Journaling 101: Just Try It, I Promise

I have a drawer stuffed with old diaries in the corner of my bedroom. There must be at least 20 notebooks, filled cover-to-cover with the silly stuff that occupied my mind as a child. All throughout elementary and middle school, even before I took writing seriously, journaling was my thing. I’d bring my notebooks to school and document every notable interaction I’d have with my friends, crushes, and teachers: the melodramatic and naive happenings of a ten-year-old girl.

When I look back at those journals now, a strange sense of warmth overcomes me. Between the spines of those books exists every old life I’ve ever lived. There are the ones from fifth grade, where I’d sit underneath the huge elm tree at recess, watching the boy I liked from a distance (super creepy, I know). And of course, the middle school entries are particularly hilarious. They’re covered in patterned duct tape, per the trend of the times, covered in cheesy Sharpie quotes: On a scale of 1 to 10, you’re a 9 and I’m the 1 you need <3. I know, right? I’m wincing, too. 

Aside from the general cringiness of it all, there’s a part of me that comes back to life when I stumble upon these piles of old journals and pick one up to muse over. The evolution of my loopy, messy handwriting, the timeline of all of my self-discoveries — they’re essentially time capsules of former versions of Michelle: the innocent, the exploratory, the wise(r). I can flip through the pages and resurrect the feelings of old friendship falling-outs, three-day-long middle school relationships, how the boy I crushed on flaked on me before the eighth-grade dance. Most of it is laughable and endearing, like watching a sappy coming-of-age movie, but some of it is harder to read. Just last week I decided to read my journal from my first year of college. I didn’t expect to cry, but for some reason, I did.

I had captured it all. Every magical moment, every traumatic event. Some entries were hard to read: detailed accounts of my days when my mental health was at its worst, an emotionally abusive relationship, how I’d skip class and cry for hours panicking over how I couldn’t “undo” the things I’d done, how I was afraid I’d never be worthy of authentic love. But I also wrote extensively of where I was and who I was becoming, forcing myself to write “gratitude lists” — bullet-pointed entries where I’d just list the things I was thankful for — even when I felt like I was at rock bottom. Reading those over now, a whole year and some later, has brought me such an overwhelming sense of comfort. It was reassuring to see it on paper: the fact that, even in the worst of times, when I wanted to give up and couldn’t be optimistic about anything, that there were still good things.

Case in point:

GRATITUDES - MARCH 19TH, 2019

  • Finding therapy here in Blacksburg, specialized for the treatment I need 

  • Crying — really crying — for the first time since January

  • Being able to do scary things, like introducing my name to a room full of strangers

  • Tonight A.K. told me, in a goodnight message: “Please don’t forget you are a fantastic and beautiful person”... and my heart exploded

  • A new mantra: “Choose sweetness only”

  • Feeling. Being able to feel. Feeling all of the raw, aching emotions

  • Having a crush and making plans to go get OJ and listen to Taylor Swift

  • Blue skies

  • Analyzing poetry for homework 

  • Something my professor said: “the lack of creative fruition doesn’t really matter — the knowledge of something deeper can be a spark inside of you — a heartbeat”

  • English Breakfast tea runs 

  • Reading a new poet in class today — Jorie Graham — tossing her words around in our hands as if to weigh them for the first time

  • Being thankful for thankfulness itself

That March was far from easy. But when I read these little lists of thankfulness, I am reminded that, despite the odds, goodness shines through. By holding onto those tidbits of positive light, we can be carried away to a new era: one of healing, resilience, and genuine happiness.

girl running through field

If you’re not big on writing, or you just don’t know where or even how to begin journaling, this is your invitation to pursue it anyway. Your entries don’t have to be long, eloquent, or sentimental; they can just be yours. There is beauty in documentation. Some people scrapbook, which is also another journaling option! If you’re someone who holds onto movie ticket stubs, Polaroids, or date night receipts, start there. Taping those into the pages of a journal is another way of keeping the memories safe. I do that sometimes. Preserving the physical remainders of a particular moment in time keeps the experience alive for years and years.

There are countless kinds of journaling options. There are bullet journals, much like the example I provided. Some of my friends find it easier to capture their life in short little bursts: a list of things I did today, a list of things that made me smile, etc. I’ve seen such beautiful and aesthetically pleasing examples of bullet journals online, and I’m always baffled by how people can be so design-oriented and artistic in the visual sense. The ideas for journaling are endless, and you can tailor them to how you see fit. Dream journals, nutrition and exercise journals, travel journals, art journals, prayer journals, idea journals… it’s really up to you to “direct” your own journaling experience!

My advice to beginner journalists: just try it. Even if it doesn’t seem like your niche or something that you’d find much value in, you might surprise yourself. Journals can be tools for much more than just record-keeping. They can help you track your emotions and progress towards a better state of mind, or they can also spark thinking if you’re working on a big project. Great leaders keep journals. Professional thinkers, inventors, idealists, celebrities — all of us can benefit, in some small way, from thinking critically and out loud on paper.

Start anywhere. It doesn’t matter where as long as you do.