Road to Elsewhere, Excerpt #4: The Birth of a Journal

Six million words and counting. Take that, Winston Churchill.

On Fridays I run excerpts from The Road to Elsewhere, my coming-of-age-travel-memoir-with-funny-drawings. (You can find the first entry here.) It tells the story of my road through Paris, London, and Zagreb, in search of the ultimate destination: a life worth living.

“EARLY IN LIFE, AT THE AGE OF FIFTEEN” wrote Anthony Trollope, the inventor of the novel, “I had commenced the dangerous habit of keeping a journal, and this I maintained for ten years. The volumes remained in my possession unregarded…till 1870, when I examined them and with many blushes destroyed them. They convinced me of folly, ignorance, indiscretion, idleness, extravagance, and conceit, but they had habituated me to the rapid use of pen and ink and taught me how to express myself with facility.”

No such luck, with me and that destruction bit, at least.

All seventy volumes of my daily journal (15,653 days, six million words, and counting) trail behind me, an increasingly long tail wagging a long-tooth dog. I’m not going to include all six million words here. But they do give me the chance to tour my squawking emergence into adulthood, as post-graduate-me experienced Paris and the Continent. At times it’s an awkward journey to look back on. But it’s also an opportunity to slip into the sensitive skin I was wearing at the time, and see how it fits the man I would become.

William Wordsworth originated the idea that the child is the father of the man. English major that I was when I wandered to Europe after college graduation, I knew the poem it issued from: My Heart Leaps Up. My journal is the record of that man’s first steps. And missteps. And drunken stumbles. And now I mean to walk in those L.L. Bean boots again.

In his eight volumes of autobiography, Winston Churchill wrote a mere three million words. Half my output! “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall…” Blah blah blah. Saving England and winning World War Two were his subjects, after all, so he had it easy, contentwise.

How much more of a challenge to nurture my own sprouting, leafing, fruiting, and frost kills, into a six-million word grapevine? And as Churchill also wrote, “It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.”

And so have I grasped it, Winston, link by link. And even, as suggested by Anne Lamott, bird by bird.. Much obliged to both of you.

If I could have imagined that four-decade rampage of words on that night in October, 1978, it might have frozen my fountain pen in its tracks. I was imagining a literary career for myself, and I have had one. But until now, it has been for an audience of one.

My early journals are mired in literary preening and tedious philosophizing. I imagined Thomas Mann and I were climbing The Magic Mountain together. (My other seminal influence: The Little Rascals. Which balanced things.) So cogito ergo sum runs on and on in those pages, because I hadn’t yet fully appreciated the wisdom of point number three, above (i.e. too much focus on writing for its own sake). Life was and is the point, and writing about it every day is my most significant sacrament: the holy business of noticing.

My fellow Parisian Simone Weil wrote that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

Once a day, for 15,000 days, I have prayed devotedly. Also, shallowly, profanely, and selfishly. And drunkenly, as noted. Sometimes it’s just a few sentences. Sometimes I run on for pages. But I don’t sleep until the writing is done. More than once, I’ve awakened with a start when I realized that I hadn’t yet put pen to journal.

I’ve interrupted foreplay to write in my journal. As a childbirth bystander, I recorded each of my wife’s pushes, moans, and gushes. I made an entry on the high shoulder of the Grand Teton hours before a summit attempt. And I detailed the passing of both parents before their bodies had cooled on the coroners’ metal tables. My wife brought my journal (and my sons) to me four hours after a left-anterior descending blockage nearly killed me, and I completed my entry while a 300-pound Samoan woman pressed on my groin, to keep me from bleeding out through the angioplasty puncture. I have made dozens of entries while seriously drunk, and after a recent move to Colorado, under the influence of l. Cannabis sativa.

Tonight I will write again.

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