Thomas Merton & the Art of the Journal
If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while.
If you write only for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead. ~ Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
By the time he reached his fifty-third year, Thomas Merton strove for a purer form of solitude than his monastic life in rural Kentucky provided. He wanted to be a real hermit, instead of the half-hermit he was after being granted permission to live alone in a cinderblock hut within the wooded property of the Abbey of Gethsemani.
With an expansive intellect and insatiable curiosity, the renowned Trappist monk admitted he could gladly give up the business of writing and publishing books. But he could never quit poetry, he said. Nor could he ever abandon his devoted practice of journaling.
Many of the over 50 books Merton penned such as The Sign of Jonas and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander evolved directly from his journals. Merton considered his journals a serious literary practice and discipline, as books-in-the-making. Journals were also his refuge from a world teetering and faltering on the brink of mayhem and disaster. They were the way he privately worked out his thoughts to gain more than a wobbly foothold on his ideas and impressions.
His literary wanderings covered an incredibly wide range of subjects and concerns of the day from the anxiety over nuclear proliferation and encroaching technology, to Zen Buddhism and circling hawks.
He used journaling to relieve inner conflicts and tensions. Or perhaps, all the decades of journaling compounded the daily pressures he felt to remain prolific, and to stay tuned in to his fellow writers and poets.
Journal writing stripped away pretentiousness. It also gave him a vehicle to discover his unfiltered narrative voice, the organic, raw, lyrical, and poetic voice that was truest—and to steer clear of inaccessible, turgid prose.
Overly-polished prose—prose that is too buttoned up, dry, and succinct to the point of being dull, the tonally cool and aloof academese—just wasn’t his style or cadence. Through such valuable writing practice that regular journaling afforded him, he found the voice that didn’t at all sound like writing.
Pen in hand, spontaneously writing in the infirmary (he was a frequent visitor) or near a crackling fire, he didn’t need to impress any hierarchies with his erudition. He could ignore the pushy and intrusive self-editor when freewriting. He didn’t need to finish anything in his journals. Shards of thought, random mosaics of this-and-that spilled across the pages without apparent purpose or pattern.
I, too, have filled my share of journals—over 50 of them, to date—but I didn’t begin this as a discipline until the year 2000, shortly before I began my traditional, three-year MFA program in nonfiction.
Merton diligently kept journals almost all his adult life. He was primarily an autobiographical writer, but through intensive journaling, he trained himself to see and record more deeply the details of life and nature around him. The journals were never about him, per se, they were a way to capture the milieu of the times, to be a witness, to record a mind awake in the dark. Or to stream the story of a modern-day conscience.
I owned few material possessions when I arrived in Alaska in 1978 beyond a camera and a few books. While preparing for my northern sojourn, I splurged to buy my first pair of heavy, all-leather hiking boots and climatically incorrect clothes for Alaska. More importantly, I packed the one hard-bound journal I had—the first I hoped to fill.
I began it the year before, in 1977, with notes scratched from Burwell, England. I was there for an indeterminate amount of time to visit my younger brother, Richy, who was based with the U.S. Air Force at Mendenhall. Richy paid my way across the Atlantic from Florida. Though this was my inaugural trip overseas, I fancied myself a carefree global adventurer, same as Merton did in his youth.
Enamored with Herman Hesse, I copied this memorable quote from Hesse on the pages of that journal:
“A profound desire to travel is no different and no less poignant than the dangerous yearning to think without fear, to turn the world on its head, and to obtain answers from all things, persons, and events. It cannot be appeased by plans or books; travel means more and costs more, and we must put our heart’s blood into it.”
I had the heart for it. I was ready to go and planned to see as much of the world as possible, maybe become a freelance journalist. At first, I thought of that journal as mainly a travel log. Nothing of great literary importance. A place to dump facts, figures, superficial details, historical happenings, dates, and place names. Diaries, on the other hand, were for love-sick adolescent girls who liked to write with lots of curly-cues in purple ink.
I wasn’t a doodler and can’t remember writing any laments about forlorn loves. After an excursion with Richy to see the mysterious stone pilings of Stonehenge, I pulled out the journal and scribbled a few more pages. It’s funny now to see that most of my entries were written in second-person, as in: “You are gazing up at the shapes, marveling about its existence when a peculiar feeling hits you.”
