#40daysoflight: journaling, a primer

The following is something that I actually wrote on various sites in various forms over various years past, but have never shared publicly on Chookooloonks.  It's more than overdue:  this is my philosophy on journaling, and how you can get started if you've always wanted to journal, but were afraid to try.

If you're anything like I was a few years ago, you would not be caught dead journaling.  Perhaps you think, as I did, journaling is about writing very lofty thoughts in beautifully bound journals every single day, for the purposes of baring one's darkest and most emotionally-wrenching secrets from the depths of one's soul for all posterity.  You know, like Anne Frank, except more profound. 

In other words, if you're anything like I was, you probably perceive journaling a tiny bit daunting.

And while, obviously, there's nothing wrong with journaling in that way, a conversation with my friend Jen Lee several years ago made me realize that there really is no right or wrong way to journal at all; and in fact, it might possibly be far more rewarding, and freeing even, to look at journaling as merely a way to capture the ephemera of your life.  By journaling this way -- just capturing your messy, imperfect life, with no thought about how you want the final product to look or read -- the result, of course, is that you'll have an accidentally beautiful record of your life and times.  Since that conversation, I've journaled almost every day.  And honestly? It has changed my life.  My journals have kept me very organized with respect to my daily schedule and life, but have also provided me lots of inspiration for my work as well -- things I'd like to photograph or write, or projects I'd like to tackle, or even future goals to which to aspire.

Over the years my journals has evolved from very simple books to something quite a bit more complex, but each time I've added something new, it's just been about whatever I've felt like putting in the pages, as opposed to What Is Supposed To Be Recorded In A Journal. And so, today, I thought I'd share with you the various sections in my journal, from the very basic to the more elaborate.  If you don't journal, I'd strongly encourage you to give it a go, even if it's just for the next month or so, just see what comes of it.  You can do as many of these levels that you want, or just stick with Level 1 -- it's entirely up to you.  And you never know: just starting a practice of handwriting things down might help you discover and more deeply appreciate your own Beautiful Different.

The Rules and the Tools:  As I mentioned above, journaling should be completely freeform and generally rule-free; that said, the only rule for myself (and I would suggest, for anyone just starting out), is that you are not allowed to rip out any pages.  In other words, if you make a mistake, or you try doodling something you don't like, or you don't think it's neat enough, or heck, of someone rests their coffee cup on the open page leaving a ring stain, it stays in the book.  I know this might feel very frustrating at first, but just trust me on this.  Years from now, after you've forgotten about it, you'll come across the scribble, or the coffee stain, and might actually be charmed by this.

So, since this is my rule, I never buy spiral-bound journals, since the temptation to rip out a page is too strong.  Instead, I buy tightly-bound journals -- Moleskines are great (hard to rip out pages), and I started using those, but lately I've been using these, which are exactly like Moleskines, except the pages are numbered (score).  And I always get the unlined versions, so that I can write as big or small as I want, but it doesn't matter, really.  And also, since you're going to want to have it on you as much as possible (you'll see why, below), be sure to get a size that's big enough to write in, but portable enough to throw into your handbag or backpack.

In addition to the journals, I have a favourite pen that I always use.  Make sure to pick your favourite -- you'll want use it a lot.

Okay, so that's all you'll need.  Here we go:


Level 1: The most basic journal -- the to-do list and scratch pad

Every day, whether I write or include anything else in my journal, the one thing I do make sure to do is to write down my to-do list for the day.  There is something just so satisfying about scratching through the items I have to do as I get them done; in addition, having all of my to-do lists in one place is convenient:  I can go back and remember when I did something, or if I fail to do something one day, I simply move it to the following day.

Then -- and this is the part that might be unlike how you've ever heard journaling be done -- I keep my journal with me for the rest of the day, and use the pages following my to-do list like a scratch pad.  Someone calls and leaves a message for my husband? I write it down there.  Need to make a grocery list? I write it down in my journal. Planning a trip?  The packing list goes in the pages. Ideas for blog posts, names of bottles of wine I want to remember, even brainstorming project ideas while I sit in the car pool line, waiting for my daughter to come out of school -- anything that I would scratch on a piece of paper or even a napkin happens in my journal.

