A consistent writing practice is the key to getting comfortable with words and sentences and paragraphs and, ultimately, stories. When people tell me they have an English language test and ask for advice, I tell them to read as much as they can in English to get the patterns of the language into their heads. The quality of the book doesn’t matter. Read things you enjoy so you’ll read a lot.
If you want to tell a story, you will give yourself a huge headstart if you get comfortable with words, writing them, and creating sense with them.
Last weekend, my friend asked me for some tips about journaling. Here was my answer, typos corrected:
The short version is that I journal in part because I want to and in part because I have to write. I’ve been doing it off and on since I was about 8. For me, pen to paper is my space, my place, my solace.
This article is my long-form answer.
I put pen to paper for the purposes of recording something or making a notation to keep for later every day. It’s a practice I have kept and maintained in every place I’ve lived and everywhere I’ve traveled. People have come and gone, but writing in one form or another has been my constant companion.
Journaling is a practice where the act matters more than the result. When you journal, the fact that you write will always matter more than what you write.
I write about whatever is on my mind. Sometimes it’s urgent. Sometimes I have an idea I’m trying to think through and my journal helps me get to the ideas and thoughts beneath the surface. The act of writing seems to clear space for new ideas to appear.
Other times, I have a hard time figuring what should be on the page. In those moments, when I’m trying to start the flow, I have learned to start by describing my situation. Right now, I might write, “I am sitting at my desk working on a blog article. My daughter is in the other room having her flute lesson by video chat. I wish I had a door.”
Starting at the surface, it peels away to make room for deeper thoughts. The surface holds the key to deeper thoughts. This particular thought could have gone to Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own, for example. We have to deal with the physical and the obvious before we can get to the underlying depths.
My journals are less “seed gardens” than mulch piles. I throw everything on there and let the piling up of it work its magic. Somehow, the more you put on the pile, the better the results. What you put on the pile matters less than consistently adding to it and turning it over every once in a while. If you stick with the process, you’ll end up with rich soil.
I keep a lot of different journals. There is no right or wrong way to keep a journal and I encourage everyone to keep a journal of some kind.
In terms of materials, all but two of my journals are in blank notebooks. I’ve used everything from composition notebooks to Moleskine or Leuchturm notebooks. I favor A5 size in the middle range, Muji in particular, because I fill them fast and don’t want to be intimidated by the page. My favorite pen is a Lamy Safari.
If you are looking for ideas to start a journal, please take mine! Here’s a taxonomy of my journals, roughly sorted by how often I use each journal.
Every day journals
The books in the picture are two books I read a page or section out of every morning. The Calendar of Wisdom has a page for every year. Comfortable with Uncertainty has 108 teachings and I’m finding them helpful right now.
I write three pages, longhand, with my fountain pen in a Muji notebook, almost every morning. I average 6 mornings a week and am currently in my 80th consecutive week of morning pages. The morning pages practice originated in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. They are as simple as you can imagine, three pages, stream of consciousness, no rules, no right, no wrong. They work best if you do them first thing after waking up, starting in those moments when you’re still a little groggy, too groggy to worry about whether you’re doing it right or not.
For me, they are a form of meditation. I clear out my brain, I mull over thoughts and feelings lingering from the day before. I work on ideas that I’d like to move forward on. Sometimes, I just don’t feel it and push through to the end of the page, writing about how far away the last line of the page is. Sometimes I just write, “these are words filling the page that I have to fill because it is morning and these are morning pages,” or something like it. The act matters more than the results.
If you can stick with the practice, morning pages are transformative. Many people who’ve gotten into morning pages have experienced great positive changes in their lives. Working through all those thoughts makes space for clarity and creativity for the rest of the day.
This journal has one page for each day of the year. Each day is divided into five equal sections. Every morning, I go to the page for the day before, add the year to the section, and make a few notes on the day. This is a minimal effort, maximum reward journal that I started when 2012. I had two little kids at home and realized the days were blurring together.
With a 5-year journal, I can glance up a section or two and see what happened a year ago. On 14 April 2018… my daughter “lost her first tooth playing in the backyard. The ball hit her mouth and then she thought she had a nut in her mouth.” These things make me smile.
There are lots of 5-year journals out there. I use the Shopsins General Store 5 Year Diary.
