At the end of January, I pulled out an old notebook and started journaling. Eleven months and nine notebooks later, I have written something just about every day since then. (Okay, I’m not counting the week I was on vacation at the end of June. I gave myself a free pass on that. After all, nobody’s perfect! Plus I might have missed a couple of days here and there.) The point is, journaling has become a consistent, daily aspect of my writing life, and I wanted to talk a little bit about what it looks like in my world and why I’ve found it to be so helpful.
First, let me nerd out about office supplies for a bit. Journaling feeds my office supply cravings because I get to buy lots of different kinds of notebooks and pens. In fact, I have so many empty notebooks waiting in the queue that I’ve had to go on a blank book fast (no buying new ones until I use up the ones I already have). We’ll see how long that lasts.
The notebook makes a big difference. Between when I start a journal and when I finish it, that notebook gets really beat up. I’m constantly throwing it in my bag and carting it with me everywhere, so I really need something sturdy that will hold up for the long haul. Truth be told, most of the notebooks I used these past six months did not pass the test and I had to reattach a lot of pages with tape.
Side note: Because I’m on a blank book fast, most of the notebooks I wrote in these past few months already had a few pages with old entries. This was one of the most surprising treats in this entire process. If I lost steam during a journaling session, I would flip back and read an entry from 2008 or 2010 (one notebook went back as far as 1992!). It was fascinating to get a window into what my life was like back then. A lot of things have changed (like my handwriting), but others (like my voice and weird sense of humor) have stayed surprisingly consistent.
The writing implement is also important. I press down very lightly when I write, so I prefer fountain or gel pens to ballpoint. (The latter requires too much pressure and makes my hand get tired.) Right now, I’m geeking out over the Dr. Grip gel pens. I have a half dozen of them in my pen case and each with ink in a different color.
Side note: I write each journal entry in a different color and I have a particular order of colors that I cycle through. This order is: orange, pink, turquoise, green (i.e. the DIY MFA colors), then black and purple. After purple I go back to orange and it always makes me smile because those two colors together make me think of my alma mater’s colors: purple and gold.
People have a lot of preconceived notions about journaling and what it entails. Some think that the purpose is to write what happened to you that day, in order to keep a record of your life. (I call that a diary, not a journal.) Other folks think that journaling is nothing more than a stream-of-consciousness garble that you spill on the page every morning. Not going to lie, my journals tend to go more in that direction. In fact, they can sometimes be downright whiny.
And yet, there are still rare moments when the writing becomes productive and actually turns into something. This essay, for example, began as random scribbles in my journal and evolved into what you’re reading now. Often, an idea for DIY MFA starts out as a journal entry where I noodle on that concept for a bit. Next, if I see it has merit, I take the leap and start mapping it out in earnest. This doesn’t happen all the time. Most of my journaling is just a whiny stream-of-consciousness nonsense, but scattered throughout my notebooks are the seedlings of many DIY MFA projects.
Here’s the thing: your journal’s content is whatever you want it to be. You can treat it like a diary, or go the stream-of-consciousness, verbal spillage route. Or you can do something totally different. In the past eleven months, I’ve used my journal in various different ways, like:
- making lists
- brainstorming DIY MFA projects
- venting my frustrations about life
- recording particularly interesting events
Remember: It’s your journal. Anything goes.
The key to journaling is to make the process as frictionless as possible. I know if I leave it to the end of the day, I’ll end up making excuses and never getting around to it. So, I put my notebook on the floor right next to my bed. That way, in the morning, I can’t get up without tripping over it. Most of my journaling happens before I even get out of bed. I just reach down, grab my notebook, and write anywhere between a few lines and a few pages.
This is the trick I’ve learned with setting new habits. You have to make it ridiculously easy to follow through. The more steps or hurdles that exist between you and the habit you want to form, the harder it will be to build momentum.
If you want to start journaling—or building any writing habit, for that matter—you have to do it in such a way that it’s easy for you. Not a morning person? Don’t force yourself to wake up early. Not into writing by hand? Use a computer or voice recorder instead. Just because I happen to write daily, by hand, and (mostly) in the morning, doesn’t mean you should do it that way, too. You need to write in the way that works best for you.
Which brings me to…
When I describe my journaling habit, many people remark: “Oh, that’s just like morning pages!” The concept of “morning pages” comes from Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way and many other books. Basically you write three pages longhand, in the morning, before you start your day. She recommends a specific kind of notebook and stresses the importance of following the prescribed guidelines to the letter. This approach has worked wonders for many writers, artists, and other blocked creatives, but it doesn’t work for me.
Why? Because I don’t like following rules.
Sure, I usually journal first thing in the morning, but some days I like to come back to my journal in the afternoon or evening. Why should the mornings have all the fun? Yes, I write longhand, but that’s more about my love for office supplies than it is about following the morning pages rules. And of course I don’t write the prescribed three pages every day. Some days I barely eke out a half page, while on others I write ten or more. It depends on my mood and whether I have anything to say.
The reason I’ve stuck with the habit as long as I have is because I can make my own rules and do things my own way. If I had to follow someone else’s prescription, I might stick to it for a little while, but sooner or later I’d get sick of it and stop altogether in protest. What can I say? I’m a rebel like that.
What’s the point of all this? Why did I even share this with you to begin with? Well, here’s what I learned from the last six months of keeping a daily journal.
1. Take things one day at a time.
For starters, I want you to know that building a new habit doesn’t have to be all that hard. You just have to take things one day at a time. When I first started this process, I wasn’t thinking, “Gee wiz, I want to be the kind of person who keeps a daily journal.” (I know this for a fact because I went back and checked that journal entry.) Instead, I just focused on writing something—anything—that day. I figured, the next day would take care of itself, and it did.
2. Make your own rules.
It’s impossible to build a new habit if you try to run counter to your own natural tendencies. Don’t do things a certain way just because that’s how others are doing it. Don’t follow writing advice without testing it out for yourself. Remember: there is no “best practice” in writing, just what works best for you.
3. It’s all about finishing.
Do I love writing in my journal? Most days, I merely tolerate it. The office supplies give me the warm fuzzies but I’m not going to lie: the actual writing is sometimes just… meh. Here’s the thing: I don’t always like writing, but I love having written. That feeling of satisfaction I get after writing a journal entry? That’s the best! And it’s such a rare treat for many of us writers.
You see, as writers—especially writers of books—we don’t get to finish things very often. It’s rare for us to get that “Yessss! I finished!” feeling, because our projects are long. Journaling solves that problem. It gives us that daily dose of completion every time we finish an entry.
Now It’s Your Turn
If you’ve never journaled before, I want to encourage you to give it a try. If you’re like me, you might bribe yourself with some office supplies, then see if you can gently ease yourself into a regular writing habit. Remember: you set the rules and do it your way. But try it out for a couple of weeks and see what happens. Maybe the process will surprise you, as it has surprised me.
Until next time, keep writing and keep being awesome!
P.S. For more info on Gabriela Pereira, the founder and instigator of DIY MFA, check out her profile page.