Writing a Journal? Throw Out the Rules
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Writing a Journal? Throw Out the Rules

I’ve been a prolific journal writer throughout my life, but never a faithful one. Throughout history, humans have felt compelled to record the events, relationships, and details (intriguing or mundane) of their lives. Many have completed meticulous volumes of their days over years. I’m not one of them. And that’s okay.

A journal is a journey — yours. You can capture that journey in many different ways; there’s no “one way” to do it.

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Diary or Journal? Today They’re Interchangeable

The oldest diaries date back to Middle Eastern and East Asian cultures, at the very beginning of recorded history. The Roman general Marcus Aurelius kept a journal in Greek entitled “To Myself.” (Pretty specific — the ancient equivalent of writing “Keep Out.”) During the Renaissance, medieval mystics began writing about their inward emotions, along with outward events. The diary of events… became a journal.

In 1908, the Smythson Company in Britain produced the first lightweight diary, intended to be carried in a gentleman’s pocket, or a lady’s purse. No doubt it was a Smythson that inspired Oscar Wilde to write:

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”The Importance of Being Earnest

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The Queen of England and Grace Kelly loved their Smythson diaries. Today, Smythson offers luxuriously bound, colorful journals for travelers, gardeners, for weddings, diary/planners — both large and small. Of course, they can run from $45 up to $1,300.

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Anything Can Become a Journal If It Pleases You

I got my first diary in seventh grade. The diary had green fake leather binding and gold edges on the pages, with dates inside. I ignored the dates; my writing spilled over into page upon page. In this diary, I explored all the venom, hurt, elation, fears, and wishes that make up middle school life: first boyfriends, best friend territorial wars, hormonal rages, the things I couldn’t say to my parents.

I still remember writing about being “walked home” from a neighborhood skating pond by one of my first boyfriends. It was all so pure: the winter air, the crunch of snow, the thrill of holding that boy’s warm hand, the soft glow of old street lamps and the shy romance that existed — if only for a few weeks, the lifespan of seventh grade relationships — between this boy and me.

I still have the diary in a box. It became Volume I of many.

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Whatever Gets You to Write… Is All Right

Writing by hand has a direct link to the brain. Our senses and thoughts respond to the look of the paper we write on and the feel of exactly the “right” pen in our hands. Through high school, college, and into adulthood, I loved the three-subject, college-ruled, spiral notebook as my journal. It had to be college-ruled!

In high school, my spiral notebooks often contained not only my thoughts and feelings at the time, but drawings: maps of the mall and an account of a shopping trip my best friend and I took; a hair style I wanted plus my current style; illustrations of some anecdote; cartoons.

One spiral notebook became a travel journal I kept on a graduation trip to Europe. Years later, it became the basis for a novel.

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The Blank Book: Enticing Freedom

One of my favorite journals as a teen was a bound book full of blank, unlined pages. You could do anything you wanted with blank books. I filled mine with stories, angst, whimsy, poetry, doodles, raves about my favorite musicians. I wrote a long story in it that I shared with my friends. I’d break off from writing the next installment to go back to recounting the roller coaster that my heart was on over my first big love. I filled three quarters or more of its 300 pages.

The beauty of the blank book is in its unlined pages, begging to be written in… drawn on… pasted with photos — it can be anything. A dream journal. A creative journal. A collection of recipes and memories of the people who cooked the dishes. Poetry. A place to tuck mementos.

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Keeping a Journal Can Be Lots of Things, But It Shouldn’t Be Tedious

I didn’t keep a journal again until I was married and had my first child. My journals became very serious.

If keeping a journal becomes tedious, just stop doing it. There is such a thing as “journal guilt,” I believe. You start thinking, “I haven’t written in my journal today/this week/month/year.” Keeping a journal shouldn’t feel like a job. It’s your journal, and you get to decide what you want to do — or not do — with it.

You aren’t locked into any one journal until it’s finished; you can stop. Maybe for years.

I have journals that have gaps of years in them. What I realized, in re-reading them, is that some things had changed within me, while often, outwardly, things may have appeared the same. The more I tried to fill in the gaps and catch up from the last year written, the more boring and tiring it all became.

So, it’s OK just to stop. Pick it up later, but don’t try to follow some rule of the 19th century diarist to record every detail.

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You Can Judge a Journal By Its Cover

Somewhere along the line, books for journaling have become things of beauty. They have butter-soft leather covers. Fabric covers. They come in bright colors. Some have art covers. My current journal was a gift from a painter friend, Cindy Altmire Harris.

Pieces of You, Pieces of History

Re-reading a journal can tell you a lot about yourself at a certain point in time. This is your history. It’s your story. You may laugh. You may cry. You may cringe.

You may want to save them for some future historically-inclined ancestor to read. Or you may want to burn them on a roaring fire and keep your secrets. It’s up to you.

I have all my journals packed up. I’m a keeper. Even if I never read them again, I’ll be there on the page when my imaginary ancestor discovers them. And is he or she in for some surprises!

My latest journal — with sporadic entries — contains everything from prayers, to dreams, to some answers and insights from working through Jennifer Lee’s book, The Right-Brained Business Plan. I’m starting to draw funny illustrations again. This journal is much freer. There are no rules. There is no schedule. I’m on another part of the journey.

So grab a cup of tea (I suggest the reading nook blend!), a glass of wine, curl up in your coziest pjs, or sit in the sun, play music or find a place of silence. Let your journal be a center of freedom, peace, and pleasure. Make writing in it a luscious treat for all your senses.

If you need it, you can try these creative writing prompts all about living the good life.

But, you are the master. You make the rules.

Photo credits: macrj, Smythson.com, thechosendork, organikal, sandz7, author.

Writing a Journal? Throw Out the Rules

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