Keeping a personal journal can be a useful way to maintain a healthy mind. “Journaling has become a hallmark of the so-called self-care movement, right up there with meditation,” The New York Times wrote in 2018. Having kept my own journal since 1993, I can affirm that it aids your memory, improves your grammar, enhances your focus and draws out admissions and insights that you’d never share on social media. Here’s some advice on starting your own.
You generally don’t need special accoutrements for journaling, like fountain pens or Moleskine notebooks. I kept my first journal on office legal pads with a cheap ballpoint pen, then graduated to spiral-bound notebooks and more expensive ballpoints, and then ultimately to, um, fountain pens and Moleskine notebooks. But that’s just me. You can start with any kind of pen and paper—or forgo analog completely and use a laptop or smartphone. Go with whatever feels natural to you, as long as it’s private and personal.
They wrote it all down
Many authors keep journals as a repository for insights and ideas. Here’s what some have to say about the process.
“This book is my savings bank. I grow richer because I have somewhere to deposit my earnings; and fractions are worth more to me because corresponding fractions are waiting here that shall be made integers by their addition.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink.” –Virginia Woolf
“In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations. … We may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition.” –Franz Kafka
“I’ve been keeping a diary for 33 years and write in it every morning. Most of it’s just whining, but every so often there’ll be something I can use later: a joke, a description, a quote. It’s an invaluable aid when it comes to winning arguments. ‘That’s not what you said on February 3, 1996,’ I’ll say to someone.” –David Sedaris
Journaling for artists
Mary Martin is a self-described “art journaler.” She’s part of a community of creatives that approaches journaling as a form of collage, primarily using Midori Traveler’s Factory notebooks (travelers-factory.com), a leather-bound Japanese import with removable sections. Martin calls this style of journaling “memory-keeping,” and it’s strikingly beautiful—words twist around drawings, plein air watercolors, stickers and bits of applied found art, which Martin calls “ephemera.” In a way, it’s like looking through an illuminated manuscript. (See the #midoritravelersnotebook hashtag on Instagram for examples.)
Martin got her first Midori Traveler’s Factory Notebook as a birthday gift in April 2018. Years ago, she used to keep a Moleskine journal—including “bits of ephemera,” even then—but it didn’t compel her the way art journaling does. “It pulls on me creatively,” she tells the Weekly. “Like many artists, if I’m looking at an A5-sized sheet of blank paper, I’ll freak out. Since this is a smaller format, I feel like I can experiment and not screw up—and if I do, I can always cover it.”
It also provides an invaluable emotional aid. “I disassociate, and I don’t always know that I’m doing it,” she says. “Many parts of my life I just don’t remember, because I was in a dissociative state. This is my way of combating that. If I’m not fully present, I can now look back and remember what I said or did.”
It has proven so beneficial for Martin, she now keeps several books. “I have a journal for my memory-keeping, a separate one for my tarot studies and also a dream journal. Having everything in one spot … that’s too convoluted for me,” she says, chuckling.
How to start a journal (and keep it going)
Just start. Write down whatever comes into your mind, even if it’s I don’t know what to write. “Writing in your journal is the only way to find out what you should be writing about,” the 2018 New York Times article explained. Write something down, then something else and just keep going. (And don’t forget to date your entries when you’re done; it’s a nice way to track your progress over time.) Still stuck? Do a web search for “journaling prompts.”
Make it a habit. Journaling is very similar to exercise, in that while it’s easy to skip, you feel better after you’ve done it, and the positive effects of it unfold over time. If you don’t want to make it a daily thing, you don’t have to. Commit to the idea, and you’ll find your own rhythm, whether it’s daily, weekly or even monthly. And don’t beat yourself up when you lapse; just pick it up again when you’re feeling it.
Don’t hold back, and don’t overthink. Journaling is for your benefit and no one else’s. Knowing that will allow you to be more honest in your writing. And don’t write for an audience other than yourself; that’s trying too hard. You’ll end up writing stuff that doesn’t even make sense to you later on.
Never cross anything out; never tear out a page. When you’ve written something cringeworthy—something you’re embarrassed to admit came out of your own head—or misspelled a word beyond recognition, don’t give in to the urge to trash it. We make mistakes in life; it’s only natural we should make mistakes in our journals.