I’ve kept a journal since the winter I was a high school freshman. Whether I write in it every night or once a month, it’s outlasted haircuts, favorite bands, and friendships. Call it a journal, call it a diary, call it hella narcissistic; I can’t keep a plant alive but I can keep a notebook. Six years and five journals later, I’m ready for a change.
My journals are intensely private and I’ve always allowed my entries to be as mundane, ugly, or unformed as I want. Transition sentences are my biggest pet peeve and I love having a space in which I can change the subject without worrying about making sense or receiving a grade. In high school, I used each journal to measure how I changed from the day I started it to the day I filled in the final page. Sure, there are things in my sixteen-year-old self’s diary that make me want to gouge my eyes out with a Sharpie marker, but I value being able to look back at the ways I’ve changed and the ways I absolutely haven’t. Of course, it would be impossible to completely capture every day of six years. A classic problem with keeping diaries is that you write the most when you have something to complain about. As a senior, I meticulously recorded the misery of applying to colleges. Should I ever want to know the exact date I got rejected or wait-listed by a school (why would I ever want to do that), I could just crack open a journal to early 2014. But my first semester of college? For that hugely eventful time in my life, I have maybe four or five entries, weeks apart. I was too busy experiencing things to jot down every experience.
At the beginning of this year, I realized how tired I was of the way I kept my journal. Until now, my journal writing habits served a fulfilling and even therapeutic purpose. Feelings of depression are valid, and I think even teenage angst is valid when you’re in the thick of it. My teenage self copied down so many Morrissey lyrics and Sylvia Plath passages that it would be pretty hypocritical for me to say anything else. However, a daily litany of “life is awful and this is why” is simply no longer what I wanted. I decided I wanted a useful journal. Then I had to decide what that meant.
Because it was winter break and I had that kind of time on my hands, I scrolled through pages and pages of blogs and Instagrams dedicated to beautiful journal pages replete with drawings and calligraphy. I imagined who I’d be if I kept diaries like that -- I’d probably consume everything via mason jar and walk barefoot through the forest with my animal friends. It’s just not going to happen for me. Instead, I focused on what I did like from my old journals, like lines of my favorite poetry, unsent letters, lists, and sensory observations. I also consolidated creative writing and collage with my journal instead of keeping the three separate. I’ve taken to carrying my journal around with me in my bag, and oh God did that make me uncomfortable at first. Maybe it’s because of that Disney Channel Original Movie where Kay Panabaker drops her diary at school and everyone reads it, but writing in a journal outside of my own room makes me feel painfully exposed. I take a deep breath, remind myself that 1) no one cares and 2) for all anyone knows, I could be writing in a school notebook or planner. So far no “Read It and Weep” scenarios have ensued.
A lot of the “journal inspiration” I found online were prompts that simply weren’t what I was looking for. God knows I’m introspective enough already. What I have been trying to do is write, not with an audience in mind exactly, but with a more critical eye. In my “real writing” there are all kinds of things I want to become: funny, insightful, interesting. In journal writing, I always just kind of handed the pen over to the droning anxieties in my head. Now I try to practice the same attention to form, word choice, precision and style that I would when writing an essay or story. If I’m going to spend the time writing in a journal, I want to treat that writing as a craft.
But I won’t beat myself up if I sometimes need to use my journal to write in an unfiltered and unnuanced way. It’s my journal. That’s kind of the point.