On Journals & Journaling

A few years ago I started to acknowledge that I had a lot of unfinished journals and notebooks. Specifically, I had a number of blank journals, a collection of nearly-full ones, several half-full ones, and too many with only a few pages of ambitious thoughts. I used to carry a journal with me everywhere in high school. I would write down all sorts of things. The journals weren’t for long-form writing as much as collecting. I filled them with quotes and fun combinations of words, ideas for things that ought to exist, and sometimes just the lyrics to a song that was stuck in my head. But I rarely took pen to paper and wrote full sentences like I do on the computer.

The one occasion I specifically remember writing something in full was probably the summer before my senior year. I was in the middle of my first real relationship and I wrote several pages on the general topic of love. I know how dreadful that sounds. I myself have no interest in reading the ramblings of a 17-year-old talking about her ill-conceived notions of love based on her first boyfriend. But I distinctly remember reading over the pages later and thinking it was some of my best work.

Less than two months later, my car was broken into and the journal stolen along with everything else. I was crushed. This was my first real experience as a victim of crime. My first real understanding of the difference between material value and personal value. The thieves couldn’t have gotten much money out of 30 used CDs, but it represented my entire music library. They might have gotten some money from my graphing calculator and maybe even the backpack itself, but they certainly didn’t need the entire Key Club roster that I had spent weeks compiling. And as for my journal, the one that was only a few pages away from being complete and therefore retired to a safe shelf at home, the one with the six-page musing on love that I was exceptionally proud of, that item they most definitely threw in the trash.

I think part of the reason I kept all of those blank and half-filled journals is that I was hoping one day to get that stolen one back. Not literally, of course, I will never get that specific object back. I’ve already grieved for it. But maybe I was waiting for the day when I’d take up journal writing again, and potentially pen a few pages on love. And unlike the lost pages that were most certainly not as good in real life as they become each time I remember them, these pages would be truly fantastic. The whole journal would be fantastic. I would be fantastic.

My unused and half used journals were about potential, and it’s hard to give up on potential. But it was time to acknowledge that I wasn’t that person anymore. I didn’t engage in my creativity that way anymore. At the same time, it felt wasteful to toss perfectly good journals with perfectly good blank pages. So I came up with a different plan.

A few years ago I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which teaches the practice of Morning Pages. Morning Pages are three pages of handwritten journaling you do first thing in the morning. There are no rules, no expectations, and no stopping. You just try to keep the pen going until you’ve filled your pages. I enjoyed the practice and decided it would be a good way to use up my loose journals. I started with the smaller ones since that meant shorter pages, but gradually worked my way up to the full sized spiral notebooks. For the ones that were half-filled I just started where I’d left off. Some only had a dozen or so pages left, and I filled those up too. (As a side note, it was a great way to use up old pens as well.)

When I came to the end of a notebook I set it aside and started on the next. After a few months had passed, I went back to read what I’d written. Enough time had passed that I felt like I could evaluate the writing honestly, but not so much time that I felt nostalgic. If I found something good, I typed it up on my computer in a document dedicated to highlights from my Morning Pages. And then I ripped out those pages and recycled them.

For the pages that I’d filled years before, I read through them looking for anything worth keeping. Much of it was old notes from my college classes and not really worth anything to me anymore. Occasionally I would find something I wanted to keep. I’d rip out the page, scan it, and recycle the original. Very rarely I would find something I wanted to keep in its original paper form, in which case I’d rip it out and add it to my file of paper mementos.

In case you didn’t notice the theme, I ripped apart every single journal once it was full. There’s something ceremonial about destroying a used journal. I often recommend to clients that if they are having trouble with the physical act of tossing a used journal, they should consider burning it or burying it, which are common ways to properly dispose of sacred texts. I kept the full journals from high school and a couple half-full ones from college that have sentimental value. But all the spiral notebooks are gone, as are the cheaper, less attractive journals that I never got around to finishing. What’s left on my shelf now are blank journals that slowly disappear as I fill them up with morning pages and then destroy them a few months later. I’m really looking forward to the day when I have to go out and buy a journal again.

I know that the thought of ripping apart old journals or keeping scans instead of originals is frightening to some people. I get it. Like I said, I kept some of the older ones that were completed in full. But the only thing those half-finished journals did was make me feel guilty for not being the person I was in high school. And that’s silly. Because I’m glad I’m not the person I was in high school. I’m happy that I’ve grown and developed over the years, that I express my creativity differently and use my possessions more wisely. I’m glad that I stopped being the person that feels she needs to start a new journal every few months just because it’s been “too long” since she wrote in the old one. And I’m glad to have that room on my shelf back, free from guilt and ready for new books, new journals, and new ideas.

Your Mission

Take a look at the half-used journals on your shelf. What’s in them? Don’t just assume you know – start thumbing through them. What made you stop writing? What will make you start again? Sorting through journals can take a long time, because you’re likely to want to read through every page and get lost in the memories. If you have a lot of journals to go through, you may be better off setting aside some time every day or every week to thumb through a few. I can’t give you a single, prescriptive answer on what to do next. Each journal is different, as is each writer. All I ask is that you pay more attention to the Future You than the Past You. Take forward into your new life the things that will make you happy. Leave the guilt behind.

Or better yet, burn it.