How to Keep a Journal (and Why You Should Bother)

Perhaps you have heard that it is helpful to keep a journal. Perhaps you have tried doing so. Perhaps the habit of journal-keeping has never really stuck. Perhaps, when you read back through what you have written you find yourself to be incoherent, or whiney, or otherwise disappointing. At this juncture you cease the exercise, the journal falls into disuse, and you resume living a life that is unrecorded. But perhaps sometimes you wish you kept a journal, if only to remember what happened when, or to know yourself a little better, or to have some private solace to turn towards in times of turmoil. Perhaps, sometimes, it is insufficient to capture a dawn scene with your phone’s camera, or the exuberance of a night out with the same. You think it might be nice to write the moment down, record it in language, however clumsy. Perhaps you have a fight with your partner or your spouse about something that happened years or months ago, and you wish you had written events down then, because neither one of you can actually remember what happened. Perhaps you sense that, with a little more time and deliberate recording, you might have a better sense of our own life. Perhaps a therapist or a friend has told you to keep a journal and you feel you don’t really know how. Let me tell you what I do, and how I have found it to be useful. 

A morning spent with my journal and lots of coffee

I have kept journals off-and-on throughout my life, and at times have found them to be pretty useless, but at other times they have proved immensely valuable. Reading the journals or diaries of the great diarists has helped keep up my interest in the subject. Read the diaries of Anaïs Nin, if you haven’t, but be warned that you might feel your own poor scribbles to be pretty shabby by comparison. Her capacity for describing a banal moment, and infusing it with all her wealth of insight and character, is occasionally astonishing. Still, it is helpful to have something to aim for.

But my own journaling is not so literary right now. It is really pretty simple and pragmatic.

In recent years I have developed a consistent journaling habit. It has stuck, for some reason, in a way that my previous efforts had not. I do three things every day. First, I record a number of habits completed the previous day, just with check marks in columns. These include things like eating at least five vegetables, getting some exercise, and whether or not I slept the night through. I list these habits out fresh each month, and some things are the same every month, like the vegetables, and some things change, like working on my dissertation every day. I make a little check mark or ‘x’ beside the habit and tally them up at the end of each month to see if my daily life is setting me up to reach various goals. If I do not do this, I tend not to know if my regular behavior is really working for me, so I find it useful. I read somewhere that things do not bring you happiness, but good habits do. I have found this to be true, and so a little monitoring goes a long way in building the life that suits me best. In the same book I also write one thing every day that I am grateful for, or (if the gratitude exercise is feeling a little forced) something that stuck out as a major theme. This is usually fairly short but is a nice exercise for gauging my mood and my sense of proportion in the world. Even on the darkest days I have something to express gratitude for, or I can note the theme of my thoughts and moods. 

The second thing I do is write in a five-year journal. It is only about six lines every day, so not very arduous. I have found it really fascinating to be able to look back at what I was doing on the twentieth of June several years in a row. It helps me to see how my life has unfolded, what the turning points are. It is surprising, but these are not always obvious. I try to record my own mood as well as the largest activities, and occasionally the weather because for some reason I find it interesting to see what the weather was like on this day three years ago. It is probably not interesting to anybody else. That is fine; it is not for anyone else.

A view from inside looking out a window onto a lake with a gentle pink sunrise on the horizon
The dawn view out my window

These first two notebooks take about five minutes to complete, and I do this most mornings upon waking. After I’ve had some coffee I embark on the third part, which takes a little bit longer.  It is essentially a version of Julia Cameron’s “morning pages,” an exercise that is so culturally ubiquitous at this point it even turned up in a recent dissertation writing workshop I attended. The idea is simple, but transformative. All you do is write, by hand, for three pages. Do this early in the day, as close to waking as possible, and do it quickly, and don’t read what you have written until at least six months have gone by. I do two pages because I prefer a legal pad for my writing, and I can’t have the exercise take forever. I write a lot about what happened the day before, but also investigate my emotional landscape, the things below the surface that are troubling me, or are worth celebrating. I put no rules on these pages, though. If I don’t know what to write, I fall back on conventions, like listing the day’s activities, or the weather. But I’ve also had entire essays spring from these pages, nearly fully formed. I’ve worked out tricky bits of my dissertation in these pages. I’ve whined, and I’ve been the worst version of me, selfish and aggressive and unfeeling. I’ve bee the best version, too.

The point is not for these pages to be anything but space, space for the fullness of your personality to make itself known. This takes time. I have been doing this regularly for ten months now. When I began it was a chore; now I wouldn’t miss it for the world. 

Is it a coincidence that during this time I’ve moved from the city I had lived in for eight years? That I’ve embarked on a career that I hope will be my calling? That I’ve finally found the wherewithal to finish my dissertation? That I’ve renewed friendships and re-awoken a slumbering spiritual practice? Perhaps. But I don’t think so. Because in giving myself the space every day to explore another corner of my personality, I have found a clarity about myself I had never known before. From clarity springs action.

W.H. Auden, in his lectures on Shakespeare given in the late 1940s, describes our society as imperiled, just as ancient Rome was at the time of Julius Caesar. This play, he says, “has great relevance to our time, though it is gloomier, because it is about a society that is doomed. Our society is not doomed, but in such immense danger that the relevance is great…. It was a society doomed not by the evil passions of selfish individuals, because such passions always exist, but by an intellectual and spiritual failure of nerve that made the society incapable of coping with its situation, which is why the noble Brutus is even more at sea in the play than the unscrupulous and brutal Antony.” (P.126) Though Auden wasn’t describing the current moment of 2022 in America, he could have been. Today, intellectual and spiritual nerve are also in short supply. It is the failure of nerve that makes the society or the individual unable to cope. One must first develop the courage to see what the actual situation is.

When my journaling attempts failed in the past, it was due to a failure of intellectual and spiritual nerve. I saw myself on the page and I was embarrassed. Now, because I give myself the gift of not looking back to the page for at least six months, I can attempt honesty and clarity. Because I give myself the gift of other notebooks doing the simplest of recording, I Don’t feel that there is anything I particularly need to capture in my morning pages. And so the the truth comes out, along with lies and whines and misjudgments and and al the rest of the mess of being human. But once spoken, truth is hard to ignore. Once written, it is difficult to spin, at least for a readership of one. This journal practice works a slow, subtle kind of magic on the writer. Bit by bit, you develop the nerve so say the thing you don’t want said. Bit by bit, you become more capable of coping. Slowly, slowly, you become less lost at sea. Perhaps, when the crisis comes, as crises always do, you will be prepared to look the moment in the face, and act.  

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