Do you keep a journal?
November 17, 2012 5:11 PM   Subscribe

Do you keep a journal? Have you ever? What are the benefits? Was it worth the time commitment?
posted by leotrotsky to Writing & Language (42 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I kept one from when I was eight years old until I was in my early twenties. I have about 10 large notebooks completely full. It's really neat to read back over them and see my childhoold and teenage experiences as I perceived them at the time. It's pretty cringe-inducing, though, too.

Ultimately I don't think it's worth the time and effort if you perceive it as "work" to keep the journal. Do it if it makes you happy while you are writing it.
posted by lollusc at 5:18 PM on November 17, 2012

I've kept them off and on since I was six (I'm twenty-seven now). If you don't feel yourself compelled to write down what's going on in your life, I'd say it's not worth doing. I never saw it as a "time commitment", it was something I needed to do to keep my head together. And, yes, sometimes going back and reading it is painfully embarrassing.

One exception is that if you're in a position to become pregnant, my mom's pregnancy/baby journals about me are an interesting read for me too, and we both regretted that she hadn't written more. She wrote it in the form of notes to me, so she considered herself to be writing for an audience, and it's a lot of fun to see where my mom's head was at while she was gestating me. So, I think that counts as "worth the time commitment" even if you aren't super enthusiastic about doing it for its own sake.
posted by town of cats at 5:40 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I write in mine when I can't sleep. I write down the stuff that I want to remember the most, like dates and what happened.
posted by Autumn89 at 5:41 PM on November 17, 2012

I do it because journaling keeps the demons at bay.

I almost never go back and read them; in fact, the early stuff is all pretty cringe-worthy. It's more of a meditative exercise than anything else. But it does help me remember the events of the day later, even when I don't come back to review it later.

Absolutely, 100% worth the time when I do it.
posted by JDHarper at 5:45 PM on November 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't keep a daily journal, but I keep a notebook handy and I will do a couple different things in it depending on what's going on - listing, stream-of-consciousness writing, outlining, etc. The act of writing stuff down is for me a useful way to organize and concretize my thoughts.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:55 PM on November 17, 2012

I started using Day One on my iOS devices and Mac. For some reason it has made it very easy for me to keep a journal. I use it to write notes to my children and as a log of my day. I really enjoy it.
posted by Silvertree at 5:56 PM on November 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I kept a journal from about the age of nine until the end of college. The benefits were significant for me--primarily, giving me a space to process difficult emotions privately and also recording the events of my life in case I wanted to know about them later. I suppose it was a time commitment, but I *wanted* to do it, so it wasn't exactly a hassle. I mostly wrote during activities like riding the school bus, extra time in class, and before bed to relax, so it didn't impose on my other life activities.

For many years I didn't read my old journals because I too thought they were cringe-worthy. But there have been times when it was helpful to look up exact details of when and how certain events happened (turns out your memory is a vastly revised version!). Reading my old journals also helps me see how far I've come, as well as giving other insights into "essential" aspects of my personality. I wouldn't say that's the benefit it has for everyone or that everyone should, but I'm glad I did.
posted by epanalepsis at 6:02 PM on November 17, 2012

I've been keeping a journal for the last three years. It's not a place for writing down emotions, but just for recording quick daily summaries, because my memory is worthless. So the journal is able to answer questions like: "On what date did I pay the tax bill?", "What was that doctor's name?", "Where was I on October 6th 2010?". It's been very useful.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:12 PM on November 17, 2012

I use Day One on my iPhone and also carry a small (Field Notes) notebook with me everywhere with my Lamy Pico. By having this stuff always at hand, I find I write stuff down way more often.

I am always going through my old notebooks or looking through Day One for stuff, so YES, it is completely worth the time.
posted by vkxmai at 6:34 PM on November 17, 2012

I have an almost 10 year old blog that I use to record most things - I love going through it to see where my passions and emotions were. It's not a food blog or a mom blog or any other niche - I call it my journal. The upside is that it has helped me remember the silly things I've done (oh hey, remember when I used to go to Body Pump? How many times have I quit biting my nails?)

