Keeping a journal is a valuable tool for naval professionals. Yet journaling—the recording of your thoughts, frustrations, and observations—is undervalued in the profession today.
There are many reasons why journaling has declined over the years.
First, as with any activity, journaling takes time. Today, however, sailors have many options on how they use their time. Whether at sea or shore, social media, video games, distance learning, family, friends, fatigue, and a host of other activities dissuade many from putting pen to paper.
The other reason is psychological. Journaling is uncomfortable. It requires candor and honesty. Journaling is about exploring the internal dialogue we all have with ourselves. Many sailors prefer not to spill their thoughts on the page. Yet we all struggle with failures and fears; we all struggle during a long deployment. These feelings are universal in the naval service. However, for every excuse or aversion to writing in a journal, there are more benefits to taking a few minutes each day to write something down in a notebook. Here are just a few.
Journaling as therapy. Numerous studies show that journaling, or ‘expressive writing,’ is good for your mental health. The sheer act of transferring the thoughts in your head to a piece of paper provides some sort of relief. Even journaling your future tasks is cathartic. For instance, author David Allen writes in his well-known book on productivity, Getting Things Done, that transferring the tasks in our minds onto a piece of paper makes these tasks manageable and consequently relieves stress.
Journaling as history. As naval professionals and readers of naval history, there are few things more entertaining or interesting than reading first-hand accounts of our Navy’s past. One of my personal favorites is Rear Admiral Bradley Fiske’s diary. Fiske was Aide for Operations at the outbreak of World War I and is arguably the Navy’s greatest inventor. In his diary he recorded his efforts to create a Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). Fiske fought the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, who wanted nothing to do with a CNO.
Fiske, undeterred, hatched a plan to create a CNO. He would circumvent the Secretary. With some help from younger officers and an influential Congressman, they drafted legislation that created the Navy’s most senior officer. His diary captures his excitement in two sentences:
“We all met there in [Congressman] Hobson’s study, & sat till after 11 p.m. when we adjourned. We agreed on [a] program whereby [the] Chief of Naval Operations is to be legislated for & to have 15 [assistants]!!”
Unfortunately, fewer journals fill our naval archives. A brief search of the U.S. Naval Academy’s library and its archival collection reveal a healthy collection of diaries and journals from the early 19th century up through the mid-20th century. But after the 1960s, the trail—and the holdings—grows colder.
Journaling as thinking and imagination. Writing in a journal allows anyone to practice the craft of creating sentences. Similar to the artist who relies on a sketchbook to practice human anatomy, the writer can practice improving her craft in a journal. A journal allows a writer the freedom to experiment. There is no expectation to publish one’s thoughts or to persuade another reader. It does, however, allow one to practice paragraphs or think through professional and personal challenges, maybe even crafting those into a publishable piece. It is very much a sketchbook for the written word.
Journaling as an archive. Writing down your thoughts and activities during your naval service is a helpful aide-mémoire. Retired Admiral Jim Stavridis, while commander of the destroyer USS Barry (DDG-52) in the early 1990s, relied on his journal to craft an elegant memoir of his time in command. And one of the most famous journalists in the English language, James Boswell, used his journals to create his masterpiece, The Life of Samuel Johnson—the father of all future biographies.
But if your eye is not set on posterity of the publishing sort, the journal as archive is valuable for your family. There will come a time when someone you love asks you about your service. A journal, if nothing else, can help you tell your sea-stories with more clarity and fidelity than trying to claw through the cobwebs of decades past.
Journaling has a historic and contemporary importance to the naval profession. Make journaling a habit. Buy a pen—maybe a fountain pen?—and a nice notebook. Record your thoughts, your deployment, or your time in command. Start slow with a few sentences and go from there. Eventually you will find that journaling is a valuable tool. And over time, you may realize that it is an indispensable part of your life that reaps rewards for your mind, soul, and even our naval service.