What Use is a Journal?

When I was a teaching assistant in grad school, my adviser showed me an English 101 journal that he was grading, full of a student’s lovesick descriptions of her boyfriend. I think it was that moment that gave me a horror of journals–pointless, purposeless, desperate filling-up of pages, they seemed.

I didn’t understand what a valuable tool a journal could be for a writer until I read “The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination” by John Livingston Lowes, which traces the origins of the entries in one of Coleridge’s journals.

Both a prodigious reader and the possessor of a mind that was constantly shooting off ideas for poems, essays, sermons, and multi-volume works of scholarship, Coleridge was preparing to write “Hymns to the Sun, the Moon, and the Elements,” and he combed library books about exploration of the Arctic, the Antarctic, and the Pacific Ocean and copied into his journal descriptions of the wondrous permutations of water–fog, glowing seas, growling sea ice, and much more.

The hymns were never written, but one morning a friend told him about a horrific dream he’d had during the night, about a ghost ship. This was the seed for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”–and during its writing, the journal was plundered for all the fantastic imagery of the sea.

Now that’s a journal.

Beyond the shadow of the ship
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

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