The downside is that I can't really go into anything that I wouldn't want the world to see. But I do a really good job remembering the negatives on my own, sadly.
posted by kimberussell at 6:36 PM on November 17, 2012

I write morning pages every day right when I wake up in the morning. It's just a page or two of whatever is on my mind. I've been doing it for over a year. It's a meditative exercise. I basically don't ever go back and read them but I'm glad I started the habit.
posted by ch1x0r at 6:46 PM on November 17, 2012

I have kept journals on and off since I was a child, maybe seven or eight years old. They vary wildly in how detailed they are and what kind of time period they cover. Generally, I've found that it is easier to keep a journal when 1) I have lot of free time and/or 2) I am traveling or living someplace new or interesting. I agree that it is not really something I do that feels like work; it is more my way of processing things. It is often my way of establishing some distance from an issue and having a more objective view. It is sometimes my way of mulling over a new experience. It often makes me feel less alone.
posted by Rinoia at 6:49 PM on November 17, 2012

I've kept a journal, on and off, from my childhood to now. I use them to process my day--a lot of times I won't really be able to deal with emotions that I didn't even know were there until I journal at night.

You may also want to look into this: Keel's Simple Diary, which is both a print book and an app that provides entertaining prompts to help a writer reflect.
posted by so much modern time at 6:59 PM on November 17, 2012

Seriously never go back and read it. I used to keep a journal (for about 10 years) and stopped, and since I've stopped I haven't been as willing or able to express or elaborate on my inner thoughts, out loud or in writing. I think it's a good habit. Keeps your language skills sharp.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:02 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've had one for 12 years, of the online variety. Sometimes I've updated daily and other times I've neglected it for six months or more. Sometimes I report what I did today (or over the last few days/weeks/etc. since I wrote), sometimes I ponder issues I'm facing, sometimes I try to write something funny or weird. I don't re-read it just for fun, but it's very helpful to be able to go back and pinpoint when a vaguely remembered event really happened. I love that I can pinpoint the day in 2002 when I first talked to the interesting man who later became my husband. It also helps remind me of what I was thinking last time I faced a recurring challenge.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:16 PM on November 17, 2012

I wrote a journal from when I was 12 or so until after college. It was a short every-day thing from the beginning, and then an occasional thing after that. It started because I got a pink journal with a lock for my birthday and wanted to use it, but then it became just a nice thing to do in general whenever I had time. I stopped writing when my life got too busy with work and RL. I picked it back up during grad school - writing about my stints in Taiwan and China, mostly as a way to remember what we did and how I felt about it.

I bought a new journal and started writing again the day my ex-husband walked out with no warning. It became my way to process my thoughts and feelings; by writing things down, I could get some distance from what was going on. It also became a way to chronicle how I was dealing with depression. I stopped writing at all, really, once I got back on my feet again after about a year. But I still do an occasional entry if I'm feeling sad or when something bad happens that I need to get out of my head. Usually if I can't sleep because I'm worrying about something, it becomes a nice outlet to write it down and stop thinking about it.

It's not a time commitment issue at all for me. If I want to write I do when I have some time. If I don't have time, it can wait.
posted by gemmy at 7:27 PM on November 17, 2012

I started around age ten or so, and while a couple of early volumes were tossed by an overzealous parent, I still have them from age seventeen or so onward, although I write far less frequently now that I did then. Oddly, I was just rereading my twenties in the last few weeks to help out a friend who has lost some memories of that age. It is, as others have suggested above, cringe-inducing to go back and read what seemed terribly important to the person you were decades ago.

On the other hand, it is odd and enlightening to see things from that close-up perspective: events that I thought were years apart turn out to have been separated by weeks or days; this thing went on while that thing was still in progress, and so on.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:29 PM on November 17, 2012

Yes. On and off through the years, but much more so in the last year or so. I'm 44, with some health problems, and an annoyingly complicated life (fiancee lives on another continent; family legal situations; other messy stuff).

