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The value of keeping a journal

There’s a rustling from the other room. I walk over to the shelving unit that groans under three decades of journals. They eye me and yawn, “What’s up, spinster?”

“Hey!! We’ve been over this. It’s lone wolf.” I need to stop telling them so much.

When The New York Times ran the fairytale story of my friend Martin’s wedding, the bride, an editor at a well-known publication, said she was a lifelong journal keeper—that is, until she met my friend. “You are the confidant I had been waiting for,” she told him. Beautiful.

Thing is, even if my future holds a polyamorous marriage with eight adopted children and a pair of confidant pitbulls, I’m likely to keep a journal indefinitely. “Journaling gives people an opportunity to place their thoughts and make them tangible— says Shane’a Thomas, LICSW, M.Ed., clinical social worker and senior lecturer at USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Thing is, even if my future holds a polyamorous marriage with eight adopted children and a pair of confidant pitbulls, I'm likely to keep a journal indefinitely.

The journal isn’t dead

In this era of confiding to 1,100 of your closest friends on social media, am I part of a dying breed? I started asking around—first my immediate circle of friends and colleagues. “Do you keep any kind of journal?” To my surprise, the yays outweighed the nays. Several people, like Brooklyn-based drummer Marco Buccelli, initially said no and then hesitantly shifted. “I do write things down a lot,” he texted. “Sometimes I add the date to it.”

I wrote a brief questionnaire and emailed it to a few journalists and editors; in reply, I received thoughtful, multi-page essays. So I sent out a few more, widening the circle to include other professions. More heartfelt outpourings, carefully written. Suddenly I felt like a journal.

At the Blick art-supply store in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, salesperson Allyson Fuentes said the store does a brisk trade in notebooks. “People either know exactly what they want or have no idea,” she said, walking me past the seductive rows of popular brands like Rhodia, Moleskine, and Leuchtturm1917. “Sometimes they’ve read a book about journaling and want to start.” Brepols, the 222-year-old Belgian company that makes an amazing and at times elusive notebook, likes to say paper is in its DNA. Spokesperson Kris Zels told me they aim to offer “a well-thought-out tool to help you make time for things which really matter in your life, and help you to cherish your memories and emotions.”

Ultimately, I surveyed 25 people, more women than men, mostly but not exclusively in creative fields like writing and photography. Some write sporadically, others like clockwork, and others have kept a journal only for a specific purpose during a certain era in their life. Many recall the catalyst—Go Ask Alice, or The Andy Warhol Diaries. Some use pen and paper, but digital files, audio notes, and illustration-heavy sketchbooks—or combinations thereof—are common. “The medium you choose is always forgiving of your thoughts,” says Thomas. Some people keep separate journals for goals, feelings, travel. No one I spoke to regrets their practice.

Read on for reasons you might start keeping a journal—and some ways to start.

Clear the mind

Writing can calm a racing brain with almost magical efficacy. “It’s like a vacuum,” says Sheryl Burpee Dluginski, a writer in New York City—goodbye, mind gunk. When she was in high school, her English teacher started class with a five-minute free write. If Dluginski was feeling low, afterward she felt better. Now 53, she’s been writing in a journal “98 percent consistently” since she was 12. In Gastonia, NC, 27-year-old Demetria Mosley, a journalist and artist, likens it to “lifting a brick,” and says her journals—art, emotions, phrases, work, as well as audio files—bring her a better connection with herself. “It takes all the pressure away.”

You could always go more… hardcore. “I destroy every page,” says San Francisco–based photographer and creative director Mark Madeo. He had been journaling since he was six, inspired by his mother, who said a diary was a book with a padlock. “I couldn’t think of anything cooler,” he says, “someplace to hide secrets from my parents, treasure maps, and my true feelings about [name redacted].” But when his marriage ended, he took a trip to Nepal and brought The Artist’s Way. He was struck by its Morning Pages, a practice in which, upon waking, you write nonstop for two pages,

He loved the idea but didn’t want to feed his ego (“How will this read to the screenwriter tasked with adapting it?”), or leave passive-aggressive landmines for someone to later “accidentally” discover. In destroying his pages, he’s free to say anything and everything, with regard to no one, including the future Mark Madeo (who is now “on the chipper side of middle age”). “Occasionally there’s an idea that fuels my work, or a realization that helps me grow,” he says. He copies those things to a more permanent book. As for the rest? “The sound of a paper shredder brings a feeling of lightness, almost springtime.”

