Do you keep a journal? Have you kept one in the past? Do you wish something would inspire you to keep a journal? Have you tried and failed, and wished there were some way you could try again and succeed? Or have you never kept a journal, never plan to, and wonder why other people do? If you answer yes to any of these questions, then you will find Leaving A Trace by Alexandra Johnson an informative and inspiring book to read.
I was, at first, suspicious of Johnson's book. There is plenty of tripe out there on the subject of journaling and Leaving A Trace sounded like some pap trash writing; the type that would list ten ways to complete happiness in journal writing in twenty-four easy steps. With eight years of journal writing behind me, journal writing is something I do, like, and have opinions about. I am ever on the lookout for intelligent writing with which I can interact. I was suspicious, but when I cracked the book open I found it was not what I thought, and I was intrigued enough to read on.
The most striking feature of Leaving A Trace is Johnson's ability to weave together the stories of both famous and unknown journal writers with her own observations and experiences. She writes with the clean and sure prose of someone who knows her subject well. The book is crafted in a relaxed and familiar manner that makes for easy and enjoyable reading. The book is not a voluminous tome of intimidation, but a concise handbook that does not neglect any aspects of journaling.
As an experienced journal writer I found myself enjoying Johnson's skill in describing why we write journals, and what journals mean, both to the writer and others at a later time. It wasn't that Johnson said anything I didn't already know, but she wrote in a way that clearly said my own thoughts, freeing them from that distant place in the back of my mind so they could be looked upon openly. Johnson's writing provoked me to examine and consider my own journal writing. Time and again I would come across a passage that would make me think "Yes, I agree with that. And the reason why is . . ." Many times I had to restrain myself from underlining passages and scribbling notes in the margins. When I finished the book the reasons why I keep a journal were refreshed in my mind, encouraging me to continue and perhaps even experiment with new and different methods.
I found Leaving A Trace helpful in my writing experience, but the book is good for people of all levels of experience. Beginners as well as advanced writers can see their own goals in Johnson's writing and be spurred on. Especially helpful are the passages where Johnson touches on the many different varieties of journals a person can keep, including non-traditional forms. People who think they could never write a journal might find that they are actually keeping one through means they never would have guessed. Other writers who are struggling with one type of journaling might discover a different type that works better for them. And for those beginning writers looking for something to get them started Johnson has exercises listed at the end of each chapter.
Leaving A Trace is a well written book on journaling, but there were two flaws with it. One was a minor defect--the lack of bibliography. While most casual readers will not notice the absence, those interested in reading the published journals that Johnson references will miss the convenient listing. The second problem is Johnson's focus on good journal writing. There are several places where Johnson makes allusions to the great journals of famous writers. With journaling as the focus of her career it is not surprising that Johnson would have opinions as to what good journaling is and to have a desire to see others excel in those ways. But it is unfortunate this comes out so strongly in a book aimed to encourage the beginning journaler. She gives much advice on how to conquer the inner Censor, only to turn around and talk about how the good journal writers move beyond weepy writing. How many people have not written a journal because they were sure it would be nothing but a list of complaints? There are journals that are better than others, but critiqueing should be saved for a book written to the veteran journaler who will not be easily discouraged. Aspirations of becoming like Virginia Wolfe will only extinguish many a beginner's flame.
Though there are some contradictory messages in Leaving A Trace, they do not outweigh the good done in this coherent perusal of journaling. For those with many years of journaling already under their belt it will remind them again why they are writing. For those who have tried and failed, or who wish to start a journal, Leaving A Trace will inspire them to begin the journey. And for those people who don't understand the desire to journal, Johnson does an excellent job of explaining the love for, need for, and worth of, that act.