The journal has helped; a lot. What I write is totally random. Sometimes it's about the past, sometimes the present, sometimes dreams, sometimes a mixture of the lot, or experimental (often crappy) fiction.

I have to have the right combination of pen and paper, to not be distracted by the shortcomings of either. Occasionally, I'll stick a page or so online, usually on Flickr (actually did one yesterday). I'm not really looking for feedback, or a reaction, when I do that; it's more that I can. Most of it stays private, though.

It's a good way for me to break from the keyboard and monitor. A page or two of writing, about anything, at my own pace, and I come back to work online mentally refreshed.
posted by Wordshore at 7:55 PM on November 17, 2012

I kept a traditional diary from the age of ten until my mid-20s.

I kept a public blog from my late 20s to my early 30s.

Currently, and for the last few years, I have a sort of calendar/planner book thing, and each morning I jot a few notes about the previous day and then a little to-do list for the current day.

In each case, I appreciate having a record of my feelings and my doings, and the way it's evolved over the years just plain makes sense given who I've been and who I've become.
posted by padraigin at 8:01 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I kept a journal back when I didn't take meds for my bipolar, and even when I did take meds, but they weren't the right meds... etc. Mostly, I kept journals when my mind needed to work out all of the chaotic thoughts that were running through it. It helped. It helped a lot. I think keeping a journal helped me get through a lot while unmedicated, and keeping a journal helped me through some very difficult times. It was very much worth the time and commitment.

I have gone back and read my journals. They're interesting to say the least. Esp. when I read things I don't remember writing. Ha! But that's just the ramblings of an unsettled mind.

Anyway, I'll always suggest keeping a journal to people who are going through a rough time. It helped me a lot. I also suggest it for people who want to break through any kind of writing block -- at least a page a day front and back just to get into the writing mode. It's helped me with that too.
posted by patheral at 8:05 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I kept a very intermittent paper journal from about the age of ten to my mid-twenties, when I started keeping an online journal. I also keep a separate list of books I've read and, if I'm traveling anywhere particularly exciting, I usually keep a trip journal. Writing things out helps me get things out of my head, helps me process. It can be a way of coping with anxiety, or a simple creative exercise, or just a description of things that happened so I can keep that information. It's a handy way for me to look back and remember things - oh, we were doing this when that happened, ah, I had forgotten about that thing, etc.
posted by PussKillian at 8:08 PM on November 17, 2012

I am going through old journal entries to help me write for NaNoWriMo. Boy, does it help to reread old entries. You think you're going to remember all the gory/funny details about things, but as time passes, you lose those details. I only wish I'd had journal entries during my teen years (um, that I have access to, I'm sure they're buried in a pile of my mom's crap at her house) to help me fill out the details even better.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:14 PM on November 17, 2012

I don't keep a journal, and I had not previously wished to do so. But recently I found a $2 used copy of Boswell's London journal that changed my mind. It's a good antidote to the frequent observation that people often write things that embarrass them later on -- what you write might embarrass you and yet be immensely interesting and poignant.
posted by voltairemodern at 8:22 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've kept them on and off intermittently for as long as I can recall. They are valuable for helping me to access/ process/ express/ understand various thoughts, feelings, and events at various times. They've also served me well as a creative channel and a chance to catch those fleeting thoughts and observations that might turn into a story or poem or essay.

I get rid of them when I'm ready to let that part of myself go; when i'm entering a new phase of my life. When I look through them and there's very little that seems like anything other than garbage. When I'm not interested or curious or engaged by my own writings any longer. When the "old me" dies and I become a "new" person.

This means I usually dispose of my journals three to ten years later- when reading through them doesn't even make me cringe anymore, it makes me go "seriously? What the hell is this crap?" And roll my eyes. I'm not really someone who has a strong personal investment in holding onto my past selves, though. To me, once a part or phase of my life is truly over, it's gone. I know that it happened in general terms, but I don't care about the specifics. I like to have one or two "landmark items"- poems, insights, pieces of clothing- that are really significant, but an entire journal of someone else's hypoberlic rants and mental problems and doodles? Why do I need that cluttering up my closet? I don't. I'll sort through, take anything good and keep it for later review or use, and dispose of the rest. It's irrelevant.

