help my diary become dear to me
February 4, 2008 11:54 AM   Subscribe

Personal journal-keeping - something I've wanted to be consistent with, but haven't. So, what works for you journalers to keep you journaling or at least keep coming back to journaling?

For me, I just sometimes feel uninspired to write or overwhelmed by things I want to write. This thread has some great ideas for journal entries based around questions or logging what worked for your day. I like the idea of making lists of things - whether it's specific to things I'm grateful for or something else. What other questions/ideas/ponderings have gotten you to put pen to paper?

How do you keep track of these ideas so you can refer to them when you journal?

Do you go back and read over your journals?

I know too that part of this is making a personal commitment and devoting time on a consistent basis. I have a feeling, though, if I find inspiration, a journal will become indispensable once I get into it.
posted by lucyleaf to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 111 users marked this as a favorite
Extreme pain. My journal size doubled after an excrutiating break up. In most art forms, pain or conflict triggers creativity.

Actually I find rereading the old entries quite helpful. I do wince occasionally, but most of the time it triggers good results like "oh yes, that was a good way to think about it, I should start doing that again" or "hey, I think I'll reread that nifty book I wrote about".

If the ideas are important enough to write down, then I remember them regardless of how much time has passed. Sorry if that's not helpful, but that's just how I do it.
posted by Melismata at 12:00 PM on February 4, 2008

Twitter has gotten me back into journaling, actually. The 160 character limit of "tweets" decreases the pressure to compose some timeless memoir, and I can set up to nudge me when I haven't updated recently. Frequently I think about things that can't be expressed in only 160 characters, and that's when I go to my journal and expand on the thought.
posted by desjardins at 12:03 PM on February 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Interrogate something every day. Play good cop, bad cop. Make it talk.

Write about one good thing each day. If you have two good things, save one.

Set a low maximum word count and then focus every word.
posted by pracowity at 12:17 PM on February 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

I keep my notebook in my bag and write at lunch. Whatever's on my mind or a paragraph for some book I want to write, of which there are currently three.
posted by parmanparman at 12:21 PM on February 4, 2008

I fell into the habit of writing each morning, and got myself out of a pretty severe depression by doing what Julia Cameron calls Morning Pages.

Three hand-written, stream-of-consciousness pages each and every morning.

Highly recommend for any number of reasons.

As far as a writing utensil is concerned, I ADORE the Pilot Varsity Disposable Fountain Pen.
posted by willmize at 12:33 PM on February 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My experience is different from Melismata's. I find that I can never accurately predict what feelings, thoughts, or events I'll remember a year from now, no matter how vivid they seem at the time. So writing down at least a brief description of what my day was like almost always turns out to be valuable. (Of course, the act of writing it down often etches it more firmly on my memory, which I guess is another reason to do it.)

Conversely, I now look back at entries that I thought were completely tedious and unimportant at the time and get all kinds of insight from them in hindsight.

For me, the key is to do it regularly. I second the recommendation of the morning pages, but those perform a different function than a journal. If you can spend even fifteen minutes at the end of the day writing something about what happened, I bet you'd start seeing benefits before long.

Suggestions for starting journal entries (from the game/application If Monks Had Macs):

-- Ask yourself what was unique about the day
-- Write a letter to someone that you have no intention of sending
-- Record your dreams
-- Make some affirmations about what what you want to do and who you want to be (yeah, it's goofy, but it works)
-- Ask the question "Where am I?"
-- Write imaginary dialogues between yourself and other people, either real or fictional

And from Jungian analyst James Hillis:

-- Where (or what) is my unlived life?
-- Where am I asking others to take responsibility for my life?
-- What part of myself do I need to know better to feel more complete and engaged?
-- What is demanding my attention?
-- What security, identity, relationship, or pathology do I need to leave behind?
posted by viscountslim at 12:50 PM on February 4, 2008 [29 favorites]

Notebookism and Moleskinerie are a couple of great "journal fetish" blogs. Reading them tends to get me in the mood to write.
posted by jbickers at 1:16 PM on February 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been a pretty consistent journaller since pre-teen-hood, so I have twenty + years of my idiotic ramblings committed to paper. Seconding Melismata's rxns of wince and nod. I have saved myself so many times, rereading my own words. Also seconding willmize's suggestion of morning pages, which I don't do anymore but did for a while and came away with a bunch of fabulous stuff I don't remember writing. Brain works differently first thing, etc.