The beauty of this is that because your journal is chronological, you'll be able to go find things -- your notes, ideas, etc. -- easily.  It's been a great way to organize my life, and an easy way to start "journaling" without feeling too exposed or weird about it.  And in the end, ultimately, it's a great record of your life -- one that will be treasured in years to come.


Level 2:  "Morning pages"

 In addition to the to-do lists, above; and, in fact, before I even write down my to-do lists, I write two "morning pages."  The idea is actually espoused in Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way, and the concept is this:  first thing in the morning, before you even turn on your computer, you write at least 2 pages (The Artist's Way actually suggests 3 pages) of whatever comes to your head -- completely stream-of-consciousness, without any particular attention to spelling or grammar, simply spilling all the thoughts that are cluttering your mind every morning.

To be honest with you, I rarely go back and read these pages -- but what I've found is that just doing this clears my head for the day, and gets rid of the superfluous thoughts so that I can focus on what's important to me for the day.  It's just a nice little clearing exercise.

One tip that my friend Jen gave me that I try to maintain:  try to do the to-do list and the morning pages (if you do them) before you turn on your computer.  In this way, you can be sure to focus what's important to you for the day before your email inbox decided to rule your world.  Your email should supplement what you want to accomplish for the day, not take it over.


Level 3:  Use your journal as a scrapbook and a photo album

I don't know about you, but (a) I do not scrapbook in the way that "scrapbook" has come to mean, and (b) I am horrible about putting photographs into albums.  (Yes, I am a photographer.  Yes, I know this is pathetic).  But since I do journal every day, I've found a couple of ways to make sure that I manage to capture memories in a way that doesn't seem like a chore or even a huge chunk of my time:

First, whenever I come across a piece of paper that I love -- someone sends me a pretty card, for example, or I get a fortune from a fortune cookie that I like, or my daughter draws me a pretty picture that I want to save, I just glue it right into the pages of my journal:

Again, I just glue these down in the next available blank page I have, regardless of when I received or found the card, or when Alex did her original piece of art for me.   Sometimes I caption them, sometimes I don't.  And if I happen to be somewhere where I don't have glue, no worries -- the journals that I use have little pockets in the back, so I just save them there until I can get to them.  When the pocket in the back of the journal gets too fat, I know it's time to start gluing.

Similarly, I discovered these awesome adhesive pockets that you can get in any office supply store, that conveniently hold 4"x6" photos.  So every now and then I print my favourite images, or if I'm cleaning out a closet and stumble on some old snapshots, I grab one of these pockets, stick the photo inside, and slap these babies in my journal:


Level 4:  Colour, doodle, add art, collage, write favourite quotes, etc.

Over months, I've become really taken with the concept of art journaling -- not just writing down thoughts, but simply expressing them through art.  I've never considered myself much of an artist in the traditional sense of the world; however, since a journal is ostensibly very private, I found that my journal is where I can play around with art and colour without risk of anyone judging my work.  I love colour, and when I first began, I would just paint a page with water colours, just to have something different from a plain white page to write on.  Sometimes I'd just take my coffee or tea mug and make coffee or tea rings on the pages, allow them to dry, and then just do my morning pages over them.   And since then, I've gotten more adventurous.  Sometimes I collage, using masking tape and pictures torn from magazines.  And sometimes I just doodle, using big fat coloured pens to write down favourite quotes I come across, and just generally messing around.

I admit that this might seem the most risky thing to do in a journal, but remember:  no one has to see this but you.  This is just for playing purposes, and in fact, I most often do this sitting in front of our television, watching a movie on the weekend, just playing around.  It's something to do rather than surf the web, you know?  Just for play.

So that's it!  Again, to make a journal a journal, you don't have to do all of these things -- you might just do some of them.  Or none of them, and come up with some ideas all of your own.  But I think the practice of just handwriting things on paper is meditative.  It certainly helps me organize my life.  And again, the result -- even the pages with the coffee/tea rings on them -- make for a really beautiful record of my messy life.

So if you'd like to start spending more time doing something just for you, consider picking up a plain journal and a few pens, and start playing, without any preconceived expectations or judgments.  Trust me:  you'll thank yourself.