Currently, I'm also keeping a gratitude & prayer journal which helps me have a positive mental attitude. All part of the battle against depression. It helps.
posted by windykites at 8:25 PM on November 17, 2012

Oh, and re: time; if you actually want to write, you will always find time. Even if it's scribbling on the back of a ripped cigarette package you pulled from the top of the wastebin when you rushed to the bathroom with a pen shoved in your bra and without paper because you didn't want your boss to ask what the hell do you think you're doing, we're in the middle of the goddamn lunch rush you know.
posted by windykites at 8:30 PM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I did through most of my teens; it helped me make sense of the usual jumbled teenage years full of angst. I've reread bits of it since: good lord, what a pile of confusion I was! It's shoved out of sight on a back shelf, but every so often I think of digging it out and destroying the thing --- sure, it helped me while I was writing it, but the idea of someone else reading it is downright embarrassing.

And that is the real problem with journals and diaries: sure, they can help you clarify your thoughts and feelings, but they can also bare those to the rest of the world --- and who among us enjoys being that naked to the world? Each of us has dark thoughts and nasty feelings ("I wish he was dead" or "Gawd, I hate it when she does x") about other people, even if we keep them securely locked up inside out heads.

There are plenty of diaries that have been published after the writer's death; sure, some of them might have liked the idea, but certainly not all..... as famous as Anne Frank's diary is, I doubt she'd have wanted to see it published. Queen Victoria wrote a journal most of her life; she instructed her youngest daughter to literally re-write and heavily edit them before destroying the originals --- fortunately for her, her daughter did so, even though historians still regret it. Boswell's 'Life of Johnson".... sometimes, I suspect, Johnson must've wanted to just slug the crap out of Boswell and tell him to leave him alone!
posted by easily confused at 8:42 PM on November 17, 2012

I kept a near-daily journal (in various forms: on paper, on the computer, and online) from fifth grade until about two years after I graduated from college. Agreed with others that it's worthwhile if it feels worthwhile - I stopped writing in it once it started to feel like work. At the time I got a lot out of it: it was a place to archive my feelings, sure, but I also found that the act of committing certain thoughts and feelings to print made me think about them more carefully. I think I treated people better than I might have without these constant opportunities for reflection.

From time to time I miss it, and worry about the fact that so much of what has happened to me these past few years will disappear. I like that there is a record of that period of my life, embarrassing as it most certainly is. When I do occasionally go back and flip through these journals, I remember everything so vividly. It also helps me construct - the narrative of my life, I guess, and that is something I find comforting - I can find some of these through-lines that make me make sense to myself. :)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 8:52 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you keep a journal? Have you ever?

I am an avid journaler. I have kept a journal for over 20 years, since I was about 10 years old.

What are the benefits?

• I have a record of past events (my personal memory is not so sharp).

• I have a record of my thoughts and feelings on people and situations (esp. beneficial in recognizing unhealthy thought/relationship patterns).

• I believe keeping a journal has made me more comfortable with my emotions (and better able to communicate these emotions to others).

• I know myself very well (I have discovered/uncovered multiple facets of my personality by following trains of thought in my journal).

• It helped keep me sane during a dark, years long struggle with anxiety (I would spill all my anxiety about the upcoming day into my journal to break obsessive thoughts).

• It has been an excellent way to hone writing skills AND penmanship (I use a very clean, crisp hand).

Was it worth the time commitment?

100% worth it. If I could only choose one hobby/superfluous habit, it would be journaling!

(I always, ALWAYS re-read. When I fill up a journal, it is re-read before it's retired. I usually drag them all out on New Year's Eve Day and flip through them. It really helps cement a personal continuity for me.)
posted by peacrow at 8:57 PM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've kept a journal for two years. I use pocket-sized notebooks without lines. This way, I can write whenever I need to, and things on the page don't obscure anything I sketch. I'm on the 23rd book now. The 24th will start in the next week or two. I began while abroad in Madrid. No reasons for this decision occur to me now. No doubt the first book has an explanation. I don't want to go look for it.

