Journal Keeping

date: 2016-06-15
revised: 2017-09-13
belief: possible
status: finished

This is a meditation on my own writing, during a trip through Scotland, then at a WWOOF farm in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. I consider how I kept a journal, then I share writing samples.

one application
upon worked garden soil:
to nap through an hour.

stochastic rain
monograms closed eyelids,
skull cupped in dirt.


I define a writing practice where journal keeping and empirical observation are interwoven. To begin, let’s consider empirical observation as the action of noting experience, generally with pen and paper. For example, wandering around and collecting flower blooms is not empirical observation, but noticing their leaf form, bloom structure, and petal size (to jot down on a scrap of paper) is indeed.

I insist the action of empirical observation produces some record - a scribbled note or a half-constructed sentence. These records describe experiences in terms of physical observables and these observables’ relative changes in space and time. Watching the fluctuations of sunlight through a window is an experience in time, grasping the contour of a porcelain coffee mug is an experience in space. These become empirical observations once their qualities and characteristics are registered in language.

Let’s consider journal keeping as the action of appending daily entries to a special document. For example, a child who writes every evening in a bright pink notebook at his tiny desk is keeping a journal, but a woman who frequently updates her desktop index-box of phone numbers is not. We differentiate journal keeping from many other forms of writing by maintaining that a journal is kept only if it is written in every day.1

Topics vary - perhaps entry carries forth a fantastic discussion with a dead relative, where another is concerned with the ingredients required for beef broth soup. I feel I ought to commit about an hour of each day to writing if my journal is to be honestly “kept.” In this way, journal keeping is inextricably performed in a day-night cycle. A journal can harmonize with circadian rhythms, integrate with meals, and usefully reflect dreams.

I have now loosely defined two actions: empirical observation and journal keeping. What remains to do is (i) explain how empirical observation is useful in journal keeping, (ii) explain how journal keeping is useful in empirical observation, and (iii) explain how the two can be deliberately combined.

(i) What’s the role of empirical observation in journal keeping? In overview: to detail experience; to locate the written word; to ground writing in context.

Empirical observation concretizes. Francis Bacon ostended “for the wit and mind of man, if it work upon the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff and is limited thereby.”2 Keeping my mind to “stuff” has proven to be a creative limitation. When I write with an emphasis on empirical observations, I connect vocabulary firmly to the Umwelt. My words then are joined as fibers in thick cloth.

By the end of the 16th century, English natural philosophers had crept to a similar understanding. Bacon warned: “if the mind and wit of man work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit.” 3 Thought without immediate referents is weak and uprooted. It follows that empirical observation, in forcing thought to referent yields a strong, vibrant vocabulary for both recognition and description.

Empirical observation is attention registered. A baby step. Conversely, empirical observation forces an attention that fleshes out framework. Indeed, the scientific process is dependent on the non-interpretive attentiveness of empirical observation: “We can…only augur well for the sciences, when the ascent shall proceed by a true scale and successive steps, without interruption or breach, from particulars.” 4

(ii) I can also characterize the role of journal keeping in empirical observation. In overview: To create a chronology; to reveal biases; to surround empirics in mental context. When I noticed… I was thinking? When I recognized… my mood was?

The “empiricist” ought to beware of coexistent motives. For example, a landworker’s vision of pasture is affected by what she believes is good for her sheep: poisonous flowers? easy to fence? accessible? Here are dangerous motives: the desire to be complete or to be consistent. Without a comfortable relationship with incompleteness or inconsistency, my empirical work suffers from distortions that attempt to present the world as both complete and consistent. Fortunately, a journal’s tone carries - I hear corruption upon reading.

A journal builds tolerance. How can I become familar with inconsistency? By confronting my own writing when it expresses a view of the world that is foreign to me. How can I learn to accept incompleteness? By grappling, in just a few pages, with a day’s worth of experience.

Another exemplary benefit of keeping a journal: it can become a container of irrelevant, yet interrupting, notanda. For example, writing down a phone number saves me from holding a string of 10 digits in my memory. Similarly, writing down a goal saves me from worrying that I will forget it. Both are somewhat irrelevant at present, but useful (likely) in the future. So a journal compiles floating, perhaps highly interpretive, reactions along with substantial and digested observations: a log of empirics and their complements.

I apply a few general rules. First, I strive for authenticity. In this way, I may roam between journal keeping and empirical observation. Both are honest representations of experience, despite the fact that journal keeping may be more figurative/grotesque/hyperbolic than empirical observation.

Second, in figurative statements, ‘I’ (or an extension of my self) am the subject, direct object, or indirect object: “I notice…the rain comes unto my arm.”

Third, it is useful to differentiate between verbs: to feel, to think, to encounter, to observe. When do certain verbs signify empirics and other verbs signify figurative experience?

Fourth, to flag empirical observations, I estimate measurements.

