Writer in Residence

Writer at Work: Journaling, Instinct, and Self-care

By Shazia Hafiz Ramji

Before last week, it had been months since I cried. This is unusual for me. I cry often when I’m alone, especially when I’m writing. Last week, I opened the Word doc that is my journal. Counterintuitively, the latest journal entries are added after each subsequent entry, so every time I open my journal, I have to look at the first page, which is an entry from 2012 that declares: “I don’t believe in love.” It was clearly an angst-ridden sentiment. It wasn’t written in response to heartbreak. It was what I thought and believed. It was my worldview. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and a substance use disorder at the time – I was permanently sad.

Seeing the declarative statement I believed at one point in my life with such certainty was enough to break the tears apart. How much did I have to endure to believe such a thing with certainty? How deluded was I? I couldn’t be further from thinking that now. When I cried, I felt relief, as if it were proof of me having changed. And yet, I felt so much tenderness toward that girl I was: the one who loved to think about her life honestly, who found silence in journaling almost every day, regardless of depression or work.

I opened my journal this time because I wanted to feel like her again. Part of her knows more than I do now, despite her ignorant views of “love.”

Yesterday, someone on a dating app asked me what I admire most about other people. When I responded, I’d just woken up and I said: “Instinct. The kind that animals have when they’re in the dark hunting for something. They’re listening with their whole being and they can somehow sense which direction to go before even ‘knowing,’ as it were.”

A year ago, I dated someone who was a “drifter,” as one would say. One of the reasons I liked him was because he had what I think of as “instinct.” It is difficult to explain, but this "instinct" had something to do with being quiet. He knew how to be quiet because he’d roamed around on his own a lot. He was comfortable with silence — not in a way that is complacent and reaching for comfort, but in a way that’s closer to the kind that I associate with animals — an almost primal awareness that I recognize in myself after I’ve been quiet and journaling, or when I am travelling somewhere on my own. It’s like that time I was walking towards the train on an isolated suburban street and somehow I knew that there was a man around the corner, that he would say something aggressive and try to approach me. I doubted myself and dismissed my fear, but when I turned the corner, it happened. Or that time I stepped outside and somehow knew that I would see a coyote and hear a gunshot at the same time, and it happened.

There is something that feels akin to writing in these instinct-laden moments: the porousness of the world, the surprise of a character or a poem moving ahead of you, the strangeness of stray thoughts in a free write. 

I open up the journal again and feel relieved for this space that doesn't lead to anything. It's not a measure of productivity or the semblance of another project. It's space for me to honour the eerie, small joys and sadnesses that make up my life. Self-indulgence and confession are irrelevant in this space. Journaling could be a form of therapy, or of making silence and solitude, but I prefer to call it "self-care" – in the sense that Audre Lorde or bell hooks refer to – the kind that arises from within. As the file begins to load, I cry again. This time from relief that I still know what matters to me.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s fiction was shortlisted for the Malahat Review’s 2022 Open Season Awards. Her poetry was shortlisted for the 2021 National Magazine Awards and the 2021 Mitchell Prize for Faith and Poetry. Shazia’s award-winning first book is Port of Being. She lives in Vancouver and Calgary, where she is at work on a novel.