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Reasons To Keep At Least One Journal

Dear diary...

Dear diary...

I started keeping a journal of daily events about 10 years ago. At the time, my symptoms were at their worst and my mom suggested that I start recording all the weird stories for posterity. I never felt like I was ever doing anything very important, but I found that writing things down was an enjoyable process.

One of my favorite discoveries what that often I didn’t know what I thought about something until I had written it down and looked at it on paper.  Putting ideas and arguments down on paper forces you to flesh out your thoughts more deliberately.

I’ve written before about how memories either change or vanish entirely.  Leafing through a journal last night showed me just how few of my memories I retain.  That can’t happen to memories that are written down. 

But there are other reasons to keep a journal and other journals to keep.

Reading habits and books

“Commonplace book” is an antiquated, fancy name for the notebook in which you track your reading habits and experiences. A commonplace book can contain lists of books you want to read, books you have read, your thoughts about books, favorite passages or quotes, et cetera.

I’m not obsessive about keeping track of my reading.  I do it because I enjoy it and I have some concrete reasons for logging the books I read and my thoughts about them.

The most important is that the books I was reading at certain times in my life say more about who I was and how I felt and thought than anything else. I go back through my daily events journals and rarely find anything unflattering or incriminating about myself, even though there were times when I was a total idiot.  I wasn’t honest enough to tell myself the whole story sometimes.

But I can look at my literary timeline and know when I felt happy, sad, scared, or confident just by zeroing in on a month’s worth of reading and looking at the titles.

For anyone who thinks this sounds too cumbersome, there’s hope! Librarything is a giant social network of books and book people. It makes tracking your reading as simple or as complicated as you want it to be.

Here’s an example. You can go in and browse my virtual bookshelf . I only add books to this catalog once I’ve read them.

On a sidenote, there’s no journal better than a book you actually write yourself. When I read my novel The Knot, it says more about who I was during the three years I spent writing it than anything else I can think of.

Training Log

Tracking your reading habits and daily experiences are not essential to your progress.  But if you are into physical strength or fitness, you have to keep a training journal.  You have to.  Numbers don’t lie and keeping track of your numbers makes sure that you don’t have to guess at your progress.

You’ll never have to wonder how many pounds or reps you did in the last workout, or which exercises you chose.  You can see it right there in front of you.  Then you can make goals and know the path you took to beat them.

But seriously, keep a daily journal of your stories — it can be really fun

Here are some examples of things from my journal 10 years ago.  I can remember the context of about half of them.  The rest are real head-scratchers.

  • I hate comets…
  • Blackie McDougal, where is your bugle?
  • We drove to Pasadeena, I showed some birds my weenah.  Now we’re back, the van is black, and out of gasoleena!
  • “The Purpose of life is to love whoever is around to be loved…” Kurt Vonnegut
  • I doubt that I doubt
  • Everyone should read Lanterns and Lances once each week
  • The whole problem started because I met her in the dark…stupid stupid stupid Josh!
  • Before this day went to hell, I started writing a story about a talk show.  I think it is going to end with a beheading…
  • Finally finished the saga of Bi-polar bear

You get the picture.  I have no idea what some of these things were about, but I really enjoyed looking at them and trying to jog my memory.  I do know this–the above statements are strange enough that I wish I’d expanded on them so that I could remember them today.  That alone makes me want to write everything noteworthy down before I go to bed tonight.

Any of you keeping a journal?  Thoughts?  Failures?  Suggestions?  Let’s talk in the comments.


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  • Casey July 23, 2009, 9:19 am

    I agree with you 100% about a training log, but when it comes to a personal journal, I’ve left a trail of broken promises to myself and notebooks in my wake.

    I’ve tried at least a dozen times to start a journal, but often I don’t know what to write, or don’t see how “went to work, came home, watched classes online” would be of much interest later on.

    Maybe I should treat a journal more like anhighllights reel? Only jot down a few lines when something I think noteworthy happened? Maybe I’ve been making it too hard on myself.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 23, 2009, 11:33 am

      Casey, it’s hard to say. Not everyone likes to write and some people don’t get the benefit others do. Nothing wrong with that. My daily entries currently look like this: funny things people say, my toddler’s firsts, and anything that is funny that might make me smile 10 years from now. Hey, are you interested in those Rockreation passes James has?