Most of the time, I don't record the day's events. Rather, I write down puns, metaphors, story ideas, and so on, as I think of them. The journal also serves as a convenient place for phone numbers and to-do lists.

I rarely re-read the journals. I write mainly to fix ideas in my memory. I doubt I've written anything too embarrassing since graduating college. My depression has remained implicit in what I write there. I don't go on about it. Still, if someone reads it someday, I worry that they'll take my fiction for sincerity or vice-versa.

Few entries take me more than five minutes. The time commitment, such as it is, hasn't bothered me. I hope to keep these up until I'm no longer able to write.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:01 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've kept a journal, off and on, since my late teens (I am now 52.) It's a place to work out my emotions on an issue, record important events, and make goals. I am a very goal-oriented person anyway and each Jan. 1st I read my journal entries from the prior year, see if I met my goals, and then make new goals. It helps me stay focused on what's important to me.

During really tough times - like when I went through my divorce - I tend to write a lot to help me work stuff out. I call the journal from my divorce year my "Book of Pain." I have read through it a couple times and it is painful even now for me to read but I also can see how I have changed and I believe it will help me not to make the same mistakes in future relationships that I made when I was married.

There is also a part of me that hopes that some of my progeny - either my kids or grandkids - will want to read what I have written and learn something from my journals. This might be foolish on my part.
posted by eleslie at 9:04 PM on November 17, 2012

I've never kept a journal with any regularity, though I've made multiple attempts.

However, when I was thirteen years old, my family lived in France for 5 months. During that time, I wrote lots and lots of emails to my two best friends in the States. (This was the late 90s; I had my own email address, but just barely, and we had to do AOL "flash sessions" in order to send/receive. The emails I wrote were much more like traditional letters than like the emails I write today.) At the end of the trip, my dad printed out all of my emails and put them in a binder for me. To this day I love reading back over these emails and remembering/reminiscing.

So if you're someone who, like me, has trouble keeping a journal, I'd suggest finding a pen pal.
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 9:56 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

My dad has kept a detailed journal of every day of his life since about 1961. I don't know what's in there, but I think it's point-form notes about what he did, who he met and what was said. I can't imagine what it must be like to relive any day in your life over more than fifty years... If nothing else, it's a historical document.
posted by klanawa at 10:18 PM on November 17, 2012

I've kept one on and off in various forms (paper and online) since junior high, although I'm currently in an "off" mode. I've found it a helpful habit since I do like to write. I do like to go back and read them. Plenty of cringe-inducing stuff, but it is interesting to see how I've grown and changed, and what was important to me at various stages of my life.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:28 PM on November 17, 2012

I've been an on-and-off journaler since junior high. I definitely write more when stressed; there are volumes from my teenage years, and honestly very little since graduating college. I didn't really catalog daily happenings, just hashed out my turbulent feelings about whatever was going on. Most of what's in those journals is pretty cringe-worthy, particularly the things I thought were the most "deep" when I was writing them. I don't reread them much due to the embarrassment, but it is certainly a good reminder to not take anything in my present life too seriously either.

All that said, I did keep a daily journal of events on my honeymoon, and I love going back to read it and remember the silly details of what happened. I'm always surprised by how much I've forgotten. I plan to keep a similar journal on any major trips going forward, because I've never been one to build elaborate scrapbooks or slideshows.
posted by vytae at 10:33 PM on November 17, 2012

I kept a journal for about 10 years. I did discover that during the times in my life when I was doing the sort of stuff I should have been documenting, I was far too busy to document it. And the stuff I did document embarrassed me enough in retrospect that rereading the journals became unendurable and I destroyed them -- not a loss, as there was nothing in them worth remembering in any significant way, but for a decade-long wash of immature feelings and frustrations.

