How (and Why) to Keep a Journal Now
The world, and everyone in it, is going through a tough period. So why start writing in a journal now?
This is a historic time. Once in a lifetime. You have an opportunity to give your family, your children, grandchildren, and their descendants, an amazing gift: your story.
I have 84 journals. I’ve been writing in them for 37 years. Yes, consistently. I’ve never taken a break for more than three weeks without writing. It's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. Check out my list of FAQs at the end of this blog.
I love writing in them, I love having them. I started in college, and wish I had started earlier. If you’re in high school, or even middle school or younger, you are so lucky (parents, I hope you’ll share this with your kids)! The younger, the better. But it’s never too late. If you’re a grandparent cooped up at home, what a gift to write your memories, whatever you can remember, about your life when you were younger, or what’s happening now.
Isn’t writing in a journal a homework assignment (I hate homework)? No, it’s not. It’s a way to observe life, to pay more attention to what’s going on around us, and to give a gift to ourselves and our future family members or friends, to share what life was like for us.
You might be thinking, “I don’t know what to write!” That’s normal. Write this: “I don’t know what to write about.”
Then write the first thing that comes to mind. Don’t censor yourself. The best way to get better at writing is to write — but this is not about getting better at writing. This is not a graded project. No one is judging you. It’s an opportunity to record your unique thoughts during an unbelievable time.
Funny that many of the people who don’t know what to write about are regularly on Facebook writing posts. We all have stories. We all have our own thoughts about our lives. None of us has ever gone through what we’re going through now.
Here’s another funny thing that happens when you keep a journal: You start paying more attention to what’s going on around you. When something interesting happens, or someone says something funny (or irritating), you make a mental note for later. You see details around you that you took for granted.
For example, think about your dinner tonight. Did you sit with your family? Did you discuss anything? Did anyone say something funny, or bring up a question that gave you pause? Did someone make you laugh? What did they say? Was someone in your family not feeling well? What are they feeling, and how long have they felt that way? The answers to all these questions will get lost in time if not written down or somehow recorded. One day the kids will be grown and out of the house. All of us — parents, kids — will look back and might wish we remembered what was discussed at the dinner table.
Do you think I’m making this up? You probably ate dinner with your parents when you were a child no less than 5000 times. Do you remember any of your dinner table discussions? What your parents asked you? What you answered? Probably not.
That’s one big reason I keep a journal. To remember. To reread. To share with my son in the future.
I hope this pandemic will be over soon. Do you remember 9/11? What it was like during that time? If you were alive back then, you probably remember where you were when you heard the news. Maybe you remember it was a stressful time, and have some specific memories. But do you really remember what it was like, day to day? I don’t. We forget a lot. It helps us cope. Writing in a journal or diary helps us remember.
What if you don’t want to remember? That’s a good point. Life can be hard, and going through it once is more than enough, without reading about it again. The best history books are filled with personal accounts of epic events that changed the course of the world — the Great Depression, the Industrial Revolution, world wars. Today, we read them, and learn from them, and are fascinated by them. We read Anne Frank’s diary, and see through her eyes what it was like to live every day in hiding from the Nazis. We read Frida Kahlo’s illustrated journals, and see her colorful imagination coming to life. We read Abraham Lincoln’s handwritten words, and if we’re lucky enough to hold his papers in our hands, can feel the weight of history that he must have endured.
But you don’t have to be famous to write meaningful journals and diaries. Imagine reading your great-grandmother’s journal about surviving the plague — holding it in your hands. Or your great-grandfather’s words about his journey on a ship coming to the United States with no money, and the people he met along the way. Or your parent’s writings upon learning of Kennedy’s assassination, and what life was like then. These events present golden opportunities.
Getting back to the question, What if you don’t want to remember? Keeping a journal is actually not about you. At least, that’s how I see it. Sure, it’s interesting to reread my journals. Much of it I enjoy, much of it is painful. Was I really like that back then? Did I really do that? Was ABBA really my favorite band back then?
