An Introduction to Journal Writing

I’ve received quite a few requests to repost this classic:


Douglas Johnston of D*I*Y Planner is starting a new book project and shares the first draft:

"Journal writing. What a terrifying and intimidating concept to many
of us. It’s rather like keeping a diary, some consider, but one we have
to take far more seriously, and one that will shame us to the core
should its ill-conceived words be read by another. Others conjure up
images of literati sitting in Parisian cafés, sipping expressos by day
and sucking back brandy or absynthe by night, committing all their
complex thoughts about la condition humaine to their sacred
little notebooks. Still others, beguiled by the mysterious power of
becoming a creator, see journalling as a form of automatic writing, a
way of channelling higher spirits into words upon a page, completely
uninfluenced by the hand that inscribes them.

Hooey. Those are all ridiculous notions, ones that arise from fears
and stereotypes. There are plenty of reasons to keep a journal, and
very few of them involve any higher calling, or desire to be
psychologically laid bare and naked for the world to critique. Journal
writing, in its simplest form, is for collecting, remembering,
exploring, and providing focus; all of us –whether we’re a depressed
teenager or a world-hardened scion of industry– can benefit from
keeping one, and on so many levels.

I kept a journal religiously all the way through high school, a
receptacle into which I poured my overly-personal teenage angst
–punctuated by alternating periods of elation and melancholy– and
collected my half-formed poems (which, of course, were about angst in a
more general sense). I wrote vociferously, often churning my stomach
into twenty pages a day, and made copious sketches, diagrams and lists
whenever I felt the calling. I continued to spill my guts and blood
–albeit in a slightly more educated fashion– all the way through
college, often skipping classes to commit dreams and wild-eyed
speculation to the pages, scribbling till my right hand cramped up and
then trying to write with my left one…."


[Thanks to Barbara Benton]

Photo: "Life on the Edge"
By theprint on Moleskinerie/FLICKR

© All rights reserved. Used with permission.

4 thoughts on “An Introduction to Journal Writing

  1. I wonder at how so many of us have such different feelings about the WORDS diary and journal. I like notebook as a word, because I dislike the other two. A Journal, it seems to me is a self-improvement thing with exercises meted out for personal growth, or by a therapist, or in rehab. I HATE the word “journalling” as a verb. In the modern world, there’s really no choice in that matter. And “diary” by the way, was the only word for hundreds of years for the exact same activity. I think we have th idea that they concern teenagers, or less sophisticated people from bygone days–but they are defined as the same thing, it’s only our own interpretation to feel one way or another about these terms. I also associate journals with “growth”, growth that I may not even want to have. Mentally good for you. A part of this nutritious breakfast.

    I don’t know what the black bullets were about when I opened the main page, but they have got to go.

  2. Another thing I was just thinking. You know after Anais Nin and Ira Progoff and then Tristan Rainer–all of this started the concept that you will spiritualy evolve from journal keeping (provided of course that you use some of their techniques). I’m sure that works for people, but it’s not the alpha and the omega. People have been horrible gossips in their diaries, confessed all their sins, written about nothing but their sex lives, with critical reviews of their partners. You can do whatever you want. Naughty or nice. I doubt very much that I really “benefit” in the way that you’re “supposed to”. It’s merely a major part of my life.

  3. Sophie,
    I’ve always thought of notebooks as “journals” in the sense you describe, I also know and love the things Anais Nin and Tristine Rainer wrote about journal writing. And yes, I also think journal writing is a tool for self-improvement or personal growth or whatever you’d like to call it. But I guess we have different ideas of how this self-improvemant thing may work.
    For me, it’s not about exercises or list-your-ten-favourite-whatevers. It’s just about whatever you feel good writing about, be it gossip, sex lives, thoughts on nail polish – the point is that by writing it down, you reflect on your thoughts and feelings and differentiate between important (write down) and unimportant (not written down) stuff on your mind. Even if you don’t go any further from there on (as to explore your motives, wishes or hopes), this is already something mentally healthy.
    And that’s basically what Rainer and Nin say about journal writing, there’s no fitness training program they want to sell. They just offer some tips for people who don’t know where to start. I really recommend reading a volume of Anais Nin’s journals, she has a wonderful writing style and you’ll see even she writes about little more than gossip, sins, sex lives and partners.

  4. I really enjoy your blog. I create custom memoir volumes and journals with thought provoking questions on each page to help those interested in writing a journal or memoir get started. Take a look and be sure to download your free eMemoir Volume to get started! ‘Every person’s life is a contribution to the story of mankind and each person’s story that isn’t recorded is like a missing page from the greatest story ever created.’ Hand Hewn

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