I carry the journal with me most of the time, and jot little things down both in & out of context. Sometimes I doodle little experiences into the body of the text (I am not a cartoonist by any stretch). Bits of conversation, observations about how light is falling on the grass or whatever, rhyming couplets found in books, funny puns made by others. Whatever strikes me.

When choosing a new book I make sure I like the paper I'm writing on. It doesn't have to be fancy, just make sure you like how the pen moves across it. I suggest, based on experience, that you figure out which ballpoint pen you like best, and try to use only ballpoint. There are lovely ink pens out there but if the journal ever gets wet the ink will run and your words will be gone. I used to love to scatter down ideas in pencil, but it also fades/rubs away. Beware.

Forgive yourself not being able to tell the whole story. The whole story is absolutely unnecessary, anyway - you're writing for you, not a stranger. You'll jog your own memory, so even point form is good in a pinch. If you have ambitions of turning your journal into a novel or play or something later on, write down as much good dialogue verbatim as you can -- after the fact. Embellish and/or edit and/or adjust as necessary to make the flow go, to hit the point more accurately, or simply in the interests of brevity.

Bear in mind that emails to friends and family - even short ones, even errand-y ones - can function to fill out journal work in terms of breadth and scope of your life and they often contain surprising and telling details. I keep a very detailed daytimer also and sometimes make journally notes in the margins. You'd be surprised at the efficacy of a daytimer in kick-starting your memory on a day-to-day basis well after the fact. Your brain is bigger than you think and all sorts of details will lodge in the corners, so don't obsess about writing everything down. Just make sure you have access to those memory assists.

Worst thing to do, though, is to make journalling something you feel guilty about if you don't do it. I.e. making it feel like homework or an assignment at which you could fail. Accept that you'll do what you can manage, and that's it. Good luck.
posted by Mrs Hilksom at 1:16 PM on February 4, 2008 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I've kept an A4-a-day journal since January 1999. Switching the content around as others have suggested is fun, but I also like to be creative with the method of writing.

Some I've tried already:
-an entry in rhyming couplets
-an entry that's one long rambling sentence (with lots of parenthetical clauses)
-an entry that doesn't use any 1st-person pronouns (I, me, my, mine - harder than you think)
-a lipogrammatical entry (the entire entry was written without using the letter 'e')
-an entry encrypted with a code that you can try to solve once you've forgotten how you did so (I still haven't solved that '99 entry, dammit)

Some I'm going to try in the future:
-an entry written entirely in rebus puzzles
-an entry where no word is repeated (tricky one, that)

I generally re-read my journals towards the end of each year (both from that year and from earlier ones): it's a great tool for introspection, as you can see what you do consistently that you enjoy, and what you do repetitively that you want to eliminate.

Don't feel guilty about writing down the banal - some days you'll just describe what you did, or you'll want to vent about a frustration. Not everything has to be a shiny pearl.

I also made a point of writing my journal in odd places or at odd times:
-under the light of a lunar eclipse
-in the House of Lords
-on the roof, waiting for the Jan 1st sunrise
-by the light of the Chimaera
-in the catacombs under Paris
posted by Paragon at 1:17 PM on February 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

It's a habit, which takes time to form. I have multiple journals: one that I type up nearly each day, Doogie Howser style. I started doing this after a breakup, as Melismata mentioned, and now it's just a regular part of my life.

I keep a notebook by the bed to write down dreams, then type these up later. I keep another small notebook with me at all times which contains a hodge-podge of things: lists of things I'd like to learn more about, art project ideas and sketches, random thoughts that pop into my head, lists of books I want to read, etc.
posted by medeine at 1:26 PM on February 4, 2008

I keep a daily journal. I bring it around with me everywhere, jotting down notes here and there. Things people say, things I'm thinking about, things I observe between other people, between strangers.

I also mostly write what I did the day before. It's usually not the whole story - I never quite get around to telling it in the detail I would like - but it's enough to jog the memory, as they said above. Sometimes this includes how I feel about what happened, but often it's literally just the events that took place. As banal as it sounds, it really helps me to notice patterns in how I spend my time, who I spend my time with, how I react to certain situations, etc.

I also jot down things I read or come across that are particularly interesting, often on metafilter.

I also keep a livejournal pretty regularly, which functions as more of a public-friendly medium. And allows my private journal to be very honest, and tackle specific parts of my life that I don't allow everyone to see. I enjoy the combination of them both, though, as livejournal tends to be more about what I'm thinking, and my real journal tends to be about how I'm feeling.

