Lesson 1: How to Keep a Personal Journal


Jul 22 2014

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Have you ever taken up an activity just because someone in a book does it? Yours Truly Skye O’Shea made me want to play hockey, and after reading Anna and the French Kiss I started writing film reviews. But the best habit-from-fiction was starting a journal after reading the Amazing Days of Abby Hayes series as a kid.

Abby Hayes is a super-cool curly red-haired middle school chick whose room is covered in calendars (I started a calendar collection too, surprise surprise), and who loves writing in her journal with a purple pen.

The best New Year’s Resolution I ever kept was to journal every day. Throughout my childhood, I started journals, and kept them sporadically, but since about age 13, I’ve been writing every day, even if only for a sentence or even a clause.

Why Keep a Journal?

  • To be a better writer. Journalling is the singly-most useful thing I have done to improve my writing, whether academic or for my blog. To find your voice as a writer, first you have to free it. Separate the writer and the editor and let your creative self run wild. You can tame it later if necessary.
  • To find yourself. If you put pen to paper honestly and without filter, you’ll be surprised at the insights you can make into yourself. Does your head ever feel cluttered with thoughts? Mine does, and nothing cures it as much as an honest free write.
  • To motivate yourself. When I feel mopey and unmotivated, the best thing I can do is force myself to write on paper. Once I see the words “Uggh I don’t feel like doing anything waaaa” I realize how stupid I’m being.
  • To be a better artist. In The Artist’s Way, Julie Cameron recommends starting each day with a “morning pages” ritual.

How to Keep a Journal

First, find a notebook that inspires you. My first journal, at age 8, was a composition book. I’ve tried different kinds over the years (spiral, bound, lined, non-lined), and have settled on Molekine sketchbooks: unlined and bound, but shut with elastic. This last feature is important for keeping the journal private. I know it’s tempting for prying eyes, but they’re likely to be that much more restrained when faced with a barrier. I also like to keep books somewhat uniform. I adore Blair Waldorf’s matching set from Tiffany’s:

Next, choose a writing instrument. I write best with fountain and ballpoint pens, and am most studious with pencil. Middle school conditioned me.

Establish a routine. Write first thing in the morning, just after breakfast, on the Tube home, or just before bed. Pick one time of day and stick to it. Somewhere I’d read of a man who journalled only during spare moments before flights – a calm ritual for a frequent flyer. Set triggers.

Don’t let anyone read it. Not just so that you can divulge your deepest secrets, but also to free yourself from judgment. No pressure to be witty, eloquent, or brilliant. Be your unedited self and trust that it’s enough.

What to Write About

Put pen to paper. Force yourself not to stop. Keep writing, even if you include “uh”s and “…”s. At first your entries might just be “I don’t know what to write. This is awkward”. Stick to it and you’ll find your groove.

As a kid I felt compelled to introduce myself to each new book, complete with location and favourite colour. Do this if you want, but I don’t bother anymore. I used to also name my journals, since Anne Frank did. I don’t anymore. I just start each entry with a star and the date.

Start with just a sentence. Some of my entries are just the date and “I’m too tired to write”. It’s a start. I upped it to a page, and now I write at least four pages each morning.

Listen to music. Some background music can spark emotions or thoughts.

Journal in interesting places. I like to sit on the roof, or just outside, and am inspired by nature’s sights and sounds. You can also journal while people-watching in a train station, or in a cosy bookstore armchair – mix it up and see what comes to you!


What is your first step?

Is it picking out a journal?

Do you already have one, but you need to start a routine?

Share your progress in the comments! 

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