Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 1, 2010

The Journal Keeper: A Memoir by Phyllis Theroux

I recently wrote about keeping a journal as some kind of dust bin, but that’s not the sort Phyllis Theroux keeps. This book is edited from six years of journals, but even so, her method is to convey finished thoughts and telling anecdotes, and here we do feel as we have the best of the best. Her writing has ranged from essays, often on motherhood, to various sorts of fiction, and here her topic is often writing: how to stay inspired, how to make a living, how to keep going when making a living seems unlikely, and the struggle to keep everything else in balance. This compilation begins when she’s sixty-one, divorced with grown children and living with her eighty-two-year-old mother.

Phyllis Theroux writes, “There were times, in the beginning, when I used my journal as a wailing wall, but I learned not to immortalize the darkness. … What I needed was a place to collect the light.” And “Knowing I have a place to save small pieces of beauty keeps me on the lookout for them, even in a checkout line in Safeway or on the other side of grimy train window in the rain.”

She also keeps watch within books, and there’s a list of favorites at the back of The Journal Keeper. Some of her reading comes from Buddhist or Buddhist-ish writers, or writers such as Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut on creative writing, and poets including Stanley Kunitz, Wendell Berry, Naomi Shyhab Nye, and Mary Oliver. She quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word,” and says: “Lowly listening – to my own inner voice –was what I had been doing almost every morning for the past thirty years, sitting quietly with my journal… Only later did I grasp that keeping a journal not only saved my life in the record-keeping sense but saved it in a deeper, more mysterious sense as well.”

Often she combines wisdom and humor. In one short passage, she tells of a friend calling her with two compliments, which she admits she might have listened to for longer. “The ego is a hungry creature.” Then her friend tells of a new beau who admired her scalloped scissors, then laughs, “I can’t believe I made out with someone who knows what scalloped scissors are.” Sometimes she’s plainly serious: “If you don’t consider your life a pilgrimage, it gets downgraded to a trip or even an aimless journey. It is we who make that decision.”

There are two main plot threads, the first being a record of how her wise mother spends her last years. The second is making room for the ups and downs of romance, which I must say was a thread I found delicious, even while finding her dedication to independence heartening and her thoughts on writing instructive. Her journal is about as different from mine as a lap dog is from a mastiff, but I liked learning about another way. It’s both cheerful and honest, deep-thinking with the occasional reveling in what’s mundane. I enjoyed picking up this book and sometimes reading just a few pages, while glad to know there was more ahead. Now I hope there’s a sequel!



  1. MMmmmmmm. Looks good!

  2. I’m not sure my own journal would be so useful if I didn’t use it sometimes as a wailing wail. But I agree that if we want beauty, it helps to be on the lookout for it even in the strangest places. And speaking of beauty that is marvelous prose you’re quoting here. This goes on my must-read list.

  3. The humor in the book isn’t rollicking, but it’s there along with the honesty and nice prose style. I think you’d like it, Jama!

  4. Yes, I’m not going to become a convert to the journal as a clean, well lighted place, but yay for those who make them. There were parts to make me smile and parts to make me mull and not a sentence that seemed awkward. Sorry to add to your stacks! I guess…

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