On Writing

Published on October 13th, 2017 | by Leesa Cross-Smith


Paper Hearts: On the Joys of Journaling

This summer, I implemented mandatory quiet journaling time for my kids. Before our children were in school and even still during summer vacations, they’ve always had at least one hour of quiet time daily. I staunchly believe it’s important for them to learn how to entertain themselves, without a glowing screen beeping at them, however gently.

My teenage journal was a sad little maroon hardback dollar store blank book but it had a sweet painting of kittens on it. I wrote about my quicksilver emotionally abusive boyfriend at the time. I was thirteen and fourteen. I am sure a lot of my entries went like this: He didn’t talk to me at school today, left me a message on the answering machine as soon as I got home. He was mad I wasn’t home when he called. He told me no other guy would ever date me. I love him! He’s cute. We’re going to the movies on Friday. I am embarrassed even imagining what I wrote on those pale pink pages but I do wish I still had the journal. When I broke up with the boy, I ripped the pages out and shredded them before throwing the empty casing away. But I wish someone had warned me that one day I would regret losing the record of my younger voice, even if the thought of reading those entries would make me want to puke in shame.

I suggest that my children write about anything they see or a list of three things they love. A list of three things they hate. A list of one hundred things, a mix and match of things they love and hate. They can write letters to their past or future selves. They can write about their favorite foods or the things they really want to do or never want to do. They can write about why they’re angry or happy or sad or confused or freaked out. They can write about what countries they want to visit and why. Their current favorite YouTubers/YouTube videos (See! Journaling is like a vlog but on paper!) or books or songs or their favorite episodes of The Office. Prayers! Wishes! Anything! I tell them keeping a journal is keeping a record—our hearts keeping time and score. I practice what I preach and keep my journal next to my bed, take it with us when we travel, too. On the line where I would write a dollar amount by as a reward if my journal were ever lost, I’ve written my undying love.

I like to say I was born with an acute sense of my mortality. My father is a Southern Baptist preacher and I was raised on sermons about eternity—both sides of it—on a daily basis. I was raised accompanying him to funeral homes, the plasticized corpses, the cloying flowers. Yep, death is totally a thing. So, by all means let’s enjoy this life while we have it! Capture everything and don’t forget everylittlebit about being a human creature. Hey babies! Record these moments, write them down. Play them back when your spirit needs a light lift. Read them again when you want to remember who you were, when you want to remember who you are and what makes you, you. It’s important to figure ourselves out, to go to the chalkboard in the middle of our hearts and work out the long division problem of living inside these bodies with these brains, over and over again. This translates to my children as: your quiet time could best be used as your journal time even if all you write is I CAN’T BELIEVE MOM IS MAKING ME DO THIS a hundred times in glittery purple pen, complete with illustrations.

My son is not an easy journal keeper, so it can be a struggle for him. He’s more of a performance artist, but I encourage him to write things down anyway. My daughter enjoys journaling and she and I have another shared secret journal we pass back and forth and keep from the boys. She leaves it on my nightstand when she’s finished. After my turn, I slip it under her pillow while she’s sleeping.

Before my husband, Loran, and I took our two children (13 and 10) on a two-week road trip out west this summer, I bought them new travel journals, complete with stamp motifs on the front and photographs/drawings of trains and airplanes, passports, palm trees and luggage inside. I warned them that their journaling time would be mandatory and no matter how embarrassing they found whatever they’d written inside, not to rip any pages out. I promised them I wouldn’t read anything in the journals unless they specifically invited me. I told them the same thing billions of parents have told their children about a variety of things all throughout history: someday you will thank me. I encouraged them to save receipts from the gas stations where we bought little state-shaped magnets and to write down the specific rest stops where we left the painted googly-eyed rocks we made specifically for the trip. Little bright chunks of hey life can be fun and surprising look at this orange rock with eyes amidst these regular grey ones! We literally traveled from the redwood forests to the Gulf stream waters over the summer. There was so much to write about. And I kept my promise—I didn’t peek at their journals unless they brought them to me, to show me specific pages or things they’d written. I make it mandatory, but, the journals are theirs, completely.

I had another little journal I got when I worked at The Gap, at the mall, my first job. I threw it away, too. But not before I turned seventeen and wrote about my then-boyfriend, now-husband. I wrote about the boys I didn’t like as much anymore once I realized how much I liked Loran. Loran was an amazing kisser and always called when he said he would. Loran stole flowers from his rich neighbors’ gardens and brought them to me. I wrote about my work schedule and probably about how the manager—who’d hired me and who I’d adored so much—left to work at the Eddie Bauer next to the candy store, across from the new cellphone kiosk. It was 1996. This journal was cuter, trendier, some sort of promo swag I got for working there and standing in the fitting room, putting clothes back on hangers, listening to Bjork and The Wallflowers and Grateful Dead on the tape Gap Inc. sent to us to play on a loop.

In college, one of my best girlfriends, Sarah, and I shared big black art journals and passed them back and forth, filling them with cut-out pictures from glossy magazines and poetry and ticket stubs and stories. We have over fifteen of them. We still have them. Our college hearts, Mod Podged and black-inked and taped together with R.E.M. lyrics and Felicity quotes and lists and love.

When my children’s journals are full—if they need me to—I will hide them until they’re old enough to truly appreciate what they’ve done. They’ve learned to recognize when it’s time to get quiet and keep a little record of this life. To capture the mist, the weird. The whole mess of it. To put it under a jar for later. They’ve learned to open up to themselves, even when they don’t feel like it. And of course, I won’t always be able to send them to their rooms and give them time to write as a rule, but here’s to hoping they’ll make it one of their own—and keep their sweet, inky paper hearts forever and ever.

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About the Author

Leesa Cross-Smith is a homemaker and has been a finalist for both the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Iowa Short Fiction Award. She is the author of Every Kiss A War (Mojave River Press, 2014) and the forthcoming novel Whiskey & Ribbons (Hub City Press, March 2018). She lives and writes in Kentucky.

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