“My journals,” I recently told a friend, “are like junk drawers.”
It’s true. I use my journals (and at any given time I keep more than one) for almost everything – not just the traditional task of keeping a diary – but for jotting down shopping lists, task-tracking, brainstorming and problem-solving, and multiple forms of creative writing, to say nothing of sketching and doodling. Leafing through these haphazard compilations, which I often do when seeking ideas for blog posts, it’s not hard to think of the journals as messy drawers crammed full of random bits and pieces, from the ordinary and useful – scissors, safety pins, matches, the miniature screwdriver; to things of questionable value, like the vacuum cleaner attachment that seems to have outlived the vacuum; and of course those enigmatic mystery items (usually plastic) that leave me scratching my head. All these things have their analogs within the pages of my journals.
My diary entries are scattershot, and in fairness most of them could be dismissed as woolgathering, navel-gazing, or just plain venting. They reflect the shifting scenes and fluctuating emotions of my daily life – as mom, as writer, as someone who just had to scrape ice off the windshield of her car, or who recently enjoyed a pleasant walk to Starbucks for a blonde vanilla latte – stuff that is presumably of no interest to anyone but me. My journal habit began with recording the things in my mundane world. This was required, twice-a-week homework during the sixth grade, and I’ve kept diaries of various kinds (sometimes with gaps of months or years between them) ever since. The writing is no longer homework. It’s become a necessary ritual. Writing before bed, even just a line or two (if I’m really exhausted I’ll dictate a few words into my phone’s voice-to-text app) has become my preferred method for laying my day to rest so that I can rest, too. If I neglect this ritual for more than a few days, I become annoyed – and probably annoying too – cranky because of the vague but nagging sense that I have left important things undone or important words unsaid – or rather, unwritten.
Over the years, my journals have evolved. They now hold schedules, quotations and calendars, poetry (good and bad, my own and that of others). They have become nooks for creative writing – for the hoarding of story ideas, passages of dialogue, descriptions of things seen and imagined, embryonic blog posts, drawings, calligraphy, roughed-out grids for page designs, and countless experiments in linking words with images. (See my earlier post “The Unicorn in the Notebook” for more about drawing in a journal – something which has proved a creative breakthrough for me.)
I regularly drop items into these archives-of-everything and then rifle back through them in search of something useful or inspiring. I might equally well call these notebooks my writing tool-kit, laboratory, or craft table. It’s no exaggeration to say that journal-keeping has become the work-horse of my daily writing practice.
At times I’ve tried, mostly in vain, to organize my journals – perhaps creating a separate notebook for diary entries and another to function as a “writer’s journal” for storing creative ideas. The trouble is, these separate journals never stay separated for long. At some point, what starts out as flatware drawer collects one screwdriver or match-book too many, and eventually it becomes yet another creative catch-all – a junk drawer. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I have some form of adult ADD. Maybe as the parent of an autistic child, my life is simply more chaotic and my journals have come to reflect that.
Or maybe at some point I just decided to quit overthinking my journaling methods and style. (Nah. That can’t be … I’m overthinking them here and now, right? Oh, well …)
In the end, for me anyway, it almost doesn’t matter what I put in my journal, as long as I write something most days. It doesn’t matter if my most creative thought in any given moment is a plot summary for a novel, a reminder that I’m running out of milk and toilet paper, or a sudden brainwave about adding diced carrot to my tuna salad at lunch time. What matters is the act of recording the thought, the continuous, comforting scratch of pen on paper.
Recently I’ve started to wonder a) exactly how I arrived at using my journals this way – because I didn’t always, b) how to make better, more intentional use of my journals in future projects, and c) just how many things can one do with a journal, anyway?
With all these notions in mind, I started to draft this blog post, in (where else?) one of my journals. Looking for ways to document my own journal habit, and again thinking about the relationship between words and images, I decided to take photos of some current and past journals. I gathered up the ones within easy reach – and soon found myself astonished at how many there were. I piled them onto my bed, marveling at their outward variety. There were spiral notebooks, “fine” journals with fancy paper and expensive bindings, illustrated journals, appointment books, and my current favorite – cheap, stitch-bound student comp books – most often covered in generic marble-print, and easily found at the grocery or dollar store.
As the pile grew – as I looked through one book after another, at the dates on the pages filled with my own handwriting – I was a little stunned to realize that I had indeed been keeping journals in some form – haphazardly to be sure, since the late 1970s. That’s more than forty years, or roughly since the age of eleven.
I found myself fascinated by the journals as physical objects – especially by the damage each had sustained, from the wear and tear of travel and general use to bathtub soaks and coffee spills, to scribbles and page-tearing by my son. Each book showed traces of the life it had led while bumping around in the backpacks, literal and figurative, of my life. There was the psychedelic cloth-bound book from the little counter-culture shop in San Francisco, purchased in the 1990s and now scored with ballpoint toddler scribbles alongside my fanfiction notes. Here, the college comp book from the 1980s with its nearly torn-off cover. The Unicorn Notebook, from my undergraduate days, is still a favorite, lush with illustrations by fantasy artist Michael Greene, full of poetry by William Blake and Eve Merriam, carefully copied out in fountain pen by my twenty-year-old self, alongside my own efforts at poetry. The unlined journal from the Book of the Month Club, filled with entries on my dawning (unrequited) love-life, is now half-fallen out of its soft cover, the glue binding brittle and cracked with age.
Even some of my newer journals have been recovered and/or had their bindings re-stitched.
Placed end-to-end, the journals are a battered lineup of old warriors – dented, patched, multicolored – containing the varied stories of my various lives: teenager, college student, new mom, autism mom, fiction writer, aspiring poet, cancer patient, cancer survivor – the list goes on.
As I looked at them all piled together, holding their legions of stories and artifacts of my past and present selves, I realized I couldn’t write just one blog-post about journals – if it was going to be a blog-post and not a full-length book. It had to be a series of essays, of which this entry is the first.
My plan is to post here about every two weeks for the next two-to-three months on different aspects of journal-keeping: how I’ve used my journals over the years, how those uses have changed, the different purposes a journal might serve, the different ways one may be kept, perhaps some deep dives into specific journal entries or habits of mine … and more. I hope to encourage you the reader to keep a journal if you never have – or to explore your own journals more fully if you already do. If you have the time, I suggest reading Alexandra Johnson’s Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal, possibly the best book ever on not just keeping a journal, but on making your journal into both a friend and an artist’s tool-box.
Or a junk drawer.
I’ll close with this poem, found in one of those drawers. It’s dated April 1990, and therefore was written twenty-eight years ago – when I was twenty-five. It seems uncannily appropriate to the subject at hand.
There is a place
with blue-tinted bricks.
the concrete arch
the blue corners
the shelves crammed blue.
book is here
written or not.
Open the pages.