  • Ben Owens July 23, 2009, 11:46 am

    A training log is a must. As for a real journal, I have never been able to stick to it. I have a brother who has kept a journal since he was 19. He is now nearly 40 and has two giant bookshelves FULL of journals. That’s not counting the journal he now keeps on the computer. He can remember dates like no one I have ever seen and I’m sure it is because of his journal writing.

  • Jessica Marie July 23, 2009, 12:13 pm

    I have kept a journal off and on since junior high (and I’m now almost 30.) I first learned about Commonplace books in college and my journals morphed into one of those. I think the hardest thing for people is that they feel like they have to write many paragraphs about their day. An entry can be “Went to work. Wanted to kill library patron who microwaved her book to kill the germs and set the book on fire. Should grill next time.” (That was an actual entry of mine.) My commmon place book/journal is now something I keep in my purse and it has shopping lists, what I’ve read, notes from church talks, and an occasional picture or newspaper article taped in it along with the usual journal entry. Maybe Ben and Casey could start with the occasional note like “Was sick with the flu so didn’t train today. Wife was also sick” in their training log. Just my thoughts though.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 23, 2009, 12:16 pm

      @Jessica. I think our commonplace books would get along fine. I have an entry that says “checked in library book that had a piece of raw bacon in it for a bookmark…”

  • Jon Owens July 23, 2009, 12:41 pm

    In addition to a training log, I keep a little notebook in my pocket (I originally starting doing this so I could jot down ideas for a book I thought/hoped/dreamed I would write someday — Ha!). Anyway, now the notebook gets an occasional quote or idea or memory written down in it. Keeping a journal on a daily basis is hard. My hat’s off to those of you who do.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 23, 2009, 12:48 pm

      Jon, that book’s going to get written:) I spent nearly 3 years writing a novel in 10-15 minute bursts a few times. All of the sudden there was a pile of pages sitting there that looked like a book. Don’t give up on it! Get my number from Ben and give me a call if you ever need a writing buddy to talk to. Serious.

  • Casey July 23, 2009, 1:08 pm

    Maybe I’ll give a smaller scaled down version a of a journal a try again.

    I am totally up for a few trips through hell! Especially if it means a pass to Rockreation!

    • Josh Hanagarne July 23, 2009, 2:48 pm

      @Casey. OK, good. I didn’t even know what Rockreation was. Let’s figure out a time for you to come down and I’ll get those passes from James.

  • Megan Horton July 23, 2009, 1:35 pm

    I just bought a journal a few weeks ago and am starting to write in it again. I quit writing in my journal a long time ago which is sad, because like you when I go back and look at it, I wish there were about 10 more journals full of the stuff I wrote because it was hilarious!

  • Ben Owens July 23, 2009, 1:37 pm

    Hey Jon, I didn’t know you wanted to write a book. What about?

  • We Fly Spitfires July 23, 2009, 2:59 pm

    I don’t keep a journal but I keep a small notebook for jotting down ideas, usually for articles for my blog. I’m one of those guys who can’t sleep if I’ve thought of something until I write it down.

  • Casey July 23, 2009, 4:48 pm

    Sounds like a plan!Shoot me an email and we can set it up!

  • Vanessa July 23, 2009, 5:56 pm

    I used to keep an awesome journal. It was amazing, full of hopes, waking and half awake dreams, depraved thoughts, recipes, horrible sketches, stickers, photos, stolen notes from teachers and crushes, bad poetry, flowers. Then when I was 17 a family member found my journals. I had cleverly hidden them flat underneath my mattress. Maybe he noticed my mattress had risen, I have no idea why he was under my mattress. Long story longer, he didnt like what he read, so he photo copied and framed the pages he found most offensive, then hung them throughout the house.
    He then put my cat in a garbage bag and made me watch her panic. He told me that was exactly how he felt when he was faced with my writing.
    The cat survived. But I never wrote another page. I also developed a terrible allergy to cats. Weird.
    Maybe Ill start a new journal again tonight. Thanks.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 23, 2009, 6:29 pm

      Vanessa, that’s one of the weirdest stories I’ve ever heard. What a bizarre off-the-cusp analogy from the cat-hanger. Is that real?

