Lately, I’ve been curious how the forms you choose can affect what thoughts fly through your head.

A sustained journal practice, for instance, changes the quality of your thoughts. I’m talking about the sustain journaling practices of Samuel Pepys or more recently Tina Brown in The Vanity Fair Diaries (previously blogged about that one).


Image of Samuel Pepys’s journal


Unlike a diary or notebook, journals are outward focused–they’ll tell you about a great fire in London or one’s observations at dinner with other high-powered individuals. They’re concerned with social issues and will, to use some business lingo, “drill down” into them to a greater extent than diaries or notebooks.

Journals aren’t rabidly personal (like the diaries of David Sedaris, who described them intensely personal to the point of being whiney). The journals I’m thinking about also aren’t whimsical, fleeting, or occasionally illegible (which is how Joan Didion describes the notebooks she’s kept over the years).

I carry a notebook with me wherever I go to jot down story ideas, titles, essays to write, thoughts that sound good dressed up in a specific syntax. There’s an immense value and satisfaction to this sort of record keeping. I can easily go back to see what writing I owe myself. Notebooking is the springboard to writing; journaling is the high dive. The first generates more writing. With the second, the show begins and ends with the energy (and courage) you show while falling 30 feet.

My notebook occasionally becomes a diary—self-involved and confessional, focused on communicating myself rather than with another, and I think that’s needed to, well, be a human. At times it morphs into a journal, and I’ll wander through a topic you’d find in the New York Times for 2-3 pages. But I’ve never had a sustained journal practice, and I have to say, as odd as it initially feels, I love the form itself because it brings about a different tinge of thought.

Not necessarily for the better, but the form of a journal nudges your thinking into becoming more linear, in-depth, focused, and comprehensible for a reader with a quick eye and probable impatience. It encourages that word that most writers hate yet desperately need—discipline.

I’ve laid out some ground rules to encourage that sustained journaling practice.

  1. Don’t take the journal outside. For more than a decade, I’ve kept my notebook with me everywhere. It’s great for the immediate capture of thoughts and feelings, but that great open loving form doesn’t structure of comprehensibility. When you can set down a thought anywhere you go, harried thoughts get in, which, for a reader, bogs the whole thing down. But when you can only journal at a specific location, preferably home but if you travel a quiet hotel room, it encourages that “emotion recollected in tranquility” Wordsworth so valued in poetry.
  2. Journal toward the end of day. There’s something immensely gratifying about looking over a day’s work, weighing what happened, describing everything with the pretense toward objectivity. Toward the end of the day, there’s more to work with obviously, but there’s also personal solace in wrapping each day up with its metaphorical bow. I think of Emerson’s letter to his daughter: “Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” Waiting till the end of day to journal, even when you have some time from say, 11:30-12:30, requires a delayed gratification (read: discipline) that engenders different forms of thinking. If you’re lucky enough to think about journaling at 11am but don’t do so until 12 hours later, chances are your thoughts will be that much richer.
  3. Write legibly. My notebook (which morphs to a diary and journal at will, but that more often stays a notebook) is for myself. The writing is spurious, and I’ve taken some pleasure in the fact like others, like my boyfriend who tried to snoop through a notebook in the first months of our relationship, find it incomprehensible. The privacy ensured by the intensely personal is why Da Vinci wrote in his famous mirror script. But journals are for others. Obviously they can be intensely personal, but the point is that they be readable, even if only to the future you. That means you have to write clearly. The journal I’m keeping now happens to be on gridded pages. I forced myself to write small but legible, respectively the lines as I would while driving. It was annoying at first–in all my previous notebooks I could write wherever the F I wanted–but you get used to it, and it’s fun to see how my thinking has to clarify itself before I go dashing through a page.


Joan Didion being Joan Didion
David Sedaris
James Baldwin Dancing Photo Break

















The rules of journal-keeping are new to me, but I’m finding it so rewarding. There’s really an art to it that isn’t so apparent with a lackadaisical in a diary/notebook (not to say that those two forms aren’t as important).

Anyway, later this week, I’m going to write about forms (or situations in this case) working on our thinking. The New Yorker Poetry podcast had a great interview between some of my favorite poets, Ada Limón and Natalie Diaz. Their collaborative poetry project, Envelopes of Air, is available in snippet form.

Definitely comment away!

I’m curious to hear what others think of journaling/notebooking/ diary-keeping.

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