A Guidebook For Those Who Suck at Journaling

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Estee Janssens

Journaling is a therapeutic craft that many of us push to the margins of our priorities; for reasons ranging from “not having enough time” to “not knowing how to start.” It can be intimidating, leaving chunks of your soul in a book, knowing there’s a possibility someone may find it before your death.

Why do people do it? Susan Sontag justified it beautifully in her work, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks:

“The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.”

In other words, keeping a journal is a surefire means to figuring out your shit.

There is no true method to the madness — but if you’ve struggled to journal in the past, consider these pointers:

Start your entries with something blunt.

Starting a journal entry can be intimidating. It’s a lot like starting a painting; you stare blankly at an empty surface, wondering how you’re going to fill it. My high school art teacher told me that before starting any painting, I should smear a light coloured paint across the canvas. It’s easier to paint on a surface that’s a little bit fucked-up than to paint on one that’s perfect and untainted.

I apply the same method to my journal writing. When I don’t know where to begin, I usually spit out the most blunt or cut—throat statement that has been festering inside of me. It can only go up from there.

Your journal is not the place to be a pretentious asshole.

I have concluded that there is a special place in hell for people who use words like albeit and henceforth” in their writing.

Your journal is a safe space to express yourself. The goal, is not to impress a hypothetical audience with your academic vocabulary. The goal, is to write freely. To write like your heart means it. An excerpt from Jenny Zhang’s, The Importance of Angsty Art, speaks to this idea perfectly:

“I thought about the notebooks I filled up in high school, the ones that I’m still too scared to open up and revisit, not because I think my bad writing will make me cringe, but because I’m afraid my bad writing will make me yearn to write like that again—and I don’t mean writing poems that compare my loneliness to a black hole or my love to a prairie devastated by fire, but rather to write with tremendous heart and without concern for taste or craft.”

Words are your most powerful tools. Use them wisely.

My favourite artist, Jenny Holzer, once said “elaboration is a form of pollution.” She wasn’t the first person to come up with the idea. Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “brevity is the soul of wit.” Robert Greene also wrote “powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less. The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.”

The beauty about handwriting is that it forces you to loose all the “fluff” including adverbs, which in turn makes for better writing.

Your journal does not demand that you always explain or justify your thoughts. Just say how you feel and keep it brief.

Don’t use names in your journal.

Your inner-thoughts are the only things in the world that go uncensored and unregulated. I’m not saying you should ever use your journal as a platform to release hateful words as some sort of existential vengeance. But, your journal is the only this that is completely yoursDon’t throw that away by making your entries about other people. 

If you are angry about how a situation with someone unravelled, remind yourself that only you have control over your thoughts, emotions and actions. You should only concern yourself with the things you can control.

Choose to take responsibility, always. You will thank yourself later.

Don’t complain. Nobody (not even your journal), cares.

Name one positive thing that has come out of diary-style bitching. You have 30 seconds to answer. I’ll wait.

Focus on the questions, not the answers.

I’m sorry, gentle readers, but if your intentions are brag about your daily victories – loose them. Gold-stars don’t count as self-reflection. Instead, explore questions such as: What strategies or skills did I use to accomplish this great thing that I did?” or how can I shift my attitude towards a situation so that I can better handle it the next time?”

Use the notepad app on your iPhone as a defacto journal.

I do this a lot. At 2:00 am, when I feel exceptionally passionate about something, my IPhone becomes my best friend. I turn to the notepad app and write faster than my little hands could do with a pen and paper. Sometimes writing out a stream of consciousness and deleting it immediately feels like a cathartic experience. Seriously.

Don’t waste your time.

Have you ever been on a first date with a guy who had nothing substantial to talk about so he whipped out the, so, how was your day?”

If so, you probably responded with the usual state of affairs — it was fine. I went to work and then to the gym. How was yours?” But, you were probably thinking, do I care about his day? Does he even care about mine? Or is he just asking because it’s nice-guy protocol?

The truth, is that how was your day?” is indisputably the death of fun.

I don’t believe the people who claim journal writing should be a daily practice; because if you don’t have any pressing questions to explore or feelings to ride out, why not just take it easy? Don’t write in your journal just to spill out the events of your day. It’s boring. And you will start to resent the craft.

Use a good pen.

My pen of choice is a rose-gold twist pen with a tiny bedazzled crown that sits daintily at the top. What’s yours?

Stay honest. Stay concise. Stay productive. TC mark

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