Don't know if that's helpful, but it might be a start. Ideas for times include right when you wake up, during lunch, or right before you go to bed.
posted by lunit at 1:42 PM on February 4, 2008

Best answer: You might want to consider doing more than just dear-diary-style writing in your journal, or even any writing at all. I don't have a formal personal journal, but at any time I have a few spiral-bound notebooks and sketchbooks floating around which I use for basically anything that requires pen to be put to paper. So my notebooks often contain things resembling journal entries, poetry, quotes I jotted down from something I saw on TV, caricatures, sketches for crafts or that webcomic I never started, drafts of cover letters to HR managers, drafts of angry and depressed letters to ex-boyfriends, things I jotted down while on the phone, names I like, lists of things I want to get done, etc. They're not brilliant tomes of introspection, but they're fascinating to flip through years later.

If this sounds interesting to you, my advice would be to carry around a small notebook (preferably unlined) and pen that you like, and whatever and whenever you feel like writing or drawing - or if you're just bored or need something to do with your hands while on hold with the electric company - whip 'em out and get going. Sometimes it's just a matter of starting out by making lines on paper, and the lines just turn into something big and fascinating after a while.

On the other hand, this might sound completely uninspiring and useless, and that's fine, YMMV and all that... it is a personal diary, after all :)
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:42 PM on February 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: All of these insights are really inspiring - thanks for sharing everyone. I've marked the ones that speak particularly to what I think of as my "style" - this obvs is not the same for everyone.

I love the idea of carrying around a notebook with me and writing anywhere and everywhere. Do you guys who do that ever worry about losing your notebook or privacy? It's a little nagging worry for me - but not a dealbreaker for carrying a notebook around. Just wondering what others have done to feel more secure about that.
posted by lucyleaf at 2:09 PM on February 4, 2008

I lost the pre-manuscript of my first book. I think it got donated to goodwill during a snowstorm in which me and some friends were unpacking boxes into the donation dumpster. Fucking devastating. Could not replace the source notes, no way no how. All I can say is that it's a risk you run, full stop. Don't spend time or money or energy being a secretary to yourself, photocopying pages or digitizing or all that shit. Life is short, life is tenacious.

Re: privacy, also a risk you run. More risky when you have pesky busybody siblings or parents or partners, of course. As a teenager I made very serious policy statements to my family stating that there was to be absolutely no reading of my journal - i.e. grave and serious tone, not melodramatic, not teenagery. I think they respected my request. I told my university boyfriends in no uncertain terms that reading my journal was tantamount to cheating and that an irrevocable breakup would follow. I meant it, and I think they knew it. If any of them read my journal, they've kept it quiet. The husband probably stays away from the journal moreso because he knows it's mainly boring bullshit that I write down for myself, and not some deep insight into my soul to which he would otherwise not have access. Our marriage is good, we communicate well, so I think he has no reason to go looking for 'answers' and whatnot.

People are always very curious. Ultimately it comes down to narcissism and that people think you're writing about them. Which you may or may not be, but it's still none of their business. I read a brutally true quote recently, something like "our worst fear is that our friends think what you think they think about you", somesuch like that. Don't give them cause to try to find out. I recommend that you never even joke about writing about other people in your journal - don't pretend to hide behind it, etc. Sounds ridiculous but people are base and dishonest and they will read your journal.
posted by Mrs Hilksom at 2:46 PM on February 4, 2008

Not so much a "journal" but a daily chronicle of my days is kept via sent emails to one of my good friends. We started emailing each other about a year and a half ago after bumping into one another on the street. The emails were a daily run-down of our thoughts and happenings, from very basic and mundane to very personal and emotional revelations. The emails typically run at least five to six paragraphs and are a good way to recap my previous day (post 9AM when I typically write the emails) and give my projection for the day ahead. He typically responds around 7PM with his daily rundown.

This arrangement works extremely, extremely well for me. Thus far, in the year and half, we have "broken" gmail (more than 100 emails to subject) a total of five times, and are well on our way (87 emails in) to breaking it again. We occasionally skip emailing during a busy weekend, but the email on Monday always plays catchup.

I would strongly suggest this if you have a willing participant on the other side. It also has improved my friendship with him tenfold, even though we actually only see each other in person probably once every three or four months.
posted by banannafish at 2:47 PM on February 4, 2008 [4 favorites]

1. Write every day, even if it's only one sentence.
2. Start every day with the same sentence; use something that you can't get wrong like the weather or what you're wearing.

Don't beat yourself up if you miss a day, but if your rule is one capital letter and one period a day, it's pretty easy. Usually I write far more once the ink starts flowing.

