I’ve always been fascinated by other people’s stories. In my twenties — dreaming of making video games, books, movies — I devoured memoirs and interviews with my role models, hungering for insight on how they’d done it. Published journals were most rare and valuable of all, because they were a raw record of experience: written in the heat of the moment, not shaped and burnished into a smooth narrative with hindsight.
I was 17 when I started keeping my own journal. I kept up the habit, filling dozens of spiral-bound notebooks over the years. I thought I’d never show them to anybody.
The cumulative power of daily practice is well known but still amazes me. Ten years ago, my brother David picked up a ukulele and started strumming. Now he’s a ukulele player. A behavior becomes a routine, a habit, and finally a trait. The things we do every day shape us, literally: We become a guitarist, a smoker, a programmer or athlete or stoner, by doing something for the first time, then keeping it up.
I’m a journal-keeper. With over a hundred notebooks filled since 1982, it’s become part of who I am. I couldn’t have expected or anticipated all the ways my new habit would enrich my life.
Even if we never reread what we write in our journals, the act of writing changes us. It shapes our perceptions and memory. Over time, opening the notebook and picking up the pen becomes like resuming a long-running conversation with a friend. We develop a voice, even though there’s no one on the other end to hear it — or rather, our self is listening.
I decided to publish my own 1980s journals — begun as a Yale college freshman, while I was making my first video games, Karateka and Prince of Persia — when enough years had passed that their value as a time capsule outweighed my embarrassment. I still cringe rereading certain entries, but I’m glad the journals exist. They contain hard-won experience I wish I could have had the benefit of when I was 20.
Keeping a journal has special value for anyone engaged in a creative project. Reading pages written a year ago, or five, or twenty, can help reveal the big arc of our lives, and illuminate the present. Past journal entries remind us of intentions, resolves, lessons forgotten. They bring home how much of our worries, schemes and plans are transient, even quaint in retrospect.
In the four years it took me to make the first Prince of Persia game on the Apple II, my journal did more than record my creative process: it was part of it. I used my notebook as a sounding board — wrestling with design challenges, discarding ideas and sparking new ones in the act of writing. In dark moments I poured out my angst, questioned whether I was on the right path, if the game was even worth finishing. More than once, my journal brought me back from the brink and helped me find the clarity and confidence to continue. Some entries capture the exact moment of illumination when I hit upon a solution I’d been groping toward in the dark. For all the digital and technological advancement of the past half-century, pen and paper may still be the tool that comes closest to being able to record thought.
For every entry that makes me feel smart, there’s a youthful wise reflection like this one: “The games business is drying up. There’s no guarantee there will even be a computer games market a couple of years from now.” (July 1985) Or: “I’ve grown middle-aged these last few years. Roland is 23 but he’s still young at heart.” (Written when I was 22.) Rereading such passages is a joy that only journal-keepers know.
The final PC version of Prince of Persia that shipped thirty years ago, in April 1990, is so familiar now it feels inevitable. It’s easy to forget that it was once a fragile thing in flux. My journal reminds me of roads not taken, of how easily things could have turned out differently.
These days, I keep my journal in a Hobonichi Techo — a compact format that reinforces the practice of one page a day, neatly fitting a year into the palm of my hand, a decade in a shoebox. I’ve found poignant solace in this month of confinement, April 2020, flipping back a few dozen pages to see how many of my concerns and decisions of February have been rendered irrelevant, while a few mattered more than I knew.
A journal keeps us honest and tethers us to truth. In George Orwell’s 1984, the protagonist’s first act of resistance to brainwashing is to start secretly keeping a diary — a crime not explicitly forbidden, but punishable by death, because it threatens a totalitarian state’s power to retroactively rewrite history.
Like a yardstick calibrated in millimeters, a journal holds both the detail and the scope of life. Our human condition is to live one moment at a time; we’re never given more than that. Of all the gifts journaling gives us, maybe that’s the greatest: The simple practice of making daily marks on paper, like mental push-ups, can strengthen the part of us that tries to rise above the timeline, to see a pattern and bigger picture — and, paradoxically, also strengthen the part of us that can learn to treasure the present moment.