Mark Twain and the Value of Journals

“If you wish to inflict a heartless and malignant punishment upon a young person, pledge him to keep a journal a year.”

-Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

For anyone who has ever been frustrated by their inability to keep a journal, or, after keeping a journal, by the surprising gaps and useless information one finds upon revisiting those pages a few months or years later; For anyone who has ever known this frustration, we have Mark Twain.

When we think of Twain, most of us think immediately of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. But during his lifetime, The Innocents Abroad sold more copies than any of his other books. A humorous account of his travels through Europe and the Holy Land, it is one of the bestselling travel books of all time.

Among the many observations he made during the trip, one that will likely resonate with writers of all kinds is that of the difficulty of keeping a journal…

“At certain periods it becomes the dearest ambition of a man to keep a faithful record of his performances in a book; and he dashes at this work with an enthusiasm that imposes on him the notion that keeping a journal is the veriest pastime in the world, and the pleasantest.

But if he only lives twenty-one days, he will find out that only those rare natures that are made up of pluck, endurance, devotion to duty for duty’s sake, and invincible determination may hope to venture upon so tremendous an enterprise as the keeping of a journal and not sustain a shameful defeat.”

-Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Starting a journal is easy. Finishing it is the hard part. What’s more, all the value of the thing is pretty much bound up in the finishing of it. As Twain wryly points out to a young shipmate in his book…

“Yes, a journal that is incomplete isn’t of much use, but a journal properly kept is worth a thousand dollars — when you’ve got it done.”

The same can be said about writing projects in general. They are easy to start, hard to finish, and not really worth anything until you’ve got them done. So the question naturally becomes How do you go about finishing a journal? What is the “right” way to do it?

As with so many things, the answer seems to be “It depends.”

Twain himself tended to keep a single notebook in which he wrote everything from fictional sketches, to shopping lists, to accounts of his travels far and wide. During a single month-long voyage from San Francisco to New York, he filled an entire notebook with his thoughts and observations (the seventh of forty-nine surviving notebooks which scholars still study and transcribe to this day).

Hemingway, on the other hand, spent more than a month shooting big game in Africa (the trip which eventually became The Green Hills of Africa) and wrote nothing but a few jotted notes and a tally of animals seen scribbled on the end-papers of a bird-book he was reading during the trip. His wife, Pauline, kept a faithful account (which is itself worth a read, and can be found along with Hemingway’s own notes inside the Hemingway Library edition of The Green Hills of Africa) which he used while writing Green Hills.

Perhaps your style lies somewhere in between. Perhaps it’s different entirely.

In the end, it seems that great writing can come from just about any kind of journal, so long as the journal is complete from the writer’s perspective and the style of journaling jives with the mind doing the writing.

Thoughts from the Community…

There are as many ways to fill a journal as there are journals or people to fill them. I’m curious to hear from other writers…

  1. Do you have a favorite notebook which you’ve bought and filled more than once?
  2. What do you usually write in your travel journals?

Leave a comment below if you care to share!

One thought on “Mark Twain and the Value of Journals

  1. In case anyone’s interested, my favorite notebook so far is the Canson 180 Sketchbook. It’s tough to find these days, but it’s designed to lay perfectly flat on every page, so it’s super easy to write in. As for what I put in my journals, I tend to lean more towards Twain’s style. I keep one journal at a time, filling it from front to back with everything from daily entries to goals, shopping lists, random thoughts, and even sketches or watercolor paintings. When they’re full, I line ’em up on the book shelf and start another.


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