journals

10 Tips For Keeping a Journal

Journals

I started my first journals when I was in junior high. I called them my “poetry journals” because they were filled with—you guessed it—poetry. Mostly really, really dramatic rhyming poetry with titles like “Flirting with Disaster” and “Dancing with Danger.” Those journals evolved to include favorite quotes, photos, birthday cards, cartoons cut out of the newspaper, random snippets about my life, and strange collages created from cutting up trashy tabloid magazines. But I still called them my “poetry journals.”

On the night before I left for college, when I was eighteen, I finally started my first real diary-like journal, and I’ve been keeping one pretty consistently ever since. I currently have twenty-eight volumes. That doesn’t include those old “poetry journals” I made, or the few dream journals I kept, or the many writers’ notebooks I’ve compiled in the last few years. That’s twenty-eight journals full of pages and pages and pages of writing about my life. Of talking to myself on paper. Of all the love and loss and contentment and craziness crammed in my little brain.

Some people have trouble keeping a journal for a month, much less twenty-one years. (Yep, I’m 39. Good job on those math skills.) So how did I do it? How did I keep a journal going for more than two decades? I’ll tell you.

10 Tips For Keeping a Journal

JournalCollage

1. DON’T Write Everyday!

Wait, what? Are you serious?

Yes, I’m serious. This doesn’t apply to people working on a novel. In that case, yes, you should probably write everyday (even though I consistently fail at that). But when it comes to journaling, the quickest way to kill the habit is to put undue pressure on yourself. If you tell yourself you HAVE to write everyday, one of three things is going to happen.

  • A) Pretty soon you’ll miss a day and then you’ll feel like a failure and you’ll give up.
  • B) You’ll actually write in it everyday, but soon your entries will start to sound like this: Bought milk on the way home. Did some laundry. Um… what else? Congratulations! You’re writing a journal no one (not even you) will ever want to read.
  • C) You’ll write every single day, and it will become easier and easier, and your entries will get longer and longer, and you will learn so much about yourself, and when you finish the journal you’ll realize it contains the memoir you’ve always wanted to write, and it’s publishable immediately with no revision!

Just kidding. C doesn’t happen. It turns out there were only two choices.

Here’s the deal: when it comes to your journal, sometimes distance makes the heart grow fonder. Think of it like a really good friend who you don’t see every day. Isn’t it more fun to get together when you have life stuff to catch up on? Keep your journal handy—it should never be far—but let it rest a little while you gather some things to tell it. Next time you pick it up, you may write something worth reading.

2. Skip to the Good Stuff.

When you do pick up your journal and start to write, don’t feel like you have to fill it in on every detail of your life. If you did that to your friend, her eyes would glaze over pretty quickly. Show your journal the same respect. I don’t know how many times I’ve scribbled out four pages of babble until my hand was sore and THEN written, “But what I really wanted to write about was…” When I do that, the big news often gets short-changed in the entry.

Journal #29

Journal #29

3. Think Small.

Then again… if you wait until you have “good stuff” to write about, your journal may stay closed for months, and that’s no good. The truth is, there’s “good stuff” happening all around us almost every day. Consider this—who’s this journal for? You, right? What will YOU want to look back on in ten years? Chances are, you’re going to remember the big things. Your wedding, your novel getting published, that time you won $7,000,000 in the lottery—those are going to stick with you. What you’ll crave are the little things. The tiny little slices of life that you’ve forgotten about. So your job when journaling is to master the mundane. Where are you? What are you wearing? What are you listening to? Personally, I’m sitting in my office at home at 10:23PM, wearing my polar bear pajamas (pretty new) and my faded black Dirty Dancing t-shirt (very old), and my iTunes just started playing “Cheating Man” by Jeff Plankenhorn. That right there will tell me more about life at this moment than anything else I can think of to say. Write small now and it will have a big impact later.

4. Get Some Guidance.

If you’re stymied by the blank page and even thinking small isn’t helping, consider starting with a journal that offers some assistance. There are numerous diaries and journals out there that offer a lot more than empty space within their pages. There are journals that guide you through prompts, questions, lists, meditations, affirmations, and more. Three popular ones are: Listography, Wreck This Journal, and the 5-Year Q&A Journal. <– I have this one and I recommend it even if you use a traditional format too. Each page is a day of the year and each day has a question. You have four lines to answer it. You repeat this daily exercise for five years. I admit, the first year it was a little boring, but I’m on the fourth year now, and I love reading my past answers and seeing how life has changed (or not) during that time. Four lines is not a lot of space, so the writing gets cramped. For that reason, I write in a different color every year to make the separation visible. (2016 is blue.)

