A perspective on journaling from Penn Jillette

Writing in a journal is an intimate act, and there are many different ways to do it.

We’ve discussed before how I have come to do it, and recently I learned another way from an interview with the world famous Penn Jillette, of the magic act Penn & Teller.

Jillette tells of beginning to write 34 years ago, and having hardly missed a day since. He spends about 20-30 minutes and speculates that he likely writes between 500-1000 words.

He begins each entry with the date, the time, and where he is, and then proceeds to chronicle the preceding 24 hours of his life.

Jillette documents where he was, what he did, and, critically, conversations he had with others.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound very exciting, and in fact I was initially surprised to learn that his daily writing was not somehow more creative.

And yet there are specific and beneficial outcomes to his daily writing.

First: it helps him to process what happened in the preceding day, which naturally influences what will happen in the coming day. He used an example of writing about how a joke didn’t work in a show and they needed to get a better prop. So correcting that issue will later flow naturally into his to-do list for the day.

Second: it’s a record-keeping tool. And here’s where the long-term, cumulative benefit hit me like an anvil – since he’s been doing it so long, he now looks back (daily!) at this day of the year 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and 1 year ago. Can you imagine?! He’s now able to connect where he was in the past to where he is today (and presumably, to where he will be in the future.)

He gave a striking example of the power of documenting patterns over time, when he remarked that if he was seeing a romantic partner, and he looked back at a journal entry from one year prior and saw that they were having the same problem that they were having today, he would know to end the relationship.

In other words, that record of conversations, feelings, joys and challenges helped him to chart progress over time. Or, as in the preceding example, identify a stuck-point and think critically about what action would be required to get un-stuck.

I’m so grateful to have heard this conversation right now, one year into my morning-pages experience. What I’m realizing is that the prospect of creating a record whose history will go back farther and farther with time gives me exactly the motivation I require to not miss a day.

Right now I’m only able to look back at this day one year ago. And yet eventually I’ll add two years, three years, five years, a decade.

How exciting is that?

Of course the only issue for me is that I write my journal by hand. (Jillette types his on his computer.) So it will be a little more involved for me to past journals organized for continually referring back. It can be done though.

What about you?

Do you have old journals?

And if so, do you go back and review them periodically?

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