He copies those things to a more permanent book. As for the rest? "The sound of a paper shredder brings a feeling of lightness, almost springtime."

Put it to practice: Try Morning Pages for one week. Use any old notebook, or dictate into your phone. Consider asking a few colleagues to join you; meet up afterward to compare notes.

Set and track goals

Forget Joan Didion’s dubious claim that journals are just for “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents.” Keeping a notebook is fertile ground for advancing ambitions and setting the course for future accomplishments. Solu Nwanze, director of business operations, marketing, at Zendesk, has journaled, using pen and paper only, since childhood, filling the pages with career plans and goals. Like many, she reports a shift in process over time—from writing freeform to using a Five-Minute Journal. Nwanze finds going back to old journals rewarding, saying she enjoys reliving dreams, particularly the ones that have come true. “It’s shaped my life,” says Nwanze. “I’ve learned that when I channel my whole self toward something, it does come into effect!”

It can be like a mirror that reflects what’s happening and what’s possible. Tara Ramroop, editor of San Francisco Diaries, calls her practice “journal-ish-ing.” Using bulleted lists and electronic documents, she keeps a year in review of travel, career changes, and things she’s tried or accomplished—especially if she was “afraid or weirded out” by them at first. “Rather than being solely a document of things I have done, it’s a record of ongoing and evolving goals.”

Put it to practice: Make a list of 5 to 10 goals for the coming new year, as well as quarterly milestones. Have your calendar ping you every few months as a reminder to revisit.

Work through rocky times

It can be risky or inappropriate to share everything with your colleagues or, frankly, even your friends if you’re in crisis. But a notebook won’t judge you, spill your dirt, or get freaked out and stop talking to you. Elizabeth Jackson (a pseudonym) kept a journal for 15 months when a loved one was hospitalized for drug use and then entered a yearlong series of rehab programs. Nearly every day, she was being asked to jot down and contemplate some aspect of their relationship, or his progress.

“I read books, watched videos. There were endless meetings with professionals, research about next steps, movies, videos, inspirational readings and self-help reading,” she says. The journal held anything she found useful. Sometimes it was a slogan, like ‘No’ is a complete sentence. “Sometimes it was a way of exorcising something disturbing that happened or that I remembered,” she says. The journal traveled with Jackson to every meeting and workshop and therapy session. Actually, it traveled with her pretty much everywhere. “I used to read certain parts over and over and over when I needed help getting through a difficult situation or a bad day or a bad moment,” she says, “but it’s been probably over a year since I opened it.” Eventually, like Madeo, she will shred that journal—but not until she’s sure she doesn’t need it anymore.

Put it to practice: Choose one area of life that’s challenging you—apartment hunt, career fears—and devote a notebook (or folder on your laptop) to it.

Work with gratitude and savor life

Even the eye-rollingest cynic can benefit from journaling for gratitude. It will not turn you into some twee pumpkin or force you to smear pink icing on catastrophic loss. Rather, gratitude practice shifts your attention to what’s good, to what’s working, to what you can celebrate. When are you more likely to make progress on your truest goals: when you’re fuming about the entitled tap dancers who torture you from the upstairs apartment, or when you’re enjoying a brief high about how much your grandparents adore you and how much you’re progressing in jiu-jitsu?

When are you more likely to make progress on your truest goals: when you’re fuming about the entitled tap dancers who torture you from the upstairs apartment, or when you’re enjoying a brief high about how much your grandparents adore you and how much you’re progressing in jiu-jitsu?

