Although Didion pooh-poohed the notion of using the journal as a savings account on which one can draw later with interest it’s clear that many artists do use their journals in this manner. Photographer Robert ParkeHarrison relies on his journal during every step of the creative process and values it above most of his professional tools because it contains so may unused ideas. “The journal is like the residue that goes into the making of a final thing,” he comments. In the earliest stages of brainstorming, he tapes in photocopies and magazine advertisements and writes in lines of poetry and descriptions of film scenes. These items that resonate for him may never go further than the journal, while others become the foundation for his photographic narratives.

Scientist Erwin Boer fills a few notebooks a year (notebook, lab book, and field book are the terms of choice in the scientific community, though none of the scientists I interviewed balked at the term journal). Like ParkeHarrison, they’re very dear to him as repositories of ideas. He does not return to them as often as the photographer, however, conceding that while the journals contain many publishable ideas, he rarely pursues them because after he’s played with a thought it no longer holds fascination for him.

Which touches on another use of the journal: they’re a place to play, a safe haven away from our embedded editor. We vent and brainstorm and try on different guises in our journals. They’re seldom read by others—unless we invite someone in or our trust is broken. In them, we’re released from the obligation to create polished work or play nice. Architect Anderson Kenny says that when he first began to keep a journal he found it liberating: “I was free between the pages.”

Not surprisingly, several contributors talked about their journals as a meditative process.  Kenny said, “I work in my journal every day. If I don't, I feel a void. It’s like a prayer or meditation.” Renato Umali finds the process of reviewing his day via his journal meditative and grounding, a connection to self that he might otherwise lose. Several contributors are students of Buddhism who commented on the similar attention to detail necessitated both by meditation and journal keeping. As Hinchman has written, “Buddhists and practitioners of yoga have made it their goal to get past the needlings of nervous energy to a deeper layer of stillness.”

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