One of my favorite undergraduate professors was Yale’s Romantic Poetry expert, Frederick A. Pottle. Mr. Pottle—Yale professors were never called “doctor”—was a wiry New Englander in his 50s. He sounded a bit like Robert Frost when he spoke and was an old-fashioned Republican who believed it better for neighbors to do in-person charity than having a distant government dispense impersonal monthly checks. But the reason I bring him up at all is that, although he was our Romantics experts, he was known in the world as the editor of James Boswell’s 18th-century journals. I had begun reading these chronicles even before going to college. Boswell wrote that he used journaling to adjust his character as milady used her looking glass to adjust her appearance. He was also honest in writing about his triumphs and failures in life, and for a curious teenager there were some wonderfully salty parts...
All that being said, I first started keeping a journal during my junior year abroad in Heidelberg, Germany. My plan, which I fulfilled, was to type a page onto three-ring blank paper daily to record the minutia of the day, quote passages from books I was reading, and, like Boswell, comment on the people around me and, especially, on my affairs of the heart. All this I did five days of the week in English and once a week in German and French, respectively. A chief advantage of daily journaling is it improves a person’s writing. Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly makes better. My stellar senior year at essay-heavy Yale doubtless owes a good deal to my daily journaling. Then there is the benefit of sticking to a long-term goal no matter what. My typing too got better as did my German and French. There can however be disadvantages. A minor one is the journaler may begin to live for exciting copy rather than simply live. But there was something even more disadvantageous in my case. My landlord in the house where I was staying—you can see it in the picture below—was an elderly Swiss chemist. His wife was a somewhat portly younger American woman from Upstate New York. She would often wander about the house, where several other students also lived, in the sheerest of nightgowns. Not only that, but she generally smelled of alcohol, and it seemed to me that she was looking for something her elderly husband could no longer provide. I included such ideas in my journal as well as calling her Petunia Pig because of her general appearance. After she found and read my journal, unlocked in my desk drawer in my unlocked room during my three-week trip to Greece, there was hell to pay on my return. Her husband punched me and called me “a dirty Jew.” With help from the Foreign Student Office, I was able to safely move out into another mansion where I lived for free in exchange for gardening for the rest of the year. But I learned from that incident to watch what I wrote and to make sure to secure things tightly if there was information that was private. So, journal on, but be careful.