Fifth, I focus on local conditions: what is my relation to my surroundings? what is unique about this place?

Further, I propose is that the two (empirical observation and journal keeping) are left in feedback loops. To start with empirical observation:

On the other hand, to start with journal keeping:

The writing practice I have just described is not unique. But for me, it is just the right balance of inner and outer observation. As for a name, legibility is best: I will call this practice journal keeping with a emphasis on empirical observation. I define this practice so that I may explain to others how I write, as well as to encourage others to lean into their own style of writing.

Writing Samples

Jonah and I find
blushing granite, K-spar pink
later, crack black rocks.

empty bubbles in the oozing pluton, 
catching silicate dust. 
Branching atoms hook and jag
    covalent tetrahedrons.

Talisker Distillery

Weary from the tour of Talisker Distillery (on the north west of Skye) and slouched — about to sleep — BBC Radio One announces a panel of three scientists: poised to discuss anthropological understandings of climate change. I believe the three gathered were (i) a nature journalist, Gaea Vince, (ii) a mathematician, and (iii) a professor of “social perceptions of science”5 Various methods to “know” climates were presented, defended, and analyzed.

Vince described a world in which humans were actively participant in their climate / geology. The mathematician detailed the distinctions between the “known” and “unknown” in climate models. The professor listed and commented on the viability of the “enfranchising the public” in scientific discourse.

The van jerked and rolled down A863, past Sligachan (north of the Cuillin Hills) and onto A87. Aspects of chaos theory were unveiled, complicated and then re-presented: the Naiver-Stokes equation models ocean and atmospheric fluid currents, yet its solution is non-analytic in all but the most simple cases. Here’s complex geometry: plate tectonics; bodies of melt water resting upon the plates; thick curtains of nitrogen and oxygen that ceaselessly rotate about the loosely spherical earth conglomerate — mountains, plains, ice sheets, deserts.

I lean into the right window of the van: Loch Sligachan eases blue-by on my left. Jaime pulls the wheel and the van turns south — towards Loch Ainort. The program continues, radio crackling. Interference from ferromagnetic lava flows, cooled to equilibrium some 60 million years ago.

Deciphering the curling segments of 94.7 MHz electromagnetic radiation, the receiver sputters out a kiddo’s question to the panel: “how long will humans live in the future? how will their lifespans affect human impacts on the environment?” The professor, cheerily answers, “you, dear, may live to the year 2100. The only pessimistic question is in what physical condition you will be in at the age.” The audience chuckles.

I palm the seat with two hands and straighten my posture, Loch Ainort breathes into the heavy clouded expanse — suddenly visible. Another question, deftly fielded by the BBC host, is passed to the mathematician: “Given that the rate of computational processes — even the rate of the rate — is increasing, how will humans utilize technology to ‘buffet out’ the limiting boundaries of the ‘known’ and explore the regions of the chaotic ‘unknown?’” The mathematician replies…something to do with the singularity…the point in time which artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence…“and its affects on climate change?”

Cutting north then south again, staring at Mallach Carn on Scalpag, I rest my backpack on my stomach, cross my arms, and lay my chin upon my hands — “and we’ve seen Poincaré’s conjecture and Fermat’s last theorem proven” — into the south again, along the Kyle — “so the disciple promises much.”

I am nearly asleep, the van gently humming. With time for one more question, Gaea Vince yields a final response: “speaking to human’s creative ingenuity, their local efforts to cool the planet… increasing the albedo… fruit grows in southern Spain reflecting the heat… panels on roofs… examples of humanity’s ability to evolve culturally to their climate.” Applause, the program ends, I sleep.

like lambs’ fleece thins to
blinked open glassy eyes
snow melts around cairns.


I am leaning back on a lichen covered tree stump. I am covering this journal with my polyester vest to prevent the light rain from wetting and metastasizing this ink. I am writing through the arm hole. There is a fence, of fresh pine lumber, crossing in front of me, preventing me from wandering up the hill. That hill extends, rough with dirty heather, shortly above the green canopies of loosely clustered deciduous trees. The rest of this journal entry will largely be dedicated to representing, without knowing its proper taxonomy, that particular species of tree.

A gross, crooked tree. Bark flaking into local patches of lichen like pale green bones. 40 feet tall, lichen carpeting its trunk and then onto 14 auxiliary branches; the first branch splits off at the height of my head, followed by a succession of branches at three foot intervals. The leaves are far from the trunks of these trees, as with Aspens. In fact, these trees, in their clustering and trunk-canopy geometry, resemble a deformed, warted cousin of the Rocky Mountain Aspen. The diameter at their canopies ranges from an austere 8 feet to a generous 30. The canopy begins, on average, to blossom out from the trunk at 6 feet, just to high for me to take a bite of the lowest leaves. The diameter of the base of each trunk ranges from 8 to 24 inches, though the mean appears to be a gratuitous foot. A great two thirds of these trees begin to slightly torque out of vertical alignment every yard up from the base. Knotty elbows leading into tiny oscillations from the apex to the periphery, with every leaf the endpoint of a jagged and writhing path 20 feet into the sky.

