The art of keeping a journal

I snuggle into my favorite corner of the couch to write in my journal. The evening is dark and chilly.

The quilts are stretching themselves all across the room after a summer of being tucked away. I’ve got a mug of hot chocolate – a delicious change from my typical evening pot of herbal tea.

I think: should I light a candle? Or would that just become way too clichéd? Skip the candle. I pick up one of my favorite German pens to get started. I write the date.

Then I stop. What on earth do I journal about?!

My mind starts to wander. I think about all the incredible journal keepers (Anne Frank, Sylvia Plath, Lewis and Clark, and even Ronald Reagan). If journaling is such a ritualistic and graceful self-discovery contrivance, why is it so hard to do? Why can’t I just sit down with my tea and candle, and start pouring my heart out in poetic prose?

Just like simple living is an art that requires constant tweaking and self-adjustment, so is journaling. When you find the art of it, you discover how easy journaling can become. And I promise you: it can become easy.

I call the struggle Blank Page Syndrome. It comes with a pretty tall barrier. But it isn’t insurmountable. Not yet.

My mission to help folks celebrate their stories (and themselves) through journaling began a couple of years ago. You might know me from my writing prompt journals at Gadanke.

I still remember how I watched my grandmother fight to remember her stories so that she could document them and share them with our family when she was 90 years old. The two of us hopped onto NPR’s StoryCorp bus and only touched the very tip of the stories we both yearned for. “I’m sorry, Katie,” she told me. “I just don’t remember anymore.”

Later this month, my baby boy, Niklas, is turning one year old. I ask my mom for stories about what she felt when I was just a year old. She laughs like I am a crazy person. “How can I remember 30 years ago, Katie?!”

Then there is silence. We both wish not that she had the memory of an elephant, but that she’d paused to write some of those thoughts down. She did try. The beautiful little baby book she bought for me is mostly filled out. My little hospital band and footprint are inside. There are a few cards and keepsakes.

But there is no telling my mom’s story. Most baby books just don’t do that; they report facts. Obviously, one of my first missions at Gadanke was to create a baby book that could guide a new mother in everyday documentation about her life and her baby when she had the opportunity to write – milestone or not.

Why is journaling so darn difficult?

It’s because we either unintentionally write about the sad, frustrating things in our lives, or we quit halfway through a journal. Usually, it’s both.

When you look back at old journals and records, the facts aren’t what matters. It’s the stories. It’s the heart.

As we approach the winter season, I see people curling up and starting to journal more than any other time of year.

We’re more reflective during the holidays.

We’re deeply aware of gratitudes and people we love.

We’re craving a quiet indoor activity when it’s too dark and too cold to be outside.

And to be honest, we just need to know we have a voice and that our stories matter.

The art of keeping a journal isn’t about the tea, quilts, or candles. It’s about what’s inside of you. It’s about what makes you feel alive. And secretly, something like a mother-daughter journal or a mother-son journal is a clever tool we can use to help our children gain confidence and improve their penmanship as they create a time capsule of this stage of life.

So start there. Document what you’re grateful about this season. Write about what made you laugh today. That’s what documenting the heart is. Just pick up your pen and begin writing with this sentence:

Today, I want to document what makes me happy and the people I love.

Have a good day,
again and again.

If you feel in your bones the need to simplify so you can live the life you're meant to live...

↓ This is for you.

20 Comments

  1. Kaylie

    I have never been much of a journal-er until lately. I went through a difficult time and I had to litterally write down truth to remember what was really going on. It was a little bit of a revelation for me and now I am really enjoying it. Who knew?

  2. Tammy

    I had never been very successful at journaling, but last year I got a 5-year one-line journal, and started writing. With the exception of one day missing because of a mix-up early in the year, I have successfully filled in every single day since I started on Jan 1, 2013. It isn’t “deep” because there isn’t a lot of room to write, but I needed something small to start with!

    • Katie Clemons

      Whoa! You’re doing awesome with that 5-year journal. Nice work!

  3. Fawn DeMurl Carriker

    My mother died of breast cancer five years ago, and I am still going through her things for my daddy. Every once in a while I run across another journal…usually with just a few pages done, the rest pristine. Most of Mom’s journaling was done in the form of notes on the calendar, and we have kept them all. She recorded who came by, who called, whether she got a letter from one of us. Days she spoke to or heard from all three of her children she designated as “red letter days”. Journaling, in whatever form you do it, is precious. – Fawn

    • Missy Robinson

      I’m a bit obsessed with saving my calendars, too! It’s such an easy/simple way to chart the days.

    • Katie Clemons

      Cool! My mom saves all of her calendars, too. It’s a great detail of our happenings and experiences, isn’t it? How interesting to hear how your mom took it even further!

