Always Writing: A Guide to Journal Keeping

By: Zachary Arcivar

If you’ve kept up with my last few posts, you already know that I keep a journal, and I write in it daily. Before going away to college, I had toyed with the idea of journaling, and sometimes would start to, but I always felt like I wasn’t journaling about the “right” topics, or I wasn’t writing my entries in the “right” form. Is there a “right” way to journal, anyway? This question always bugged me, and I never knew how to answer it until I started really getting deeper and more detailed with my entries. The answer, by the way, is no; there is no “right” way to keep a journal. Everything from a doodle in the margins to the most poetic stanza that you can come up with is important and shouldn’t be looked over.

What’s the point?

Your journal is the place for you to put literally anything you want down on paper. It is a place where the only rules are the ones you put there for yourself. It’s a place of free expression — a blank canvas ready to be smothered in half-formed ideas, beginnings to poems, shopping lists, drawings, rants, and the list goes on forever. Any quick thought or idea that you have during the day that would usually be lost after it had passed through your mind can live forever if you just jot it down, and who knows? You may stumble back upon that thought and inspire yourself days, months, or even years after you write it.

I bring a lot of emphasis to the idea that you don’t have to be a writer to write; it’s something that I think everyone should at least try as a mind exercise, because the benefits can be incredible. After a few hours of writing in class, I usually notice a big difference in how clear and active my brain is for the rest of my day. For anyone out there who feels like they don’t have anything to write, I assure you that you do, and just jotting something down once a day for a few weeks can give you so much to look over when reading back your work. It can also prove to be a very cathartic release for your daily stresses.

You’ll rediscover thoughts that you forgot you even had, and you can find so much inspiration just from what your past-self decided to leave behind for you. If nothing else, looking back on a journal is plain interesting if you’re willing to write in it honestly and freely. It allows you to re-live any moment that you experienced in your own environment without any fear of judgement or stress. When you relive some event you were a part of or a scene that you witnessed, you may notice things about it that you didn’t notice before. Writing it down will cement in each detail that you recall, giving you a more vivid recollection of the event to get you thinking deeper about whatever it may be.

What do I journal in?

Got a spiral notebook handy half-filled with notes? You have a journal. A small notepad that fits in your pocket? That’s a journal, too. Anything you can put pen or pencil on to get your entries down is a journal, and having a few different ones offers some good options when it comes to journaling in different environments.

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At Columbia, all writing students are required to journal for each writing class that they are in, so right now, I have about three active journals left over from last semester, one of them being a small notepad that I carry in my pocket most places that I go. They each have their own type of contents; one is personal, one is more for story ideas and first drafts on expanding those ideas, and one is just for quick thoughts that I think may come in handy later on.

I also journal on my laptop, but in my opinion, writing by hand is more impactful. Your brain processes information differently when it’s reading from a page rather than a screen, so if you’re not a big user of pen and paper, try it out! It forces you to slow down and really pay attention to each word for its full value while you write it. If you find the need to stay connected to your smart phone, though, don’t worry. There are journaling apps available for download.

How do I start?


Now, don’t feel the need to go grab five notebooks and start forcing ideas out of yourself, because that’s not what it’s about. Each time you write, it should be natural, and it takes some practice to let yourself just flow onto the page, but after a few entries, you’ll get it. Sometimes, I have no idea what to write about, so I’ll just let my mind wander and write the first interesting thing I see or describe the first noise I hear.

If my writing classes have given me any tool at all to get a creative train on its tracks, it would be word association exercises. There are many different types of word association exercises, but you only need to know the basics to begin. What I would suggest is, think of a word that just seems to pop into your head. From there, let that word resonate and echo while you listen to it closely. Have it remind you of a sense or feeling that brings you to a specific place that you imagine you are now in, and look around that place. Notice something specific that sticks out to you — it could be anything from the color of a wall, to an object tucked away in a corner somewhere. After you focus on that idea, listen to it and let it give you one more word to focus on.

I know the whole process may sound a bit strange and maybe even unnecessary, and that’s what I thought before I was coached with those same instructions a few times. Fast forward to now, and exercises like this one are my writing process’ best friend. I notice a huge increase in focus and a steadier flow of ideas after working with a few of these exercises, and I know they can do the same for you whether you’re journaling fiction or memoirs or just what you did that day. The ultimate goal is getting a steady flow.

What do I write?

No one can answer this except for you, because you are supposed to write whatever you feel like. I think of a journal as just one big first draft, and everything in it is just a representation of my thoughts in some way, which I can go back and pick from later. It’s thought organization, so there’s nothing off limits from your journal.

You may be a fiction writer, a memoir writer, an aspiring journalist, or you may not consider yourself a writer at all. No matter how you view yourself, keeping track of your days via journaling in some way will benefit you like you wouldn’t imagine. Each time I look back at my own, there are so many things that I either wrote early in the morning that I don’t even remember thinking, or lists that I had written that bring back some memory from somewhere.

No matter what it is, it means something, and it can inspire you. It’s a great way to reflect on your daily activities, relive something interesting that happened to you that day, or remember something you saw that you want to see again. Giving your own take on it straight from your mind and onto a page is the best way to really understand it.

Another journal format you can choose to write in is the one you’re reading right now — blog posting. Today, anyone can claim a section of the Web for themselves to keep their thoughts formed, written, and available for reading. If you have the urge to write but maybe want to be more structured with your ideas, then a blog is a great option. It also offers a potential community following that can connect you with other bloggers in your field of interest, and it gives you the chance to share your ideas with anyone.

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It’s that easy!

Now that you’ve read through the crash course, give it a try for yourself. The next time you really dwell on something or see something interesting, don’t be afraid to write it down and go back to it later. Everything from practical lists to the strangest of fiction belongs tucked in the pages of your journal, and above all, remember that there are absolutely no limits with this form of writing.

You don’t have to be a world famous author or philosopher to scribble a few notes each day, and even though your entries may not be turned into a movie or anything world changing, that doesn’t mean a journal can’t supply you and anyone you show it to with inspiration.

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