A fledgling writer, I was timid and hiding somewhere. I didn’t know enough about the “I” to even recognize that the real “I” was non-existent on those early pages. Who was that person? The “I” lurked somewhere in the rubble of her mistaken identities. She begged to be made visible, to come out from under it all and be set free, but I had a long way to go and too much to learn.
I arrived in Alaska carrying the same half-filled journal. I wrote how pointless it was to try and describe the sovereign power of Alaska’s mountains.
I wrote volumes upon volumes of throwaway lines.
I recorded old Russian sayings like this one: “Never pronounce that you will always escape poverty and prison.”
Every now and then, I attempted poetry, most of it not worth reading again: “In December / on the plot of land where my garden grew / the solstice night digs in / I smile to remember / once did I paint / the color of the wind.” I wrote one poem imitating Robert Service.
I journaled erratically, half-heartedly, more like an occasional note-taker, and years passed, and the kids grew up, and I took to journaling more and more, though I was never as driven about it as Merton.
I liked to hear those stories about mountaineers stuck in their tents at base camp for days on end during raging snow storms and howling, dangerous winds often wrote in their notebooks to kill time. It always surprised me to talk to writers who claimed they didn’t journal.
I didn’t start taking journaling more seriously until around 2000, right before I started my traditional MFA program.
Much of my forthcoming book, We Are All Poets Here, which partially tells the story about Thomas Merton’s 1968 trek to Alaska, and which covers his Alaska journal and itinerary, grew from the pages of my journals. And most of my published essays have evolved the same way—from journal bits and notes.
Once I discovered Merton, I made journal entries in response to Merton’s journal entries. I wrote reactions to his works. I recorded the details about my book’s highs and lows. I wrote about my meandering, haphazard spiritual journey. And no matter where I went, I took along a notebook with the caveat that I wouldn’t allow myself the luxury of choosing a new one until the “old” one was completed.
Merton became a famous man in 1948 with the onslaught of success his spiritual autobiography stirred in the reading public. Other bestsellers followed lock-step. Merton might have had a premonition that the precious volumes of his personal journals dating back to the early 1930s betokened historical significance.
Yet, according to his explicit wishes stated in his will, he strictly forbade his journals be made public until 25 years after his death. They were edited and cleaned-up and made more “publishable” for general readers and the most damaging or titillating details—whatever negative comments he might have said about his fellow monks or the too-conservative Catholic Church—were removed.
Merton’s Alaska journal was, in fact, different than all the rest as Merton died before he ever had the chance to edit any of it.
As a naturally gifted and widely published author, Merton did not view his personal journals as a way to further illustrate his verbal virtuosity. Of course, the future readers of those journals, such as myself, turned to them for their brilliancy, passionate insights, and yes, for their literary firepower.
Each journal was a highly creative act. He was most himself, the genuine Thomas Merton, expressing the very core of who he was, when he pulled out his journal, forgot all about himself, and engaged his mind in wherever it wanted to take him.
Over time, I learned to think about my journal this way, too, as a place to make straight forward observations in whatever I saw around me. And to be on the lookout for the exacting, telling, intimate details, as well. That’s a standard reason many writers do journal.
But from Merton, I learned that a journal can also connect you to a spiritual realm when you least expect it. There are moments when I’ve been alone in silence, lost in a timeless space journaling, that I’ve felt in touch with a deeper reality.
Merton was a great humanist who journaled tenaciously not out of self-love, to edify himself or his celebrity. He didn’t do it to merely hone his literary skills.
He journaled out of love. Love for the world and for God. He often relied on personal writing to help him with his inner transformation. I finally learned something about that.
Kathleen W. Tarr is the author of the forthcoming We Are All Poets Here (VP&D House), a blend of memoir and biography, a story about the struggle for spiritual clarity in confusing, chaotic times that involves Alaska, Russia, and Thomas Merton. In 2016, Kathleen was named a William Shannon Fellow by the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS) and was a Mullin Scholar at USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies (2011-2013). She is a contributor to the international anthology honoring Merton’s legacy and centenary, We Are Already One, (1915-2015) Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope (Fons Vitae Press). Her work has also appeared in the Sewanee Review, Cirque, Creative Nonfiction, and Tri-Quarterly, and will soon be anthologized in Merton and World Indigenous Wisdom (2018). For five years, Kathleen served as the program coordinator for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Low-Residency MFA Program in creative writing. She lives and writes in Anchorage and occasionally teaches for 49 Writers.