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History of Journaling

The desire to record details of our lives is as old as handwriting itself. Early diaries were mostly kept as public records. The modern diary has its origins in fifteenth-century Italy where diaries were used for accounting. Gradually, the focus of diaries shifted from that of recording public life to reflecting on the private one. Leonardo da Vinci filled 5,000 pages of journals with ideas for inventions and clever observations.

Diary as autobiography, the truly modern diary, began with Samuel Pepys in England in 1660. He recorded details of his life in London, including grand scenes from historic events like the Great Fire of 1666 and more intimate scenes such as quarrels with his wife.

The travel journal has been around since the early Christian pilgrims began traveling to the Holy Land in the first century after Christ. By the late eighteenth century, explorers were traversing the earth and recording their discoveries – explorers such as Captain Cook, Lewis and Clark, and Darwin. In 1845 Henry David Thoreau began recording what would become the classic, Walden, the account of his two-year experiment of “living deliberately” at Walden Pond.

Since the late eighteenth century, writers, artists, and other creatives have used the diary as an integral part of the creative process – writers such as Tolstoy, Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Anais Nin, and Sylvia Plath. Many of these journals were published and are widely read, even to this day. Interestingly, many of these best-sellers were by women writers, for example, poet May Sarton’s Journal of Solitude (1973), a beautiful book about the life of a solitary writer.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have also seen the rise of the war journal, including what is perhaps the most famous diary of all, that of Anne Frank. She and her contemporary, Etty Hillesum, chronicled their lives during WWII. Poet soldiers Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen wrote about their experiences of WWI. Mary Chestnut wrote about the American Civil War.

The therapeutic potential of reflective writing didn’t come into public awareness until the 1960s, when Dr. Ira Progoff, a psychologist in New York City, began offering workshops and classes in the use of what he called the Intensive Journal method. Dr. Progoff had been using a “psychological notebook” with his therapy clients for several years. His Intensive Journal is a three-ring notebook with many color-coded sections for different aspects of the writer’s life exploration and psychological healing. The Progoff method of journal keeping quickly became popular, and today the method has been taught to more than 250,000 people through a network of “journal consultants” trained by Dr. Progoff and his staff.

In 1978, journal writing for personal growth and emotional wellness was introduced to a wider audience through the publication of three books. Dr. Progoff’s At a Journal Workshop detailed his Intensive Journal process and gave instructions on how to set up an Intensive Journal for those who could not attend a journal workshop in person. In 1977 a young writer and teacher from Minneapolis named Christina Baldwin published her first book, One to One: Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing, based on the adult education journal classes she had been teaching. And in Los Angeles, Tristine Rainer published The New Diary (1978), a comprehensive guidebook that for many years was the most complete and accessible source of information on how to use a journal for self-discovery and self-exploration.

In the 1980s many public school systems began formally using journals in English classes and across the curricula as well. These journals, often called “dialogue” or “response” journals, offered a way for students to develop independent thinking skills and gave teachers a method for responding directly to students with individual feedback. Although the intention for classroom journals was educational rather than therapeutic, teachers noticed that a simple assignment to reflect on an academic question or problem often revealed important information about the student’s emotional life. Students often reported feeling a relief of pressure and tension when they could write down troubling events or confusing thoughts or feelings.

After the publication of the Pennebaker studies, the medical and therapeutic communities began taking a closer look at journal writing as a holistic nonmedicinal method for wellness. In 1985, Kathleen Adams, a psychotherapist in Colorado and the founder/director of The Center for Journal Therapy, began teaching journal workshops designed to give the general public tools that could be used for self-discovery, creative expression and life enhancement. Her “journal toolbox” of writing techniques offered a way to match a specific life issue with a specific writing device to address it. Her first book, Journal to the Self: 22 Paths to Personal Growth was published in 1990. Through a network of Certified Instructors, the Journal to the Self workshop is available throughout the United States, Canada and several foreign countries.

And now we have the digital diarist: the blogger, the Facebook user, the Twitter user. We have software programs for keeping a diary in cyberspace. In the twenty-first century, the desire to record the intimate details of our lives has become a public affair. There’s an urge to reveal, rather than conceal in a hidden journal. And yet journal keeping has always had this dichotomy: the desire to express and make visible, the urge to keep secret and hidden.

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