What I’ve Learned from Three Years of Journaling
And tips to get you started on keeping a journal too
My fascination with journaling started at a very young age. I’m pretty sure it was after I read “Harriet the Spy” and became obsessed with the idea of recording everything in notebooks. A diary with a little lock on it that I found at the Scholastic Book Fair that same year would have certainly helped get me started but it was pink, and diary-keeping seemed like something only girls did in books or on TV shows.
Then, I saw the 1988 movie Biloxi Blues in which Matthew Broderick’s character keeps a diary. His diary gets taken by his fellow soldiers at boot camp, and they read aloud what he wrote about them! That seemed horrible! And it was another reason for me not to start keeping a diary!
Instead, I filled black and white Mead notebooks with short stories thanks to my grade school that encouraged creative writing every day. Now, I look back and realize that younger me really didn’t have much life experience worth writing about, but unfortunately, I never felt like it got much better.
Over the years, I still started and stopped a diary anyway more times than I can count. But days, weeks, and months would pass without me writing in it. I couldn’t think of anything to write, or when I did sit down to write I was overwhelmed with too much I felt I had to catch up on. This is probably why more of us don’t write in a diary or journal. When it starts to feel like a chore, we avoid doing it.
That didn’t stop me from constantly purchasing fancy journals and blank books from bookstores and office supply stores throughout the years even though I rarely used them. (If you have the eagerness to write in you, you probably also have an addiction for stationary. You probably also have a favorite type of ink pen. It’s ok. I do too.) To this day, the stationary and ink pen aisle in any store for me is like what a toy store is to a kid.
Since 2003, I’ve been a published author. I’ve kept a blog since 2007, and I’ve also dabbled in poetry since high school. But the fascination with wanting to keep a journal still eluded me up until about three years ago. On a business trip, I found myself alone in my hotel room with a magnificent view outside my window. I wanted to somehow capture that moment differently. Sure, a photo and a social media post seemed appropriate, but I wanted some memory that I could have all to myself. So, I took out a notebook and started writing. All I did was describe the view and how it made me feel, and I’ve been filling journals ever since.
I admit I don’t write in my journal every day. I do try to write in it at least once a week. I also don’t worry too much if there isn’t anything in my life going on right at the moment that’s worthy of recording in my journal. I don’t want this to feel like a chore, so I don’t worry too much when life is boring and not worth writing about. I just do other things.
I sketch in my journal if I can’t think of something to write. Remember how fun it was as a kid to draw jack-o-lanterns around Halloween? I drew tons of them last year in October! I even colored them with markers and drew cartoons. In December, I taped all the Christmas cards I received in my journal. Sometimes I print images I like from the internet and tape them in my journal too. And sometimes I just make lists — songs I like, various favorite things, books I’ve read, favorite celebrities, movies I watched, etc. You get the idea.
So what have I learned during the last four years I’ve been consistently journaling?
Our lives are not always filled with those moments that we feel are worth writing about. I wish someone would have taught me that back in grade school! The days and weeks can be mundane, and so keeping a journal can often reflect that. It seems like a task we have to do, and like laundry or lawn mowing, we don’t want to do it. But it doesn’t have to be like that. When the day is boring or there’s nothing to write about, that’s when your journal should be the escape you need from all of that. It should be relaxing and fun.
I will admit Austin Kleon was also a big motivator for me too. He journals every day. He writes. He draws. He sketches. He makes lists. He frequently shares glimpses into his journals on his Instagram page and on his website if you need some inspiration. The point is that he fills up the pages and he feels good about it, and he keeps doing it. That’s the secret to keeping a journal right there. You have to keep going. One page at a time. Austin even wrote a book about it called Keep Going.
Here are some tips that I have learned that also keep me going when it comes to journaling:
- Don’t worry about keeping an official record or diary. Most of us think our lives are boring and not worth writing about. Just write something.
- When you can’t think of anything to write about, you should sketch, draw, or write poetry. Be artistic and creative. Or write down your dreams or various memories.
- Add photos or keepsakes that you’ve collected — images that inspire you, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, fortune cookie fortunes, greeting cards, etc. I like to write short poems on the back of receipts and tape them in my journal. I also like to buy old sepia-toned vintage family photos in antique shops, tape them in my journal, and makeup flash fiction stories about them.
- Make lists like the ones I mentioned above. Movies, books, songs, or favorite foods. If you like to cook, write out your favorite recipes. Start a list of things you want to write about so that you always have inspiration and ideas to look back on. I keep a list of memories in my main journal, just for the sake of this next tip…
- Don’t be afraid to keep more than one journal. I started a second one last year just to record my memories from the list in my main journal. I only write in this memory journal once or twice a month, but when I do I write out three or four memories at a time.
- Treat yourself! Go to your local office supply store and pick out some nice journals. Get a pack of your favorite ink pens too. Also buy some tape, markers, or paint pens to help you get creative. My favorite journals are the Decomposition Notebooks by Michael Roger.
- Set a goal and stick to it. Yeah, it’s hard to write every day so do it once a week or three times a week. Make that list of things you want to write about and then set a goal to check off so many topics per week or per month.
- Take your journal with you everywhere you go. You never know where inspiration will strike or when and where you will have time to write: on the subway, in an Uber, on your lunch break, in a waiting room. Even if it is only for a few minutes, take advantage of those brief moments of time. I like to write early in the morning when I have the house to myself, and again at night during the commercial breaks on television. Sometimes I write in bed at night before going to sleep.
- Your journal doesn’t have to have a subject. Dream journals or the memory journal I mentioned are perfectly fine, but it’s okay to stray off-topic. Your journal only serves one purpose: for you to write and to be creative. For me, it’s all about emptying out my brain of all the other stuff I’m not really focusing on at the time.
- Don’t give up. Don’t get mad and start over. Don’t rip out pages because you wrote something out of anger. Each blank page is a fresh new start. Just turn the page. I once wrote the word “F*CK” over and over and over until I had filled two pages. I also write in ink and if I misspell words I just scratch them out. Your journal can go unedited. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be messy at times. That’s life, and your journal should just be a true representation of that.
My biggest regret is that I didn’t start doing this earlier. But with writing, it’s never too late to start. And the only way to accomplish writing or anything for that matter is to just sit down and start doing it. So I’m glad I did, and in the past three years I’ve never wanted to stop. It doesn’t feel like a chore. I never get tired of doing it. And I never run out of things to put in my journal.
If you follow these steps, you can feel the same way. If you’ve ever wanted to keep a diary or journal but those excuses not to do it kept creeping in, it’s not too late. Pick up your favorite ink pen. Grab that blank book off your shelf or just a note pad from your desk, and start journaling!