“I always write in the morning to express three things I am grateful for, three things I am excited about in the day, and one positive affirmation,” says Kali Lorenzetti, a customer marketing manager at Zendesk. “It doesn’t feel like a chore but a must-have to set me up for emotional success throughout the day.” She considers her journal, always a ruled notebook, a tool to help keep her grounded throughout the day. “I then reflect back at night about unforeseen feelings or conflict and express joy,” Lorenzetti adds.

A journal can also validate and amplify day-to-day wonder. Sometimes journalist Kendra Smith-Parks records “the cute conversation” she just had with her grandma, or other “small, impactful” moments: “I just don’t want to forget a single second.” Neither does New Yorker Kate Meyer Deshmukh, who uses a journal to chronicle life with her daughter Zoë, now eight years old. “When I go back and read my entries from her early years, I’m struck by how much we did,” says Deshmukh. She cites an Anaïs Nin line: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” That, she says, captures her journaling about Zoë. “I want to live time with her more than once.”

Put it to practice: The One-Minute Gratitude Journal offers approachable half-page spaces.

Cultivate growth

In episode 257 of Doctor Who, the Doctor runs into a woman he’d made immortal when she was a girl. But she refuses to answer to her old name. “I call myself Me,” says guest star Maisie Williams, better known as Game of Thrones’ Arya Stark. “All the other names I chose died with whoever knew me.” Me has journaled for centuries, keeping some things and tearing out the most painful memories that she wishes to forget.

Can you relate? As time passes—albeit years, not centuries—we often shed selves like skins, leaving behind, like the Elliott Smith song, “the people you’ve been before that you don’t want around anymore.”

With a journal, “It’s meditative and spiritual,” says filmmaker Joshua Sanchez in Brooklyn. “Journal entries are a way for me to keep track of where I am in my life and a way for me to honor my own creative need to make a tangible expression of my life experience.” Lorenzetti calls it a point of emotional cognizance. “It helps me bring perspective to how I felt throughout the day, reflecting not only on the ‘bad’ but often the exciting and rooms for opportunity in my personal development.”

Put it to practice: Ever tried free-writing? The results can be unnerving. Like, where did that come from? Here’s a New York Times list of 500 prompts.

Express your creativity

Who says you have to stash secrets in your journal—or even stick to so-called reality? M.C., a graduate student and independent researcher in Berkeley, CA, was encouraged as a kid to write whatever she felt like, explore her thoughts and feelings, and illustrate. She describes her first real journal entry: “It was several pages about visiting my dad at his lab (true—he was a graduate student in microbiology and sometimes brought me along to campus),” says M.C., “and how he was making cosmic rust that was going to invade and take over the world (not true—I got the idea from a Transformers episode on television).” In another, she chronicled her family’s journey from Taiwan to the United States by floating across the ocean on a giant mattress.

Put it to practice: Artist-journalist Mosley journals a one-word description of how she feels with a definition: “I wrote once: espresso — I feel black and bitter.” Don’t overthink it; just write it.

Take it from here

When I asked what should happen to these journals down the line, I could practically see the seasickness on some writers’ faces. “Torch them!” cried quite a few. Not M.C. in Berkeley. She first expressed uncertainty, and then shared a clear vision: “I’d like everything to be wrapped up in a complete set and locked away for 200 years, to be magically discovered by some totally unrelated archivist or librarian or historian or teenage girl in the future. I do not know that I’ve written much of historical value or literary worth. I don’t know that I’m a particularly special or interesting person whose life will need to be dissected in the future. But I feel sometimes, in reflection, that the sheer fact that I have been so consistent for so many years, and I have had some really unique, intense, and interesting experiences…”

Maybe it all means something?

If the blank page makes you feel like a reluctant bungee jumper, try a guided journal, like Meera Lee Patel’s journal for self-exploration, this one for grieving by Tanya Carroll Richardson, or The 52 Lists Project. Check out Penzu or LiveJournal.