However, writing regularly helped me develop some very useful tools. It helped me learn to write in a conversational tone. It helped me to identify how to represent myself in writing. I helped me develop the most important tool of writing -- the ability to sit down, face a blank page, and just get to the business of filling the page, whether you want to or not, whether you feel you have anything to say or not. I have written professionally for two decades now, and couldn't have without this skill/
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:57 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since starting work I've made the habit of jotting down a quick summary of my day before I leave. It helps me figure out where my time went, why I did things*, and what I should do when I come in the next day. It's also come in handy for external consumption twice, once when I was asked to report which office I'd been in each day (during some crazy relocations following Hurricane Sandy) and before that when my boss asked me for a summary of all the changes in a big multi-week edit.

* I often find myself setting out to do something, hitting an obstacle, doing something to remove that, hitting another in the process, etc. recursively. Keeping this work journal has helped me figure out what I really set out to do, and provides a daily opportunity to reset and try a new approach to the original problem instead of pushing through on whatever strategy I tried first
posted by d. z. wang at 11:05 PM on November 17, 2012

I kept one on and off up through my freshman year of college and from the summer of that year through to now, I make an entry daily, so that is 14 years of daily entries.

I do it right before I go to bed. I had started keeping it regularly initially as a way to battle insomnia. So, I write down things that are bothering me as well as the mundane bit of the day. It seems to help get everything off my mind before sleeping. I very rarely forget to write--maybe one every two or three months and that is generally due to a very late night...and likely a few beers.

I occationally go back and read entries, and I also find the entries helpful when trying to recall when a specific activity happened. It is such a part of my life at this point, that I don't think I could give it up.
posted by chiefthe at 12:33 AM on November 18, 2012

An interesting talk about a research project into the value of journaling daily:

Teresa Amabile: Track Your Small Wins to Motivate Big Accomplishments
posted by sharkfu at 7:03 AM on November 18, 2012

I have kept a journal from third grade until now. Around 10 years ago the journal moved online.

I only write when I felt compelled to, which is mostly when I am stressed or something is going on in my life. Benefits? My entire life is chronicled. I can look back on a particular season of my life and know exactly how I felt and what I did. My journal is the one place I can be honest and truthful. It has become akin to therapy; if I'm upset about something, I won't truly feel better until I write about it.
posted by thank you silence at 9:53 AM on November 18, 2012

I kept journals for about 25 years, but don't really do it anymore. One type of data (in them) was a day-list of phone numbers, appointments and such, the other was impressions and anecdotes, the other was tortuous attempts to figure stuff out. I have a couple dozen notebooks of this stuff, and a dozen small notebooks with trail notes, riding times and so on, that I used for rating back-country trails.

My journal from Vietnam is the only one I've ever tried to analyze, and it's been a tremendous help. The others are too hard to read, on account of how weird I was for a long time, but they are very helpful for establishing chronologies.

The VN journal has names and dates, sketches, hand-drawn maps, and synopses of some of the patrols. I learned from this that I wasn't as smart as I remember myself being, or as old, and I was not as big an asshole as I thought I was at the time.

I don't know how the other journals are going to shake out. I'll let the kids deal with them.

The short answer is YES. But for your own reasons, and it will be a couple decades before they turn to gold.
posted by mule98J at 11:02 AM on November 18, 2012

I've been keeping a journal at 750 Words on and off for the past year now. The biggest benefit of it is chronicling your life, so you know exactly when something happened and what you were thinking about it when it did. It's great to observe yourself and learn more about yourself, how you think, etc. Reading my entries from just a year ago makes me feel like I'm conducting archaeology.

"Time commitment" is really not something I'd think about with journals. It's really not something that should take time, and unless you have the memory of an elephant, you're going to appreciate it later.

Short answer is, yeah, do it. Do it when you want to, and push yourself a bit when you don't want to (plenty of times where I've had to push myself to write and then appreciated it).
posted by Senza Volto at 11:25 AM on November 18, 2012

I don't normally keep a journal, but I do write one when I travel.

Usually when traveling so much is happening that it can be hard to keep track of what order you did things in, or what city you were in when you visited than nice restaurant etc. I also find it enjoyable to read my travel journals later, remembering where I've been & what I've done.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:36 PM on November 19, 2012

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