Not by the Book: Reinventing Your Journal

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Where is your journal? Mine is in my bedside stand, wedged between several outdated magazines. I strive to write about my children in it a few times a month, but that doesn’t always happen. It’s easy to feel guilty when, in December, I see that I haven’t made any entries since October. Were my children and I that dull or lacking in wit for nearly three months?

Of course not, but life can crowd out our best intentions. And I’ve found that unless you either a) have a proclivity for keeping a journal (some people can recall keeping journals in earliest childhood), or b) find ways to weave it into your life, it will become a dusty, have-to.

When I wrote about visual journals for my book Drawing from Life: The Journal as Art, I asked a group of dedicated journal keepers to define “journal.” Their responses were wide: A habit. Internal map. Memory bank. One-stop shop. Confidante. The attic of my mind. All of them had a relationship to their journals that allowed their books to be a destination they went to gladly rather than a daily grind.

If reinvigorating your journal is a goal (though I hesitate to use the two nouns in the same breath, as journals often bulk under the weight of a goal), consider your expectations for your journal. Are you hoping for moments of genius? Do you have visions of clever aperçus, elegant handwriting, and beautifully wrought little sketches? If so, no wonder you’re terrified.

Consider less open space and more rules. Or at least give yourself a framework.

Last year, when my father was dying from cancer, I started a book that turned out to be very useful for me. It was not directly about his illness, though I did keep a narrative account of the experience on my computer, an important outlet that I’m sure I’ll eventually be happy to have. But it was the journal into which I wrote quotes and scraps of overheard conversation, pasted images, and invited friends to contribute that provided me strength. I haven’t added to the book in months, but I return to it often.

Identifying a strand of your life that you want to examine more closely is an excellent starting point for a journal. The focus may be a life moment, such as a move or a changing relationship, or it could be something seemingly more trivial, such as a hobby or longtime interest that you never seem to have time for, such as opera or old cookbooks. Instead of that blank book on your desk being about Everything, what if it were specific to spirituality or the marathon you’d like to complete? How far astray could you go if you simply noted every book you read this year and copied a favorite line from it? Or start a garden journal, making only a few entries each year but considering it as a seedling with years of growth to come.

If the white page is too overwhelming, start with someone else’s work. Christine Wong Yap, a twenty-nine year old artist in Oakland, California, uses old school textbooks as the basis for some of her journals. Roam antique stores or Goodwills for kitschy books that invite your additions. Or look for different kinds of books the next time you’re at the office supply store, such as accounting ledgers.

Although Wong Yap says that she taught herself to draw via her journals—especially during a solo trip to Indonesia at age eighteen when there was hardly anyone else she could talk to—she also works out a lot of ideas in them, ideas which may or may not find their way into her artwork. “For example, I’ve tried to track and diagram all of the shitty things that happen to me and all of the good stuff,” she says. 

Go with your gut when it comes to a journal and you’ll be rewarded. Although Wong Yap’s shitty/good exercise began as a cerebral practice, the unintended result was that she better appreciated the positive things in her life. Likewise, food critic Tucker Shaw, who photographed everything he ate in 2004, said that he gained a new appreciation for the human connections elicited by food and mealtime: “I never expected to find so much to consider in my food, such as the meaning of the same bowl of oatmeal every morning.” 

Giving oneself an assignment, like Shaw did, can produce wonderful results. Designer and illustrator Linda Zacks, documents her Brooklyn-based life in assorted books, many of which begin with a wisp of urban inspiration. Such as the Christmas trees on the curb one January, which struck her as sad relics of their so recent merry selves. She also loves “giving rebirth” to items that otherwise seem forgotten, such as a collection of old family photos of her grandmother in swimming suits, which Zacks wittily coupled with text from a Victoria’s Secret catalog.

Redefine your journal and you may find it to be a meditative or even rejuvenating destination as opposed to yet another item on your to-do list. Getting beyond the list is, in fact, the most valuable lesson journals have to offer; they force us to slow down and pay attention. As one lifelong journal-keeper told me, “A journal keeps your eyes wide as a child’s.”

Art: Christine Wong Yap


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