A word on journaling, courtesy of Shakespeare

Sonnet 77 is a poem that Shakespeare wrote to encourage his (probably non-platonic) male companion to try keeping a diary. The poem offers insight into Shakespeare’s view of the practice — and purpose — of writing.

In a nutshell:

For Shakespeare, journaling went far beyond “what happened today.” Writing was, in essence, his religion. He believed the everyday practice of writing could empower human beings to experience life more deeply.

Below is my full interpretation of Sonnet 77.

Lines 1 and 2

Your glass will show you how your beauties wear,
your dial how your precious minutes waste;

This means: Your mirror (“glass”) will make your aging obvious to you, and your sundial/clock (“dial”) will show you how quickly time flies.

Line 3

the vacant leaves your mind’s imprint will bear,

This means: Blank pages (“vacant leaves”) have a power beyond the mirror and clock. They can carry your “mind’s imprint.”

Line 4

and of this book this learning may you taste.

This means: Sure, you can see yourself aging in the mirror, and you can see the clock ticking on the wall — but, if you get good at writing, you can experience a deeper, more intense thing. This deeper, more intense thing is something like the “taste” of your lifetime and consciousness.

Those first four lines together mean:

The process of writing — leaving impressions of your mind in words over time — will give you a deeper experience of the passage of time than simply watching your minutes tick away on a clock or noticing new gray hairs in the mirror.

Lines 5 through 8:

The wrinkles which your glass will truly show
of mouthed graves will give you memory;
you, by your dial’s shady stealth, may know
Time’s thievish progress to eternity.

At first, this may seem like a lament of life’s shortness: seeing new wrinkles in the mirror reminds you of your mortality, and the disappearance of hours, as reported by your clock, is unyielding.

However, that’s not the final intent of these four lines.

These four lines mean:

Your clock and mirror do their jobs well enough already. There’s no need to fixate on such self-evident things (mundane day-to-day experiences) in your journal.

But, wait…

If not our everyday experiences, what should we write about, Will?

That’s discussed in lines 9 through 12.

Lines 9 through 12:

Look, what your memory cannot contain,
commit to these waste blanks, and you shall find
those children nursed, delivered from your brain,
to take a new acquaintance of your mind.

There’s a subtle insight folded into that first, bolded line:

Some experiences extend beyond the territory of memory. Even if you had an amazing memory, you wouldn’t be able to remember them perfectly — and that’s what the journal’s for.

There are things memory simply can’t handle, even from the get-go.

A simple example is the taste of chocolate. If you could remember the taste of chocolate perfectly, you might not be so tempted to eat chocolate cake.

The fact is, no matter how accurate your memory is, it pales in comparison to the real experience.

However, by writing —leaving impressions on your “waste blanks” — you can create a souvenir from your experience that is, itself, an experience: a reading experience.

That’s what Shakespeare means when he writes:

…you shall find
those children nursed, delivered from your brain,
to take a new acquaintance of your mind.

In other words, things that are worth writing down take on a life of their own once they’re “delivered from your brain” and born on paper.

Years later, when you encounter those writings again, it’ll be like making a new acquaintance with your very own mind.

Shakespeare concludes with a final rhyme.

These offices, so oft as you will look,
shall profit you, and much enrich your book.

By this, Shakespeare simply means that if you adopt this philosophy of writing, both you and your writing will benefit.

Photo by Marnee Wohlfert on Unsplash