Using the same sentence to start seems to "frame up" my mind and get the wheels turning. I got the idea from an old (1850's) sailor's journal that I own where the author started every day with "These twenty-four come ..." and then the weather that day.
posted by gyusan at 3:37 PM on February 4, 2008

If you're carrying a notebook around with you all the time, lucyleaf, you'll fill it up so quickly that you won't mind if you lose it. My advice? Don't buy one of those big expensive beautiful notebooks and treat it like a precious thing. Get a cheap, small composition book, slightly bigger than an index card, that you can keep in the pocket of your winter coat along with a pen. Make it less important--this is no homework assignment, it's a lifestyle.

If you lost a pen (and I second the Pilot recommendation, although I prefer their V5 Precise fine point disposable roller ball), you'd just buy a new one and get on with things, wouldn't you? The same goes for journalling. You can have a pretty notebook you keep at home for your morning writing, your candelit evenings alone, what have you, but a small composition book with no strings attached might be just the ticket to get you into the writing habit in spare moments on the subway, at a red light, waiting for your meal at a cafe, etc.

I second banannafish's correspondence recommendation, but recommend handwritten rather than e-mail correspondence. A friend of mine has gone offline (not her choice) and we've been sending 4-page handwritten letters back and forth every few weeks. A trusted long-distance friend can provoke a completely different written product than what you'd produce in a journal.

Good luck...
posted by laconic titan at 3:46 PM on February 4, 2008

One more thing that used to help me get writing was to think of my journal as documentation: I'd rationalize that I'd write because I couldn't draw, and therefore the writing had to be as detailed and evocative as possible so I would remember how I was feeling at the time, what things looked like, how I looked at them--the journal as a sort of emotional camera.
posted by laconic titan at 3:50 PM on February 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

what works for you journalers to keep you journaling or at least keep coming back to journaling?

1. Ease of use. I struggled for years with things like "Oh gosh, I want to journal but I don't have the book with me." "Rats, I want to journal but I'm nowhere near a computer." "Hrm, if I pull the book out now everyone here at work will pretty much know what I'm doing."

So now my journaling is done on 8.5x11 sheets of blank paper, scattered all over my house and office and tucked away in each car. Whenever I feel the urge, I grab a sheet and dig in, then put it in a folder when I get home. Basically, I'm never without my journal anymore.

2. Permission. As in, to write whatever I want, no matter how painful, insipid, punishing, garbled, insulting, etc. Whatever, and whenever, even if (or sometimes especially when) I'm at the office. Eliminating the censor really helped to free me.

3. Why. I realized that journaling stuff out when I was upset about something really helped. Plus it's where I concentrate all my long-range planning. And babbling about random stuff, if I'm so inclined. Recording stuff my family/kids do. Doodles. A picture of the gut I'm in the middle of loosing. Whatever I happen to be in the mood for.
posted by TheManChild2000 at 7:24 PM on February 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My journal writes to the future.

My biggest hope is one of my children will continue it after I kick the bucket. That said, this keeps me motivated. I do it at night, before bed after reading the days events. When I compose I ask questions of the future, for myself, and others to contemplate. As for doing it on time, each and every day... that is a measure of your commitment to it. Perhaps you should view it more as a responsibility than a daily entry? For me it is a bit like brushing my teeth and I view it this way. Missing a journal entry would be right up there with forgetting to wipe my ass.

My journal has morphed from pen and paper to simple MS Word document and currently a database complete with pictures, video, dietary habits, movie reviews (if I see one) and much more. I figure I am trying to paint a picture more than tell a story- something that encompasses the different tapestries adorning my world. Make your journal as big as the life around you- not just the life you lead.

It is the future's record of you, your life and times you live in. It is a history of a mind of a person that no one will ever be able to document better than you. Make it memorable and you will find more desire to do it daily.
posted by bkeene12 at 7:37 PM on February 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

I've tried multiple times to get into journaling, with mixed success. I really like re-reading journals afterwards, looking back and knowing exactly what I was doing or thinking at some point in the past (and almost always thinking 'wow, that was trivial'). However, writing the journal in the first place always seemed to be one of those things that I'd plan on doing but would inevitably get bumped from my schedule first.