In January 2019, I bought a gratitude journal and try to write down three things I’m grateful for most days. I’m intentionally less rigorous with this journal. Unlike my five-year journal, f I miss a day in the gratitude journal, I don’t go back and fill it in. Gratitude journals are most effective if we use them about three times a week. Less and it’s simply not enough. More and the effort of filling them in and thinking of something to be grateful for every single day because we have to can offset the benefits of the gratitude exercise.
My Gratitude Journal is from Chronicle Books and has a prompt every few pages that encourages you to think a little deeper. They repeat, sometimes. One I particularly like is to write down three things that went well and why they went well.
After years of using different paper agendas, I decided to try a method that would help me set daily priorities and reflecting more often on progress and goals. The Full-Focus Planner has a two-page spread for every day and four pages of reflection at the end of every week plus a ton of other layouts (monthly calendars, quarterly, goal setting, etc). I was a skeptic when I got it, but have found that it helps. I do my weekly review even if it happens on a Monday and, as a result, see and recognize my progress much better now. A big downside is that each planner only covers one quarter, but there are enough benefits for me that I’m planning to stick with them through the end of the year.
I’ve been keeping a personal journal since I was a kid, although I lost all my journals when we moved from Saudi Arabia back to the States. This used to be the real journal. It was the place I wrote my deepest darkest secrets, vented about all the things that bothered me, and let loose with my dreams and imagination.
Since starting my morning pages, however, I haven’t quite figured out what to do with this journal. I write in this journal sporadically and always keep a list of books read at the back of the book. I have filled about 40 notebooks over the past 25 years.
I always have a notebook exclusively for work. If I have a meeting, my notebooks is on the table. If I have an idea, it goes in the notebook. Research notes also go in there. They’re relatively well indexed with dates, client and project references, and an index. They are loose in form and essential for me to do my work. I have a Leuchturm dotted notebook right now and have been using it since December 2019.
Occasional: Project Journals
I use journals to track interests and projects. These all start and still live in blank books, so I get to form and reform them as I work. There are three associated with reading.
This is one journal that I started in January 1997. In it, I write down every book I read. Actually, I write them in my personal journal and then transfer the whole list to my reading list when I fill the journal. It’s only ⅓ full, so there’s a fair chance I’ll be working on filling this one for the rest of my life.
The value for me comes from seeing how much I’m reading and what I’ve read. In 2015, I noticed that I was reading a lot less and committed to reading more and reading in front of my kids more. It’s been effective and my annual reading has more than doubled since then. In 2015, I read 25 books. In 2019, I read 70.
Commonplace Book & Wish List
This is a little notebook where I write down the books I’d love to read in the back and quotes I want to keep in the front. When they meet, it’s time for a new notebook. These last me a few years each and I go back and look through both old and current lists periodically. I mark books with a horizontal line if I own them and finish the cross with a vertical line when I’ve read them.
On a trip to the US a few years ago, I knew we would be visiting Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. As a massive treat to myself, I took my wish list notebook and bought any used book I could find that was on my list. The memory still makes me smile!
This is a new project that was inspired by a friend. She keeps a journal with notes on books she’s read. I use it to reflect on books that I find particularly useful. I tend to be a month or so behind when it comes to taking notes and recording thoughts. I note anything immediate on an index card that I use as a bookmark and then underline and flag anything that looks like it might be worth coming back to.
This process is time-consuming but has had a noticeable impact on my ability to retain knowledge and to come up with references and comparisons while I’m writing or reading other books. It turns reading into studying.
Knitting and Sewing Journals
I keep separate journals for knitting and sewing projects. When I finish a project, I note the pattern, size, materials, and making notes. I also tape in a fabric swatch for sewing. For knitting, I add a piece of yarn and the wrapper with care information as well for future reference. In each, I can and do go back and make notes on how I might do it differently next time or what happened to garments, for example noting that I lost a hat I made on a trip this year.
So there you go – a mostly exhaustive list of the journal I keep up with on a regular basis. There are also sketchbooks and project-related notebooks that might be useful for a time or never get filled. I love my notebooks and my journaling practice. It’s just right for me.
If you’re thinking about journaling, please start. Start now and start in any notebook you can find. There is no right way to do it and there is no wrong way to do it. What’s holding you back?
If you do journal, please tell me about your practice! I’m always looking for inspiration and ideas to add to my own practice!