It’s about the future. It’s about telling our truth, both internal and external, because our stories are important. I’ve known Holocaust survivors who wrote books — told their stories — because they don’t want the world to forget what happened, and they don’t want future generations to hear false narratives claiming it never happened. These stories are not newspaper stories. They are personal descriptions of what they went through.
I shouldn’t call them stories. When you write a story, you spend time figuring out how to start, make it interesting, and what the ending should be. Journals can be like talking to a friend. If your good friend came over and said, “How are you? What’s going on in your life? I’m here to listen as long as you want to talk,” your answer becomes your journal entry. For me, it’s really just talking, put down on paper.
What about writing on a computer instead? Does writing in a journal have to be on paper? Is it enough to post my thoughts on Facebook, and have that be my record of these times?
Who am I to say no to those questions.
But keep this in mind: Physical journals and diaries have survived for centuries. They’ve been stashed away, hidden in walls, survived floods, and more. Computers have a tendency to break. Backing up files is a weakness most of us don’t do. Even Facebook, which seems eternal, will probably not last forever, and you are at the whim of Facebook’s management to keep your stories alive. What if Facebook goes bankrupt, and shuts down tomorrow? Stranger things have happened. I prefer to keep my written words in a hardcover, bound book that I can feel with my hands. No electricity needed.
Is a journal only for writing in? I also draw in my journals — sketching, doodling, and more. You don’t have to be a professional artist to draw. I also use my journals as scrapbooks, keeping concert tickets, autographs and other mementos taped to the pages.
My journals are a record of my life, from my point of view. Whatever I want to include, I include. That’s a pretty powerful feeling. I urge you to push aside any concerns, doubts, or judgements about starting a journal. There is no better time to try.
Just start. I believe you’ll be glad you did. Once you fill up one book, you’ll be hooked, and on the way to your 84 volumes — or more.
Now for FAQs:
How often should I write? As often or as little as you want to. Sometimes I write every couple of days, but usually it’s once a week. Don’t worry about how often. Just start. Oh, and don’t forget to date each entry.
Nothing interesting is going on in my life. What should I write about? Write about how boring your life is. That could be interesting!
I don’t have a journal. What should I use? If you have a hardcover diary or journal, I find those ideal because they last a very long time. If you have a notebook of some sort, that can work. My least favorite are separate sheets of paper — they tend to get wrinkled and misplaced.
Should I use pencil or pen? Which will last longer? I’ve researched this topic a bit. The more important question is, What kind of paper should I write on? Cheap paper might start yellowing and deteriorating. Pen and pencil marks, if not handled often or exposed to the elements, will probably both last a long time. Either one is fine, but if you have a permanent pen, that might be best. Experiment with different options, and see what you enjoy writing with. Most good journals have good quality paper. Your cheap pad at home might not.
What if I make a mistake or misspell a word? I cross out the mistake and move on. No need to use White Out (does anyone still use that?) or throw your journal away to start over. Just keep writing.
Is it okay to read my child’s journals without them knowing? That would be a big NO! If you want them to trust you, tell them you won’t peek and stick to that. The one exception to that rule could be if you fear their life is in danger (for example, they’re meeting with friends to do hard drugs), or other similar extreme situations.
What if I don't have any kids — why should I keep a journal? There's value in the writing itself. Before you actually start writing, you can't know the benefit you'll get from doing it. I find it simultaneously gets me more focused, and also gets me out of my head in a Zen-like way. It doesn't have to only be about writing for future generations. Here and now, for you, is also fine.
Any other suggestions? If you have an elderly relative (or friend), consider asking them questions and writing their answers in your journal, with their approval. Getting your family history down before it’s too late is another golden opportunity, and with most of us stuck in our homes, this is a great time to talk by phone about this. You can also purchase "grandparent journals" online, with lots of questions already printed for you.
Have fun. Or at least, assume it’s a worthwhile activity. People write in journals for many reasons, including catharsis, venting, healing, remembering creative ideas, fantasizing, keeping track of their health, and much more. I hope you find what works for you, and find it worthwhile.
All photos by Rick Penn-Kraus, except Lincoln and Frank.