A Beginner’s Guide to Journaling
A beginner’s guide to journaling.
What is there to say!
The only way to do it is to write and to write consistently. Here are some thoughts.
To get started all you need is a notebook and a pen or a pencil. I advise doing it by hand, rather than digitally, and I like to think it’s why we opened the shop in the first place, because I believe in the way it slows you down and how you can feel it, and that it makes a difference. You could consider finding a notebook you really like and a pen that makes you feel like writing, because sometimes using tools that you love can be motivating. In the end, the notebook and pen don’t matter so much, but if you’re having a hard time getting started, having a journal that inspires you to pick it up and open it can be nice.
Should you do it daily? Yes, I think so. I think the cost of writing a few sentences is just a minute or two, and it’s rare to have a day where you really can’t spare five minutes. And of course it’s okay if you miss a day or month, you just have to keep coming back. If you forget to brush your teeth once it’s not like you simply stop brushing; you just pick up again the next day.
If you have a hard time writing on the very first page, skip the first page and start on the second. Start off with writing the date.
Tie your journal writing to a time of day or an activity. Write in it over your morning coffee, or during your lunch break, or with an afternoon treat, or on the subway home, or just before bed. Alternatively, consider bringing your journal around with you, for unexpected quiet moments in your day. These are some of my favourite entries, the half-finished ones where I start off with “sitting in the car, waiting for Caleb to get out of school” and get a few sentences in before I see him tearing out of the schoolyard towards me, coat flapping open in the wind.
My biggest piece of advice is to totally forgo any expectations. Write for the sake of writing and trust the process. Have fun, don’t be concerned about what you’re writing about, ease into it and then go wild. Promise yourself that no one will see it. Know that it will be okay if it is terrible and you can’t spell things and your handwriting is awful. It doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful. It can be boring and brutal and silly and personal. Just get the words on the page.
It can be tempting to see people posting beautiful pages and spreads and handwriting on social media and get discouraged. If you like having lovely pages, that’s great, but also consider that some pages (most?) don’t have to be anything at all, they can just be words clearing out of your mind.
One way to lower expectations for yourself is to make your goal simply to fill your notebook up. I read some time ago about an experiment in creativity in a pottery class. Students were split into two groups: at the end of term one group would be assessed based on their one, best (hopefully very good) piece, and the other group would be assessed based on how many pieces they could make. In the end, the group that created prolifically ended up with higher marks, with more beautiful pieces, more risks and creativity.
Another way to lower the bar is to set a timer for a certain amount of time, and commit to writing, stream of consciousness style, until the timer goes off. It could be as little as a minute—60 seconds can actually seem longer than you think when you’re on the spot—but consider trying something like 10 minutes or even longer, because sometimes the tastiest and unexpected bits come off the bottom of the pan after it’s been cooking for a while. If you get stuck, just write about how you’re stuck and don’t know what to write about, or let your mind wander and describe your clothes or your desk or your to do list or the things in your room.
While you don’t need to write every day, and you certainly shouldn’t beat yourself up about missing a day or a week or a month, keeping at it, coming back to it over and over again, is the only way to mine for gold. The point is that the more you journal, the better you get at it, the more often your muse will show up, the more treasures you will find.
The biggest question of all: what do you write about?
Here are a few easy lobs that you could do every day, as a warm up, to ease yourself into it, and to see where it takes you.
- What happened today? Mundane details are great! How exactly did your roll out of bed? Prompt: Today, I woke up and…
- What was the most interesting thing that happened today? Or, what was the best five minutes of your day?
- What are you looking forward to tomorrow?
- How did your interactions with people today go? Your family, your coworkers, your friends, the person making your coffee, your librarian…
You can write about stressful things at work, overarching life goals (financial, career, health, relationships), hobbies, future dreams, family, a tasty meal, your favourite outfit, things you’re avoiding, travel plans. It is endless, and oftentimes, if you stay at the page for longer than a couple of minutes, you will be surprised by what comes up, even if you didn’t know what you were going to write about when you sat down.
You never regret doing it—something, anything—you mostly regret not doing it. You won’t regret having the notebooks filled up on the shelf, having the memories to look back on, the crazy situations and terrible events and golden moments, even if you don’t look back through your journals.
That’s not even to say that you should be writing down things just to remember them, that’s just—sometimes—a benefit. You’re writing things down because if you do it consistently, there is some friction that happens: you start noticing things as you go about your day, you start sprouting ideas, you start thinking in different ways and on different levels. There are lots of benefits (productivity, mental clarity, processing, brain dump, reflection, a non-judgemental ear, a testing ground for new ideas) and they all overlap, a mind map where all the lines go everywhere.
It’s sort of like mental stretching, to limber up, to reflect, to avoid going through life like a zombie. Stir the pot, rock the boat, see what comes up. Plus, it’s super satisfying to use up some of your stationery supplies.
And also, if you’re still looking for inspiration, I run a journaling club. I would love for you to join us! We meet Mondays and Thursdays at 9pm EST on Zoom. I share a prompt, and we write together for half an hour.