10 secret themes in lifewriting

In her book Leaving a Trace, Alexandra Johnson poses the theory that our journals contain ten categories of life patterns, which correspond to ways we engage or withdraw in life:  longing, fear, mastery, intentional silences, key influences, hidden lessons, secret gifts, challenges, unfinished business, untapped potential.

This idea sent me back to my many journals to see if these categories were evident and encompassing, and I dare say they are.  I often write a keyword at the top of a journal entry, such as “dream” or “health” or “family” and now I have “mastery” and “secret gift” and “fear” laced in.  This is such an illuminating process, I’m looking forward to doing more sifting, sorting, and color coding.  I agree with Johnson that “no matter how raw or incomplete, journals are full of patterns.”  Even my lists and accounts of dates and events show patterns of challenges, unfinished business, and untapped potential.

Johnson also writes, “Journals are databases of decision making. Each of the ten categories corresponds to a way we act directly or hold back in life. … [There are many] moments that signal a click in consciousness. If journals are often begun to record seismic shifts in a life, they also contain subtler patterns indicating when a shift is about to happen. … look for tension points: moments when two consciousnesses – one old, one new – first compete. When we realize ways of being are under new consideration.”

She presents many examples that help illustrate these ten categories in life writing, such as Joan Didion losing, after not making Phi Beta Kappa in college, the ‘pleasant certainty’ that the virtues which had won her favor in childhood would continue to guarantee approval; or the insights discovered years after a harrowing homeless period experienced by a Philadelphia woman; and a surgeon’s record of fear and mastery in her account of her first operation on an eight-year-old-girl who’d been hit by a truck.

So now, on this misty, damp Seattle morning, I’m off to code more journal entries, especially those that are the basis of some of my flash stories. Ironically, the underlying theme of a story is often difficult for an author to articulate. These may give me a jump on some of my readers.

If these categories spark interest for you too, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Here are more journaling topics you might enjoy.

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Categories: journaling, reference tools

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