    • Josh Hanagarne July 23, 2009, 6:29 pm

      Vanessa, that’s one of the weirdest stories I’ve ever heard. What a bizarre off-the-cuff analogy from the cat-hanger. Is that real? And I imagine those comets had it coming.

  • Vanessa July 23, 2009, 6:02 pm

    Raw bacon in a library book? I guess thats what you get for being a comet hater.

  • Vanessa July 23, 2009, 7:26 pm

    Yes it is real. One of several bizzaro family experiences. Somehow I turned out pretty normal.

    But everyone is waiting to hear the rest of the story about you being stupid with the girl you met in the dark. Oh lourdy lou, that could go too many scary ways.

  • Travis July 25, 2009, 8:56 am

    I LOVE picking up and reading things that I’ve written years ago; especially when I can compare my thoughts at the time with my thoughts of the present.

    Lol, it can be tedious at times though, as the payoff for your actions isn’t “immediate.” You don’t really appreciate it until you read it years later.

  • Sunshine Love August 9, 2009, 3:50 pm

    I have little scraps like that all over the place – stories I started to write, ideas I wanted to flesh out, etc. I almost never get back to them.

    I always had a hard time writing in paper journals. They couldn’t be too fancy or too blank, ’cause then I wouldn’t write in them. But they couldn’t be too big, either, since I write best curled up with my notebook on my knees. I’ve never completely filled a notebook, either. Instead, I have several that I’ve started and that I pick up from time to time if I’m really stressed and I can’t get near a computer.

    Blogging really helps. It’s much easier to type than write. Still, though, I find myself making drafts and notes that never go anywhere and later I wonder where on earth I’d planned to go with that one…

    • Josh Hanagarne August 9, 2009, 3:52 pm

      @Sunshine Love. I agree. A lot of what I call journaling may eventually shift over to the web. It’s easier to dump something into Google docs and know that it will never get lost than scrawl something on the back of a napkin and accidentally blow your nose on it.

  • Rosie August 13, 2009, 8:55 pm

    I keep a personal journal and a workout journal. I am going to start a commonplace book, now, too. I also journal in my cookbooks. I rate the recipe, make a note about who was there to eat it, and also the date.

  • Amy November 15, 2010, 3:55 pm

    I have been keeping an online journal (first with Free Open Diary and now with LiveJournal) since October 2001. It’s amazing to see how I’ve changed and how my life has changed from just shy of my 19th birthday to just past my 28th birthday. I am very detailed and write everything down so that nothing is lost (unless there’s just really just nothing going on), and it’s amazing to see the things I would’ve forgotten had I never kept a journal. (And my family members would kill me if they knew half the things I’ve written about them over the past nine years. Which is why I plan to wait until they are either senile or dead before I publish the crazier stories. lol)

  • Tiffany November 15, 2010, 4:05 pm

    I used to save all my notes, journal writings, various other things then similar to vanessa, my mom found and read them. I was appalled and wouldn’t discuss them with her then got a metal bowl, shredded them all and burned them. Fyi burning things in a metal bowl on your bed isn’t a good idea unless you don’t mind a burnt crispy hole in your comforter.

    I still write a lot, jotting down thoughts and ideas but I dont have to worry anymore about my mom finding my notebooks. Personal thoughts and feelings are subjective to the moment they were written in. Teenagers feel things differently than adults and children do. I promise things will be different with my son and my relationship than it was between me and my mom.

  • Lula October 18, 2012, 5:32 pm

    Nothing like joining the conversation years later… I started keeping a journal in 1966 and kept on for many years, decades, even across centuries in a way. But life was dark and my journal a repository of the darkness, so when I was able to stop keeping a journal it was a relief. Lately, I have started journaling again on ipad and the app has a password and can add photos. It’s fun again. Although still some of my darker thoughts make it to light. But sometimes there is a bit of light. One of our presidents featured in a college era journal. Perhaps I will put some thoughts around that episode of my life someday.