5. Break the Rules.

Write upside down. Doodle. Skip a page. Use a big fat Sharpie. This is YOUR JOURNAL. Whatever rules you’re following came from YOU. You can change them.

If you’re using a guided journal, don’t be afraid to stray from the path. Ignore the question of the day and write whatever you want. When you find yourself going on more and more tangents, you’ll know you’re ready to tackle the blank page.

I contemplate journaling theory in the second entry of my first ever diary-journal.

I contemplate journaling theory in the second entry of my first ever diary-journal in August 1995. I must have come up with a point, since I kept writing.

6. Go Back.

You’re doing it! You’re finally keeping a journal! You’ve written so much! Now what? Let a little time pass, and then go back and reread. This is a wonderful experience. Yes, you’ll probably cringe a little. There will be at least one point where you’ll blush uncontrollably, look around to make sure your mom/dad/husband/high school crush is not reading over your shoulder, and then slam the cover shut anyway, just in case. But you’ll also laugh and smile a lot and maybe even find a few treasures.

I have a ritual I like to do. When I finish a journal, I like to flip back to the first page and read the first sentence of every entry. Sometimes just those snippets tell a story.

7. Choose Wisely.

Take the time to find a journal you really love. There are so many styles and varieties out there, you should be able to get something that’s comfortable and fits your personality. But don’t choose something so fancy and expensive that you’ll be afraid to write in it. Your journal shouldn’t be a shrine. Let it get messy.

Bookmarks

8. Mark Your Place.

In addition to a good journal, you also need a good bookmark. Whether it’s a cute little tasseled thing with a kitten on it, a photograph, a fall leaf you picked up in the park, or simply the closest not-too-crinkled post-it note, use something to mark your progress through your new adventure. If you’re like me, as the marker approaches the finish line, you’ll find yourself writing more. Oh how I love to finish things!

9. Enter the Cloud, If You Must.

Obviously, when it comes to journaling, I am a pen and paper person. Give me ink and parchment or give me death! No, wait. Not death. I’ll scratch my diary entry in the dust with a stick if I have to. Luckily, I have a lot of both around. But I digress. (Sorry, it’s really late.) If you’re more comfortable keeping your journal online, so be it. Tips #1-6 still apply. Although it will be a lot harder to write upside down on the computer. ˙ƃuıɥʇʎuɐ ǝlƃooƃ uɐɔ noʎ ¡ɐɥ ɐɥ ɐɥ ɐɥ ɐɥ ɐɥ ¡ʇno ʇı pǝɹnƃıɟ ı ¡ʞool

10. Get Back to Basics.

Let’s say you start a journal. Let’s say you take my advice and don’t pressure yourself to write every day. Or every week even. Let’s say that… oh… SIX MONTHS go by without you writing in your journal. Or LONGER. There’s NO WAY you can catch up on everything that’s happened since you’ve been gone. You don’t even remember the big stuff, much less the small stuff. That blank page of failure is staring up at you. What do you do?

You pick up your pen. You write down today’s date. You jot down the time. You take a deep breath. You write, Hello journal. I’ve missed you. And you go from there.

Just be yourself. Just have fun with it. Just write. Journals are very forgiving creatures. There’s no way to do it wrong.

JournalStack

For a sneak peek into some of my old journal entries, check out this post from my previous blog.

 

Where Ideas Come From

I just picked up an old journal from January of 2011 and found the first, very rough, draft of my poem “Enchanted Rock in September” which was published in the 2012 Texas Poetry Calendar.

If you’d asked me yesterday, I would have guessed I wrote that poem in the summer, or maybe during a poetry lesson with my seventh graders during the fall of 2010. I never would have come up with the truth—that I penned it around 10:00 p.m. on January 31st while sitting by the fire pit in my backyard waiting on a cold front.