Trunks and branches seem wet, ashy skeletons. Or damp marrow. The leaves are low chlorophyll clouds against the dusk. Another way to picture the leaves would be to construct them by iteration of fans. After, say 5 kinks in any auxiliary branch, little twig fans open out to a tight spread of some 30 fingernail sized leaves. But here, there are anomalies unaccounted for: vestiges of 3 or 5 or 8 leaves delicately clasped to the main trunk at merely a yard off the ground. An impressionistic rendering would disregard the quantity of leaves all together, wrapping detail into tones: light linens in shadow, encumbered by sporadic intrusions of convalescent blacks and blue greys.


I am in the open lawn of a park in Braemar; a rectangle, ridged on three sides by sandstone-hewn buildings: a pub, a hotel, a church — each of them appearing to have fallen into disuse. Yet, on second inspection, each structure seems to be well kept: white curtains hanging inside the clean windows of the hotel’s guest rooms, healthy potted plants surrounding the church, light turned on in one wing of the pub. Perhaps I am noticing the creeping dandelions and the sprigs of some seed resembling dill and a peculiar sapling tree with fat pointed leaves. Next to me, centered in the park, rises a Neoclassical monument to some Elizabeth Louisa Oswald. The monument now is squatting—a gray concrete tower, buttressed by dirty maroon sandstone blocks, symmetric by quarter rotation (save the crouching panther on its summit). Smoke drifts from the forth side of the park; this direction is bordered by a slumped hedge, some low, thick bushes, and a basement of nettle. Perhaps it’s not nettle. I am hungry, and my hunger rebounds against the odor of fire and imagined camaraderie.

sandstone lion’s jaw gapes
emblematic eyes roll slack
chiseled with cold hands

Ceilidh Place

I am presently (to my great joy) sitting in the lobby proper of the Ceilidh Place and surrounded by green striped walls, wood for a fire, a fine sapphire, crimson and burnt orange rug, not to mention various portraits (all of them presumable Victorian and early Edwardian). Best of all, I have found a scarf that is hollow down the inside and therefore doubles as a long cap, slinking around my neck in solid black dyed wool and cuffed with floral golds, a silly teal, and sundry green and blue accents. Then, I see upon the wall, above the fireplace, in cross-stitched letters:

From rising to sleeping,
spinning and weaving,
words in a garment,
loose round my life,
talking and singing,
eating and meeting,
such is the Ceilidh,
the joy of my life.


My written work is like a second self. If I want to return to some open ended question in my life, I need only to read that which I have earlier written. If I have honestly and diligently worked to record my phenomenal vision, then my experience reading might closely resemble my experience writing. This vision becomes a second vision of myself. Then there are two lines connecting me to the past: the first my biological organism, the second the collection of my writings. This connection meets in the present moment of reading, where I may freely compare my memory of the experience to my written representation of the experience. Memory follows a neural network and written work follows a linguistic network, yet both are integral to my conscious experience of self.

It is arguably the case that encountering two images of self is a form of power. This double exposure is powerful because I am twice informed of my past state of being. I become fluid and refracted, breaking apart like a river and reconnecting. The joy of this power is in choosing which representation of self is most valid. Indeed, this also opens up space for self-conflict; my memory of an experience may differ from my written record of that same experience — how? what gives?

The past becomes a place that is accessible, intimately connected to the present. In journal keeping, I participate in my own continuous history. Empirical observations interspersed in my journal guarantee that the symbolic meaning of certain words have not been overwritten in time. For example, my own understanding of the phrase “light footed” is likely to change over time; my understanding of the phrase “easily able to find traction on thirty five to forty degree Gabbro slopes” is not.6 In moments of either hum-drum or superlative experience, by writing what I observe in the world and in my self, I keep two memories. One traces through my biological organism; the other traces through the symbolic script of my writing.

  1. This restriction follows naturally from the Latin root of journal, which is diurnālis, meaning of the day. 

  2. Francis Bacon, “Advancement of Learning,” ed. Mortimer J. Alder (William Benton, 1952), I. vi. 5. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Francis Bacon, “Novum Organum,” ed. Mortimer J. Alder (William Benton, 1952), I. 104. 

  5. Probably a historian, now that I think about it. 

  6. This connection to the past also staves off dangerous nostalgia, described by Milan Kundera: “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” A journal with empirical observations holds fast against this dissolution: the writer is somehow closer to the past than if otherwise. See “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, trans. Michael Henry Heim, (HarperCollins, 2008), Part 1, Ch. 1, Para. 7