On Journals and Journaling

For someone who both writes and adores stationery, I’m really bad at keeping journals. Every time I’ve tried to keep a diary or journal throughout my life, I end up getting bored or frustrated with it. I made a point of starting a five-year “One Line a Day” journal this year in an effort to counteract that thinking, and while I have written something each day of 2019 so far I usually end up writing entries the following morning and getting frustrated when they end up being about all the day job work or housework I did that day or how I was laid up by a chronic illness flare-up and couldn’t do the things I had planned.

It’s not just nonfiction, either. Even daily fiction writing exercises aren’t something that I necessarily do every day—ask me how many writing prompt books I’ve actually finished, how many daily NaNoWriMo brainstorming exercises that I actually sat down and did on a daily basis, or how many days in the month of March were spent working on Kingmaker. My writing habits are similar to my reading ones in that sometimes I do a ton of it for a week or so and then immediately drop off once an interruption comes up, whether it’s because I got busy or because my body decided it wasn’t going to like food.

Writing every day, in a journal or otherwise, just doesn’t work for me. I know a lot of writers swear by it and that “waiting until inspiration strikes” to write is generally considered a bad idea, but I need the flexibility to be able to say “I can’t do this today.” I know I’m not alone: people have tough or unpredictable day job schedules, chronic illnesses, or other issues or complications that mean not having the physical, mental, or emotional energy to put pen to paper, fingers to keys, or nose to grindstone every single day.

It can be unhealthy to hold yourself to that kind of standard if it’s not something that works for you. I’ve watched writers and artists get burned out because of the pressure to constantly create, especially if they’re in a creative career and don’t get any time away to recharge or have to constantly “perform.” This is part of what made me decide that self-publishing was more my speed than traditional publishing: sure, I’ll need to put way more money into it and have to work a little harder at marketing, but my need to tell stories at a pace that’s sustainable for me is far greater than my need for external validation now, especially because I’m not under any illusions that I’m going to make a ton of money either way. I recognize that even having that choice means that I’m in an incredibly privileged position, and it certainly wasn’t a decision I took lightly, but I think it’s the one that will work best for me.

I already put a ton of pressure on myself, and maybe that’s why journaling was always a problem for me. Maybe that pressure to “perform” as a competent writer that continuously produces exciting content, even if it was for a diary that no one else would read, is what had me so frustrated with writing daily. The feeling that I had failed as a writer, too, when I missed a daily entry, a blog post, sitting down with Kingmaker, or anything else, for any reason, likely didn’t help matters. And, in a far less dramatic way, maybe being confronted with the fact that I’m really kind of a boring person that writes fiction instead of memoir for a reason just kind of stings.

A few weeks ago, a friend I was checking in with told me “perfect is the enemy of good.” I’d heard that in a number of contexts before, but having it directed at me in particular was something of a wake-up call and a reminder of something that I really need to stop forgetting. Perfect is impossible in all things artistic, and shooting for it is too much pressure, especially if it’s for something like a personal journal. Getting as close to perfection as possible can come later, after the words are written: I just need to get them down when I can, in whatever way I can.

So I’m sticking with a writing and very loose journaling “system” that works for me. A lot of my writing process involves thinking about what I can create next, especially on those days when I’m focusing more on getting through the day than sitting down with my manuscript. When I do sit down at a computer to write a blog post or work on the novel manuscript, I try to make sure I can get as much down as I can at a time. I started carrying small notebooks on my person near the end of high school or beginning of college, and I use them to write random descriptions, lines of dialogue, names, or potential story ideas that pop up when I’m not actively looking for them so that I don’t forget them later, and I go back through them sometimes to mine them for ideas. NaNoWriMo 2014 got me in the habit of setting aside an entire notebook to act as my “Setting Bible” for brainstorming exercises, worldbuilding or character details, and other things that would help flesh out a single large project. So I guess, in that sense, I journal fairly regularly, after all.

A stack of six used notebooks rests on the surface of the desk, flanked by a small green notebook and a larger notebook with a woven cloth cover.
From left to right: My current tiny idea notebook, an extremely artistically-arranged stack of idea notebooks that I’ve actually completely filled out, and the current “Setting Bible” for Kingmaker. Kindly ignore the shredded eraser bits to the right and the strange scuff marks to the left.

I’m better at filling out journals and getting writing projects done when I have the freedom to be messy and imperfect. That’s always been true, but I guess I forgot about that until fairly recently. Whatever the case for you is—whether you can create every day or need time to recharge, whether you can aim for perfection without frustrating yourself or need to wade through unrestricted messiness, whether you scribble weird early-morning thoughts in a tiny notebook with a barely-attached cover or meticulously lay out Bullet Journal spreads for every part of your life—just do you. Do what’s possible for your situation and alleviates the guilt or stress that you can afford to let go of.

Although I do highly recommend that everyone who’s creative and able to do so carries a tiny notebook around for random ideas. It’s seriously the best thing I took away from my entire high school experience.

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