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Dear Diary: The radically feminist creative journalling practice that nobody talks about

This article was originally published here.

Even the Prime Minister cannot interfere with the baby’s bedtime. I pace in a darkened room, rocking my one-year-old to sleep with song. My mind is distracted with dread. I imagine millions of people turning on their television sets to hear how the next month would unspool. My husband walks into the room, and I know without him telling me. I put our drowsy child in his arms and go to the kitchen to take stock of the food and grain. I make a list of essentials we will need to get through the month. I check our stock of diapers and baby formula, feeling very much like a woman in an old war-time movie. Later that night, I reach for the notebook I keep beside my bed. I write the date, 25th March, 2020, the day India went into its first of many lockdowns. I feel anxious and restless, I write. What will happen to us now? That is the length of my journal entry that night. It speaks volumes.

I have kept a journal since 1999. For years, I pulled out a notebook from the pile in the house reserved for schoolwork, covered it in brown paper, feverishly composed impassioned entries in rare moments of privacy, and then hid it away before it could be discovered by a sibling. The high, relentless tides of my adolescence found a home within the pages of subsidised notebooks sold by the local parish. Later, other notebooks recorded my first love, first kiss, friendships, and dreams.  The journal has only recently been lauded as a crucial tool for taking care of one’s mental health. For me, it emerged from the need to recognise that my life, thoughts, opinions, and emotions were sacred, no matter what the adults in my life said. In my journalling practice over the years, I have cultivated a rich internal life that helps me navigate politics, relationships, and aspirations. Journalling isn’t an indulgence. It is sustenance, a radical act of self-care.

The term self-care has become disingenuous. It has been co-opted by the market and is systematically gendered and designed according to purchasing power. Lifestyle brands like Goop and Poosh have used the term to tout products and practices that have been called everything from ridiculous to dangerous. Faux-spirituality, vagina eggs, jade rollers, travel, manicures and pedicures, and luxury bath products brighten the aesthetic feed of Instagram influencers under hashtags like #meday and #selfcare. It is in this heady world of hyper-consumerism that the journal exists. It can be humble, cheap, and useless at making corporations money.

Often, I will take some time out to read a journal from a wildly different time in my life. Reading life-writing from the past allows me to access various states of self which I can then utilise in my creative writing or to reflect upon my growth. The act of writing in the present moment is rewarding because it allows you to articulate emotion. It encourages you to recognise behaviour patterns, become self-aware, or simply let your guard down and be yourself. My journal is something of an untameable beast. If I’m going through a bout of low self-esteem, I practice restorative journaling. I use prompts to dive into a memory that informs my current moment. I compose stream-of-consciousness entries, indulge in rants, mourn a loss, and write humorous sketches of my friends. I once wrote an entry a day for ten days that started with ‘Today I noticed…’ Occasionally, I draw a picture or write a poem. My journal has become what Virginia Woolf called “a capricious hold-all… something loose-knit and yet not so slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind.” In my experience with journalling, a journal changes as you do, adapting itself to the ebb and flow of life. While the act itself is creative, it doesn’t demand the perfection required from capitalism. It is a work of labour, but nobody profits from it but you. You don’t even have to be good at it. You can be as inelegant and inarticulate as you want and yet, having and maintaining a journal will remain a political act of defiance whereby youvalue your internal life and what you can do for others.

The journal is a marker of privilege. You need to live with people you trust not to read it, you need to have privacy and time to be able to write or draw. It has not escaped me that many people may put themselves at risk when they journal. Yet, if you have circumstances that allow for it, there is no limit to what it can do for you. It can’t replace or substitute systemic change in our mental health landscape, but it still has incredible potential for healing and growth. I am such a zealot when it comes to journalling that I find it baffling that it isn’t actively encouraged in schools and youth centres. What are we afraid of? That young people will be able to write and draw about their desires and dreams and help birth an infinitely better world?

During the early days of the lockdown, I had to adjust my work and childcare routine to accommodate our new reality. As working parents to a small child, my husband and I had to rethink our relationships with labour and childcare. The woman we paid to cook our food, and bathe and watch our child while we both worked, was also in quarantine. Those days were difficult and exhausting. Deadlines slipped by when my child was especially fussy, sick or teething. The dishes piled up. I stayed up late, working, and then woke at dawn to begin anew. My journal entries from that time were shorter and not very introspective. Yet when I read them now, they lay bare important questions about power, privilege, caregiving, and labour practices in our middle-class family unit. There has to be a better way, I wrote in May 2020. This is just one example where a consistent journalling practise goes from imagining a better world for yourself to imagining one for those around you. Later, when there was time to exhale, I wrote an entry where I sketched an account of how childcare would look if everyone were artists living in a forest. My journal has many entries that are speculative and fantastic. Writing about the mundane leads me to question the way the world operates and from there I frog-leap into a world of ideas where I imagine a radically different way of being. In my journal, I imagine a politics of care, community, and compassion. I become grand, valuable, and unstoppable, even in a world where I am sometimes made to feel small.

Cover Image: Unsplash