by Helen Kenwright
Most of the writers I know have a stack of notebooks that live a quiet life, sitting on a shelf or in the deep darkness of a drawer or chest. Doomed to be unwritten in, simply because they’re ‘too pretty to use’. I confess I have this problem myself. I can’t resist a pretty notebook, and generous friends buy them for me, too. But then I buy a stack of cheap, plain ones to write my drafts in. Workhorses. Ordinary enough that I won’t mind crossings out and bad handwriting and all that messy stuff that happens when you’re crafting something.
All of this set me thinking that really, I need to do something with those books. They were created to be written in, after all. So I decided that 2018 would be the year that I started a journal. But how?
In this article I share the fruits of my research on the topic in the form of a handy guide. Join me on my adventures into journalling!
What is Journalling?
Journalling covers a range of written forms, including the traditional daily diary. However, it also refers to a collection of writings of an emotional and observational nature. It includes the ‘bullet journal‘, which is focused on goals and the organisation of daily life, as well as a ‘reflective journal’ where you can mull on life experiences.
In this article I am interpreting journal loosely as ‘a collection of observational writings’, which could include any or all of the above.
There are many benefits of journalling besides the use of pretty notebooks. As writers, journalling encourages us to practise the art of observation and can help keep the pen flowing, even on days when we don’t have the time to work on a specific project. It can generate ideas and allow us to experiment with style and form.
Journalling is also good for our wellbeing. Expressive writing is one example of this, where you journal to express your feelings about things that are bothering you, and to reframe experiences in different ways. Journalling can also be straightforward catharsis – just getting all your thoughts, feelings and concerns down on paper can be a valuable release valve. Keeping a record of your thoughts and feelings also offers the opportunity for analysis and coming to a better understanding of yourself, as well as preserving memories for you to look back on in the future.
As well as these therapeutic benefits, journalling can simply be fun. It can encourage you to look at the world in different ways, to engage with your surroundings, to take time for yourself to reflect and enjoy whatever you’re writing about.
Writing for fun is often vastly under-rated. Most of us are taught writing as children, first and foremost as a method of accurately communicating information. Which is important, and great and all that – but it’s sad so many of us miss out on the fact that you can use those skills to play. Playful writing is, to my mind, where the magic happens.
As an added bonus, you can improve your writing through journalling. Every time you capture a new idea or observation in words, your brain will get a bit better at doing it, and it will get a little less scary.
I have already waxed lyrical about my choice of medium: the pretty notebook. I love fountain pens and coloured inks, so that’s what I’ll write in, as well as my trusty biro for when I’m out and about. But you can use whatever appeals. A friend of mine uses an artist’s sketchbook, so she can write or draw as she wishes. You might prefer a ring binder in which you can organise pages written on loose-leaf paper. Or you could a laptop, tablet, computer or phone, of course. You can keep your journal in a text document, or you may like to use a journalling service such as Dreamwidth.
Whichever you choose, let your instincts and aesthetic preferences guide you. This is about pleasure, after all, so the only rules are your own.
If you do choose the notebook route, there’s a huge range of options out there. Some journallers like blank pages for freedom. I’m going to try out a dotted bullet-style journal, because I’ve never used one before. Take your time and choose something that makes you want to write.
As well as your writing materials, you may wish to designate a drawer, box or shelf for collections of objects related to your journalling activity; a camera of some kind; and craft supplies such as coloured pencils, glue and highlighters if you fancy combining journalling with illustration and scrapbooking.
So, we have our notebook or laptop, freshly sharpened pencils, a nice cup of tea and we’re all ready to do this thing for pleasure, therapy and the greater good of our writing.
This is the point where it can all go horribly wrong. We face the eternal question of the writer. What shall I write about?
I could be mean and say ‘Anything!’ but I know very well what the expression on the faces of my students was when I last said that, so I will restrain myself, and give you a list of ideas for journal themes instead.
Many writing teachers, including perhaps most famously Dorothea Brande, Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron recommend that you begin the day by writing a minimum of three pages of something, usually freewriting. The idea is simply to go with whatever comes to mind. It’s great for keeping your writing flowing, for emptying your mind at the beginning or end of the day and for generating ideas. It can even become something close to a meditation practice, as Gail Sher recommends.
Write about the natural world around you. For example, choose a particular place you can visit regularly, and write about the nature you find there: plants, animals, mountains, rivers, oceans, weather. Or perhaps focus on a particular creature, such as birds, or an element, such as water, in different places. Look carefully, note details. Notice how things change over the course of weeks, months and years.
This is journal of reflections on things you’ve read, or watched, or listened to. It can take the term of a conventional review, but also your emotional response to the media, and what you can take from it to inform your writing going forwards.
This could be writing about foreign holidays or journeys – if you’re headed for a popular destination, you can even buy journals for the purpose, including maps and information about popular localities. But it can also be about local travel – days out with friends, local walks or train rides. We tend to rush through life without really thinking about all those routine journeys – but each can be its own adventure, and a great opportunity to observe.
If you’re going through a major life event, happy or otherwise, you can help to process and document the change through writing. In the case of something difficult, like grief or illness, your journal can hear all those fears and sadnesses you don’t feel able to share with another human being. If it’s a happy event like a marriage, new job, pregnancy, retirement or new relationship, you can document thoughts and feelings which will become valuable memories later down the line, and enable you to appreciate every moment.
In the responsive journal you write whatever you fancy. It might be a reaction to news events, an account of something amusing that happened to you, or a few observations you think might be useful for writing later.
The Writing Gym.
I think of this kind of journalling as a bit like doing circuit training in the gym. This is a journal where you write in response to exercises, prompts (like the daily prompts available on the Writing Tree’s twitter feed) or using random idea generators such as [Rory’s Cubes], [Haicubes] – or simply picking up a book and choosing the seventh sentence on the seventh page of the seventh chapter as a beginning.
The Bullet Journal.
Although bullet journals are mostly about setting and achieving goals and habits, there’s plenty of room there for writing, too. Annotate your progress (or lack of it!) with anecdotes about your day. So you did your washing? Yay! What about that fascinating woman you saw in the launderette? What did the washing powder smell like? Just a few lines of annotation can really bring your bullet points to life.
The Magpie Journal.
This journal comes complete with words, drawings, magazine clippings, that pretty feather you found on your morning walk, a photo of a cloud shaped like a phoenix – anything that captures your imagination.
Of course you’re not limited to one theme – mix and match to make your journal what reflects you as a writer, your interests and ideas.
That’s all there is to it!
So there you have it – nothing left but open the first page and get started. Remember, none of it has to be good, or meet anyone else’s expectations. Above all else, a journal is a place for you to be yourself, indulge your passions and just write. Who knows what wonderful words may drip from your pen or keyboard while you’re playing?
Have fun, and may your shiny notebooks become full of shiny things!