So a few thoughts:

- Do you want a really traditional diary/journal? I've personally found that other types of information are more interesting in retrospect than freeform diary/journal entries. In particular I have years' worth of DayTimer books, showing everything I did, every day, broken down hour-by-hour. In many cases I didn't actually use the DayTimer for planning, I just filled it in after the fact at the end of the day; it's basically a 'structured journal.' I'd note down everything in there -- appointments/activities, but also conversations I'd had with people, phone calls, maybe a one or two-word remark on how I was feeling. Reading it later is always just enough to jog my memory and let me remember that particular day. (It's surprising how easy it is to remember a single day from even years in the past, when you have the proper triggers.)
I used spiral-bound 8-1/2 x 11 DayTimers, with one week per two-page spread. The smaller ones never seemed like they had enough room for me, the one-page-per-day seemed like overkill, although if you want to write more on each activity in your day it might be something to consider.

- Have you considered an audio journal? I got a little digital dictation recorder a while back, and although I've never used it for its intended purpose (dictating for transcription) more than a few times, it's a neat way to 'journal' when writing isn't practical. I keep it in my car and every once in a while just turn it on and dictate a sort of stream-of-consciousness / braindump. When the recorder gets full (5-6 hrs of material) I transfer it onto the computer and save it there; it keeps track of the date/time they were recorded. The result isn't as easy to page through as printed or textual material, but because I can record in my car when I'm sitting in traffic, it's much more likely to actually get done.
I haven't been doing this for long enough to know whether it'll be interesting to go back and listen to any of the entries or just embarrassing, but it might be something to consider. I use an Olympus recorder.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:07 PM on February 4, 2008

I agree with Melisma, I tend to write bushel-loads when there's some conflict or emotional intensity afoot. But on a daily basis I have a cheap little week-to-view pocket diary, for appointments, recording events and the like. Every week I fill in each day with a single line or so about how I felt, hormonal shifts, people met or the suchlike.

If I need to write more I switch to a large 'occaisional' journal that I tend to use to work out particular thoughts or explore feelings/ideas. Sometimes I'll do a spider diagram rather than write it all out in longhand. Sometimes I'll just record a dream that feels somehow significant.

It's been going for a good few years now and though the entries are irregular (maybe once a month or so) they are really focussed and rich and give me a real snapshot of myself at that moment - referencing entries against the smaller diary helps me remeber the context. Over time it's becoming a real resource. I'm quite introverted and spend a lot of time mulling stuff in my head so it's good to read it back once or twice a year to see how I'm changing and growing.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:52 AM on February 5, 2008

I have been writing ever since I learnt to write. I don't keep a diary in the way that I chronicle my everyday life, I usually write my thoughts since I tend to mull over one subject or other for a couple of days, and I find it catharitic to write it down. The last weeks the subjects has been spanned over various subjects like I am l Legend (which I saw on Saturday), a fun word I heard (with attempts at etymylogy), a quote from a newspaper article with some accompanying thoughts. In the back of the notebooks I make a(n ever expanding) list of subjects I want to write more about, so whenever I am in a writing mood I can look in the back and see if anything sparks. I also have a list on my mobile phone for those times when pen and paper is hard to get to.

Except the subject list I don't make lists (I even have a point in the list saying "Are lists a male form? - ref. catalogues in Cl. literature":) But there you will have to find your own form. And that is perhaps they key here, what do you want to write about? Reading back I can see that I fumbled though a lot of different attempts (list, dear diary, writing about my *shudder* feelings) before I reached my current form. Which I find rewarding and easy to write.

Also I tend to write more, better and more interesting when I have good input, so when I read a lot of books/papers, listen to the radio, watch films/series and talk to other people I write more, because there is more to write about. Personally I can not write in a vacuum.

Also I find that the format of the journal is important to me, and I spent some time finding a book and a type of pen I like. I find it strangely difficult to write on lined paper, and prefer A5 format, having an unlined A5 moleskin as my standard journal, which I keep in my main bag/purse. I also have a couple of tiny booklets that I can stuff in tiny purses or pockets (along with tiny pens) in case I want - no need - to write something.
posted by mummimamma at 1:10 PM on February 5, 2008

This was an interesting New Yorker article about diaries.
posted by ChrisNoXmas at 7:03 PM on February 5, 2008

I have done some journaling on and off for years and found that what worked for me was to handwrite 3 pages per day and then I put them in a sealed envelope with the date on it. I have yet to open most of them to see what I wrote but it was a very healing experience. Too much planning makes it more difficult to write stream of consciousness. It was interesting to me when I first started doing it that I felt that I was filtering information and then after a while you just write whatever comes out. Anyway, I like to keep things as simple as possible otherwise I get tired of it and don't do it. Good luck to you !
posted by butterfly7171 at 5:58 PM on February 6, 2008

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