EnchantedRockDraft

Here a few of the thoughts I captured that night before I turned my attention to poetry:

“I am sitting in my backyard writing by the light of the campfire I just made for myself (with the help of the fire-starter log from HEB). My plan is to sit here and write in my journal and drink this High Life and read Lolita and enjoy the evening for as long as I like… Tomorrow we are getting a true ‘arctic blast’ that will drop our temperatures down into the teens at night with wind chills in the single digits. Not exactly campfire weather to me. I’ll probably be inside the house, next to the fireplace, wearing a sweatshirt and a scarf, drinking hot tea with a cat on my lap. But tonight I’m wearing my Spider-Man t-shirt and jeans and flip-flops. The thermometer on the back porch says it’s sixty-eight degrees and there is a little breeze that brings along a cool kick with it once in a while—a hint of the cold to come. Perfect weather… Just went inside to check the forecast. They’re saying there will be a low overnight of 50 and a high tomorrow of 35. That doesn’t make any sense to me and makes my brain hurt… I hear a guy whistling a tune. It kind of sounds like it’s coming from the veloway [the bike and rollerblade path behind our house]. A musical rollerblading ghost perhaps? Probably just a neighbor.”

That forecast still doesn’t make any sense to me, nor does it make sense that on a January night of campfires and arctic blasts and rollerblading ghosts, I chose to write a poem about hiking up Enchanted Rock in September. But I did, and I’m glad, because I really like that poem.

Ideas can come out of nowhere. My story “A Fair Day,” which starts out with a man staring at a severed human elbow, was born on an airplane on Christmas Day in 2010, as my husband and I flew from his family’s home to mine to celebrate the holiday. The fact that a hot air balloon features heavily in the story comes from some stationery I had at the time. I have no clue why my brain was creating murderous characters and gruesome deaths on a day when I was sublimely happy and enjoying time with loved ones. It just did.

Balloon

Other times, the inspiration behind a piece is easier to pinpoint. In my story “The Jack-in-the-Box,” a twelve-year-old girl whose father has just died begins receiving messages from the clown inside an old jack-in-the-box toy. The seed for this story was planted when I was playing with my two-year-old niece and her own jack-in-the-box. Hers had a dragon inside, not a clown, but it still scared me. Jack-in-the-boxes have always scared me. My niece wasn’t frightened at all and just kept playing the thing over and over and over, and I found myself thinking, What if one time when the lid popped open something was different? I started writing the story and discovered what would happen as I went.

Sometimes the motivation behind the story actually gets edited out during the revising process. The idea for “The Girl in the Attic,” which was published this summer in Growing Pains by Sinister Saints Press, came from a friend’s Facebook post. She wrote, “Omg. Something in my attic is knocking. Like, ‘Hello? Is anyone home?’ knocking. If I don’t come back… don’t send anyone after me.” I immediately started typing out a story about a girl who hears a knocking coming from the mysterious attic door she’s not allowed to open and decides to investigate. I was well into my first draft and struggling to keep the thread of the story intact, when I realized the knock didn’t make any sense in the literary world I’d created. So I deleted it. There’s still a girl and a mysterious attic door and good amount of horror, but no knocking sound. The story didn’t need it. And yet, without the Facebook post about the knock, I never would have written the story. (Oh and my friend did come back from her attic, by the way. All was well. This time.)

You never know when or where a good idea will strike—on an airplane, by a campfire, or even just checking Facebook. I guess the important thing is to recognize them when they come along, trust your instincts, and see what happens.

A Blank Page and an Open Mind

Three years ago, I sat in a coffee shop with a brand new journal, some colored pens, a stack of magazines, a pair of scissors, and a glue stick. I’d just decided to end my teaching career and become a writer. Faced with the opportunity in front of me, I felt both excited and overwhelmed in equal measure. After all, I didn’t exactly know what being a writer looked like. So I did what I always do when I need to figure things out. I sat down with a blank page and an open mind.

This is what I produced:

WritingLifeFoundPoem3

This found poem is still one of my favorite things. I re-read it a couple of times a year, and it never fails to inspire me anew. The journal it’s in is no longer blank. I stayed in that coffee shop for hours, filling it with ideas, story beginnings, homeless lines of poetry, and the very first to do lists for my new life as a writer. With every word I wrote down, I felt more confident, more sure of my decision. By the time I came home, I still didn’t know exactly what it meant to be a writer, but I was ready to find out.

There’s some good stuff in that journal. Once in a while I open it up and find an idea that’s ripened into something juicy. Some of the vagrant lines of poetry have found homes; others still wait patiently. But my favorite thing about it is the way it serves as a concrete reminder of where I started and how much I’ve learned. Three years ago, my to do list included items like “Research steps to publishing a novel” (as if it were that simple) and “Find a third publication to submit poetry” (because back then I had only two credits to my name and no idea just how many opportunities there are for submitting work).

When I look at this journal, and the found poem that started it all, I can’t help but wonder what the next three years will teach me. I guess there’s only one way to find out.

She dusts off her to do list and…