  4. Missy Robinson

    Squeal – this post makes me SO happy! I’ve been a consistent (not daily) journal-er since 1987 – I was thirteen years old, then. I cannot express how I can track my personal growth, daily minutia and patterns of life. My son, who is ten, is having difficulty with grammar and punctuation in school. He rushes through the writing process and so I asked the teacher is journaling might help him. We just began a few weeks ago and he is writing five sentences each day. I love it! (more than he does, I’m sure). Sometimes I provide a prompt, other times I let him go. Thank you for championing the journal! It’s a rare and precious discipline in this day and culture.

  5. Emily

    It’s just about getting those first few words down, isn’t it? My husband and I begin our blessings at the dinner table with something we’re grateful for, and I’ve kept that practice with my journaling. I write down three things each day. It’s a good reminder of where I’ve been and how rich my life is, if only I take the time to notice.

  6. Anne

    I like to journal my prayers. I first started doing this a few years ago, when I was having a hard time focusing and staying awake during my early morning quiet times. Now, I treasure being able to look back on my life and see God’s hand moving through it. I hope that one day my children can read my journals as a great testimony of God’s faithfulness to me and to them.

  7. Marilyn

    I love journalling so this is a post right up my alley. But, to be honest, I don’t like the way this whole post comes across as a promotional
    post in which it seems like the main aim is to sell the products (Gadanke journals) of the contributer. Am I the only one who feels this way? Just a thought, because I think ads and promotional posts do have their place but they should be clearly labeled as such.

    • Katie Clemons

      Thanks for the honesty, Marilyn. I think journaling can be so intimidating for many people. We want to do it, but we just don’t know how. So my attempt was to be a cheerleader and encourage folks to just grab a pen and go because you never know where it might take you!

  8. Jane

    I’ve been journaling for about 30 years and it has never been a discipline. More a means of coping with life, like having a conversation with a friend. Recently I decided to bin most of my journals (over 20 of them) because I would rather keep just the memories in my head than the ones on paper. A hard thing to do though! Re-reading past journals especially from a long time ago tends to evoke much more powerful emotions than memories alone. Now days I journal when I feel I need to, it is the process of reflecting and evaluating that is more important than the end result, how many words are on the paper and how frequently.. I try to not journal when I feel like complaining and most times I start with I am thankful for…. regardless of how thankful I feel.
    Not keeping journals forever helps me live more in the present and emphasis the stories that are really important by re-telling them to my kids. We are often re-telling them details of their birth stories and first year of life so they will commit it to memory. I also have memories from my grandparents (who have passed away) that I re-tell to my kids because they were re-told to me so many times. Hopefully they will do the same thing when they are grown up with their kids.

  9. Karen

    YES… to this!! It doesn’t have to be complicated. I started journaling about 12 years ago…using a 5 Star notebook from Walmart….the 5×7 size. I am about to finish filling up my 22 one. It is, for me, a record of of my walk with the Lord and His faithfulness to me. They may very well end up in the garbage one day after I am gone, but I have LOVED being able to go back and remember.

  10. Ashley Brooks

    This post is such good timing; I just finished writing an entry to my 3-month-old daughter. I’m a notoriously bad journaler, usually stopping for all the reasons you listed. But telling stories and remembering is important to me. Having a baby made me realize that. I’ve never been a good photo-taker or scrapbooker, but writing is my thing. It just makes sense to keep a book for my daughter (and any other future kids). I’m hoping that because I’m writing to someone instead of just stream-of-consciousing my own thoughts, I’ll stick with it.

  11. Kathy

    Hi Kate – would you mind sharing the type of German pens you use?

    • monia

      if it is the one on the picture seen then its stabilo…
      http://stabilo.com/chfr/p/stabilo-point-88
      sorry its french didnt find the language change 😉
      they are lovely, great variety of colours and different sizes of writing (thin and broader tips) as well as small versions… i love them myself hehe…
      thought i would post, maybe it helps…

  12. Lindsey

    I have journaled for most of my life as a type of therapy, but after reading your post I realize that I would never actually want anyone to read my journals. While they include a lot of memories, they also include some of my deepest fears and frustrations and I am afraid that if my loved ones read them, they may be offended 🙁
    Any advice? Should I start a new journal that I would be comfortable sharing with others besides myself?

  13. Erica Layne

    Oh yes. I’m passionate about journaling too, partly because of how meaningful our stories are and partly because it’s my biggest secret to mental health! 🙂 Thanks for this – I’m sharing on Facebook tomorrow!

  14. KrisWithaK

    I love this! Journaling is a huge part of my writing practice, and it’s something that I always tell my clients to try when they are facing writers’ block or overwhelm.

    My younger daughter and I share a daughter-mother interview and it’s a great place for us to leave each other memories and jokes – and notes about our dreams for the future.

    Love, love, love this post 🙂
    xo
    K

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