A journal goes by many different names: commonplace book, daybook, diary, guidebook, handbook, logbook, notebook, prompt book, scrapbook – all these are variations of books that record the ordinary things of which daily life is made. They are also, in their own way, narratives. “A journal, diary, or yearbook: all these forms of timekeeping are ways of storytelling, acts of language,” writes Marina Warner in an essay about time.
I sit down with a book in my lap, pen in hand, every morning. My journals have accompanied me all my life, though not at all times of my life. But they have been my most faithful friends. I add a page here about them in my Books section as the most personal and fertile of all the books I have written or made through the years.
From the little diaries with gilt edges and cunning keys given to me as a child, to the scrawled adolescent angst of spiral bound notebooks, to the carefully bound books I made to practice my bookbinding skills as a mature artist, journals have been never far. Even during the years when I abandoned the practice in the name of living life instead of recording it, even when I had not a spare moment to write in the years my children were born, journals were always there as a way back in to my writing practice. During the especially arid writing years of my thirties, I kept a single journal to make notes on my pregnancies and childbirths, and also wrote about my mother’s dying and death. Nothing else, but I knew I had to make some kind of record, however brief, of those events. Nothing about my wedding, nothing about my early marriage.
Much can be found about my process of making my own journals by following the journal tag on this site. But a few years ago, at the start of the pandemic, I discovered the Eccolo World Traveler journals and bought a quantity of them at the office supply store. They are such a pleasure to write in, with lined pages stitched into the spine and roughly the right length for a year. These days I am more interested in the words I put into them than the stitching or painting or scraps of art projects I reveled in while making them.
A few years ago I went looking for my old friends in every corner of my house and gathered them in boxes together. Then, from time to time I would go looking for one of them, hauling out the heavy boxes and stacking the old notebooks to one side, promising myself that I would someday put the years on the outside of them so I could find them more easily. A few months ago, I gave them their own shelf in my downsized creative studio space. It pleases me to see them all together, put more or less in chronological order, but still largely unlabeled. They can be searched by year after this fashion, but not by page, as my online journal can be.
Joan Didion famously wrote:
See enough and write it down, I tell myself. And then some morning when the world seems strained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to be doing, which is write, on that bankrupt morning, I will simply open my notebook, and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there … Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.
There is a voluminous body of work by writers about their journals, from which I have taken comfort when I have felt, as I was taught to, that it is self-indulgent, or foolish, or a waste of time to keep one.
Certainly journals are incubators for writing and for art making. I have made many first sketches of art ideas in their pages, and festooned them with sticky tabs to find again an idea or a dream or event.
And journals are medicine. Years ago, when one of my children was mired in adolescent turmoil and had bounced out of school, we were referred to an alternative public high school for “problem kids.” These were kids in gangs, in foster care, the juvenile justice system, addiction recovery programs, and every other flavor of trouble. There were many modalities at that school to get kids to engage with their “stuff” but it was required that the families also participate. Everyone in the family was told to write in a family journal. We couldn’t talk to each other but we could try expressing some of the most difficult things on the page. I still have that journal, and painful as it is to read, I also know it was created for healing and I treasure it.
Carl Jung wrote what is probably the most spiritual description of writing in a journal:
I should advise you to put it all down as beautifully as you can — in some beautifully bound book … It will seem as if you were making the visions banal — but then you need to do that — then you are freed from the power of them…. Then when these things are in some precious book you can go to the book & turn over the pages & for you it will be your church — your cathedral — the silent places of your spirit where you will find renewal. If anyone tells you that it is morbid or neurotic and you listen to them — then you will lose your soul — for in that book is your soul.
Journals have indeed functioned in this way for me. Now that I have filled so many of them, used them to write other pieces and continue the practice every day, I am no longer faintly ashamed of them as I used to be, but treasure them as the faithful companions they have been to me all these years.
Marina Warner quote from “Temporale,” New York Review of Books, April 14, 2023
Joan Didion quote from “On Keeping a Notebook,” Slouching Toward Bethlehem: Essays, 1968. Voiceover in the Netflix documentary “The Center Will Not Hold,” 2017.
Carl Jung excerpt from Analysis Notebooks, quoted in The Red Book, Liber Novus, published in 2009, referenced in the New York Times Magazine, “The Holy Grail of the Unconscious”