Most of the writers I know have a bit of a journal obsession. Like our love of books, our desire to bring a new one home with us doesn’t actually mean we don’t have a stack of journals waiting for us already, their pages blank and ready to be filled. It doesn’t always make any logical sense. In fact, all those blank pages taunt us. They serve as a reminder of all the words we’ve yet to write, and we may not even be able to imagine how we’ll fill them.
Certainly, the possibilities are endless, but below you’ll find a list of just a few ways to use your writing journals.
A “writer’s notebook” may sound a bit generic, but I couldn’t decide what else to call this. This notebook contains a little bit of everything: story ideas, brainstorming, free writing, outlines. To organize all of that, I suggest employing some sort of color coding/tab system or purchasing a notebook with dividers. Once you decide to run with a story, you can start a project-specific notebook where you write down all of your research, background information, character notes, and more for that particular project.
This is a smaller version of a writer’s notebook. The point of a pocket notebook is that it be carried with you at all times, somewhere easily accessible. As you go about your day, you’ll likely hear conversations and witness human interactions. You’ll be in the grocery store or at an intersection and, suddenly, inspiration will strike—a scene, a premise, a passage of dialogue, a few lines of poetry.
You’ll tell yourself, “don’t be that pretentious fuck who pulls out their moleskin in the middle of the frozen food aisle to write a poem.” You’ll tell yourself, “I’ll remember it this time.” But you won’t. You never do. That’s not how this whole creativity thing works. So forget about what everyone else thinks or whether it’s any good or whether it will amount to anything in the end and write it all down.
Morning pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness thoughts written every morning. Don’t overthink it. Like most free writing exercises, the point isn’t so much what you write but that you write. In the morning, before you’ve even wiped the sleep from your eyes, pull out your journal and give it a piece of your mind. If that’s, “I’d rather be asleep right now, but instead I’m talking to you. I need to mail that letter to Missy. I should probably write it first. How is it even possible that it’s summer again already? Why do I say that every year? The car payment is due again…” then okay. If your mind were a cluttered workspace, the point of this exercise would be to clear everything off so you can get back to work.
Morning pages shouldn’t be “artsy” or “pretty.” They are more likely to be nonsensical and even moody because most of us aren’t exactly our best selves first thing in the morning. According to Julia Cameron, the artist who wrote the book on morning pages as part of her exploration of the creative process, the act of writing out your morning pages should make you more conscious throughout your day.
Dreams are important tools of self-discovery. According to clinical psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber, “Dreams are the bridge that allows movement back and forth between what we think we know and what we really know.” They reveal our desires and wounds, and so by analyzing our dreams, the idea is that we grow to better understand ourselves.
In order to actually do that, you have to consistently record your dreams every morning. Keep a journal by your bed and write down anything you can remember about your latest foray into dreamland. If the only memory that comes to mind is the color orange or your bare ass as you walked naked into class, then so be it. The hope is that by developing this routine you’ll be able to better recall the details of your dreams, finding connections and meaning. You should also be writing down how the dream made you feel. Did you wake up scared or sad or angry? Can you remember why? When you’re finished with your dream entry, give it a title. Dream dictionaries can help you interpret reoccurring symbols.
I’ve tried and failed for decades now to use a personal diary. I can never seem to develop a routine, yes, but I suppose I also never know what to say. On a day-to-day basis, my life seems fairly, well, boring. The format has always felt constricting to me, but this is only because I thought I had to use a diary the way I thought everyone else did: “Today I ate oatmeal. Then I took my dog to the beach and read The Lost World. I forgot sunscreen.” Yawn. Who cares? I thought diaries were more about creating a time log of the day and its events and less about how all those things made me feel. Silly, probably, but still true. It also felt like a chore, sitting down at the end of everyday and scribbling out detailed notes of what I did and who I met and what we said. Who was I doing this for?
I do, however, like the idea of using a diary less so to document the mundane events of everyday life but to explore them the same way a memoirist might.
Freewriting Exercise Journal
While you may include free writing in your general writer’s notebook, it may also be a good idea to have a journal set aside for this specific purpose. On a weekly or daily basis (whichever you feel up to committing to), you can choose a prompt, set a timer, and keep writing until it goes off. Like morning pages, this journal is a way for you to clear the slate but also a way to generate new ideas and break out of a writing slump.
So you have a to-be-read list a mile long? Maybe you’re keeping track of that list on Goodreads, but when that list starts to enter triple digits it can be daunting even choosing which book comes next. In your reading journal, you can make shorter lists of the books you plan to actually read that month. Before you start reading, write the title and the date in your notebook, and as you read, write down the passages you love, the questions you have, the characters you respond to—doing this is a nice way to remember the books you read and how you felt about them. What you liked and disliked. What that means for your next read or next project. And if you write reviews, this should be a habit you form anyway, as it’s much easier to remember your thoughts if you write them down in the moment rather than attempt to recall them later.
What about you? Are you a fellow journal collector? What are some of your favorite ways to use your journals?