"But Why Do I Think That?" and Other Questions that Raise the Truth
Updated: Aug 17
I have no idea if I can convey what journal writing is like for me. I mean, honestly, it's akin to asking someone to describe how they brush their teeth—clockwise circles or counterclockwise?—while they are in the act. (Good luck with that.) I'll just do my best to document and describe it here. (This, by the way, is the space junk preamble paragraph that all good writers delete after they're done editing a piece of writing.)
To say that I doubt myself in life is ridiculously accurate. Yet for a journal writing practice, doubt is a useful skill. On the page, doubt turns into inquiry, curiosity, and option-sensing.
If you turn doubt into a verb, you get "questioning." Performed productively, questioning can yield the truth. Here's how I see it: I'm taking on the role of investigator. As I write in my journal, I tap into those instincts—tell me the who, what, where, when, how, and why, why, why of what's going on. (Of course, it's all performed in a West Yorkshire accent, like that of Ann Gallager in the BBC's Happy Valley.)
Hang on a sec. Let's break for a question: Do I mean the truth or simply one truth? (See what I mean? That's the kind of questioning I'm talking about: I make an assertion and then I double back to reconsider it.)
Both. The truth and a truth. Truth—any kind—works for me! Every time I open my journal, I want to find truth. It's disguised and buried but my pen tip will dig it out. I don't care if that truth is subjective. (In journal writing and memoir, too, the truth is subjective. Not untrue, just subjective. Why? Because of time.) My perspective, my emotional range, and societal influences, too, inevitably change over time and influence what amount of truth I can grasp. And that's okay.
We can only get to the truth that we are able to reach as we are now. We change. We grow. It's a worthwhile practice to revisit and question our assertions as we become who we are becoming.
I cannot tell you the number of times I have documented "the truth" over the years about why my engagement to get married fell apart—all of those truths being true. Year after year I would revisit the question, each time returning with a new answer. Sure, we didn't have the money for a wedding, that's true. Yet it's also true that we each privately had deep concerns about how well we fit with the other. So, if you were to ask me what the truth of the broken engagement was, I could say either reason (or one of a dozen others) and it would be true.
One Life, Two Memoirs
It's not just me. Author Jill Ciment wrote two memoirs, decades apart: The Other Half and then Half A Life. In the first book, she describes a relationship with her college professor, whom she eventually married and shared her life with. In the second, she reconsiders the origins of the relationship from a predator/prey perspective, having been awakened by numerous examples of sexual harassment and abuse reported in the news and the #MeToo movement.
Ciment's perspective is as eye-opening as you'd expect a memoir writer's to be. I heard the interview on This American Life (episode 689 Digging Up the Bones), in which the author is interviewed by Susan Burton.
The process of questioning myself in my journal helps me arrive at the deepest truth that I'm capable of digging up at that point in time. Truth offers perspective, which is also freedom. Freedom is why I shovel dirt.
The Questioning Process
Here's what my questioning or, rather, British DCI's self-investigation, typically looks like:
Sometimes I'll question my statements. Say that I write, Instagram is giving me an outlet for practicing using my voice, well, finding my voice. (I did write that, it's from a journal.) I will question that statement in one of a couple of ways: What makes Instagram an ideal outlet for me to find my voice? Or maybe, What does it mean that I'm looking for my voice?
From there, I'll consider the question I've posed and write down everything that it brings forth. (If it doesn't yield much, I ask another question.)
A subtle spin on questioning my statements is to take a "So you say, but...really?" approach. I use this tool when I catch myself inking harsh or desperate statements. I've been let go from most of my jobs. I'm stuck at this weight. I'm the only one who hasn't figured out friendships. I'll never finish my memoir. They are easy to catch once you know how to look: Black-and-white, all-or-nothing type statements that assume there is no way out of the current reality.
So I write, Have I actually been let go from most of my jobs? Seriously, do a tally. Are you the only one who hasn't figured out friendships? You'll never finish your memoir—really? Turning it into a question creates space to maneuver, to get out of the grips of resentful and fearful thinking into perceiving possibilities. It rather feels like sitting on the corner of a parent's bed, feeling confused, in tears—but it's my own bed corner and I'm the kind and attentive self-parent. She loves me, she listens, she holds the space but isn't taking my "I'm an awful person" act too seriously.
Other times I'll peel back the layers on something that reeks of assumption with why. Say that I write, I was the only one at the meeting who didn't ask a question. I'll ask (in my head or in writing), "What does it say about you?" Or if I'd written something like, I'm falling down on my family obligations, I might ask, "Why do you think that?" From there I'll just repeat, "OK, why? OK, why? OK, why?" and address each "why" in succession. For example:
I'm falling down on my family obligations. (Off-the-cuff statement.)
Because I haven't called to check-in. (What it's really about.)
Because I don't want to engage in their drama, frankly. (What it's really about.)
I'm up to my eyeballs in my own life stuff. I'm balancing a lot—job, kid, Pandemic! My priorities are getting through each day, nurturing self and son, getting work done, and running my household. And, oh yeah, they have telephones, too—it's a two-way street. (What lies beneath what it's really about.)
And so on. Keep digging.
The act of raising up truth prepares the ground for returning later to see if there's another layer to exhume. Often, there is.
P.S., Asking "why?" of my thoughts isn't meant to invalidate what I'm feeling; if you're adopting these tools, be sure to ask and write down what you're feeling before digging too deeply into the dirt with your why shovel.
Photo: Leah Fasten