Journaling 101: The how, why, what, where and the difference it’s made…

For two decades now I have scribbled in books endlessly. I have over 50 journals, in various shapes, sizes, colours and textures, that are records of my time on this earth. To me, they are beautiful. They are filled with words, pictures, mementos and more, and they are my life, for better or for worse. I’m asked about them so often, from people who know me well to random people that see me zooming my pen across the page in my local coffee shop. People often want to know, “what are you writing?” My standard response is “just little things in a silly book.” Sometimes they are little things and other times they feel like I’m leaving my heart and soul on the page. So, I thought it was time to form a proper answer to the question of what I’m writing and what I have been writing, for over two decades.

I think I started journalling, without really ever calling it “journalling,” for two reasons. First, I had a hell of a lot of thoughts going around in my head. It got to a point where there was too much up there and I can remember just sitting down and thinking “I need to find a way to make sense of this.” So I started a list. It wasn’t a list that meant anything. It didn’t have a title or a purpose. It was just a list of thoughts, reminders and emotional outbursts that might as well have been pens exploding on the page. I literally cannot decipher half of this list. I wrote so quickly and without much real thought at all. I was brain dumping – a popular turn of phrase in journalling for literally just writing as you think and not worrying about grammar or spelling or making any sense at all. Things changed slowly, the more I wrote. The brain dumping turned into story telling and story telling turned into a memory box of sorts. The pages weren’t just pages of ink any longer. My journals started to require glue and markers. I was keeping mementos from life – letters, ticket stubs, restaurant menus, speeding tickets (ouch) and more. I was creating a memory that could not be erased. I was writing down, in ink, my life. The year was 1997. I haven’t stopped since.

I write to release. I write to remember.

For many, journalling is an exercise in mental health, and I cannot emphasise enough how much writing has helped me in dealing with anxiety, day to day depression and problem solving for moments when life throws a serious curveball. It is the best way I know how to cleanse my mind and empty the thoughts that feel as if they are weighing me down.

I also use journals to record passages from books I’ve loved, quotes from speeches I’ve heard, or just little tidbits I always want to remember. My pages are filled with my own thoughts as well as the thoughts of others that inspire me.

How I journal (the practicalities) 

I have fun with my supplies in the journalling arena. And it’s all a little cheesy, so prepare yourself.  For starters, I’ve found that the journals themselves have always come into my life at the right time, so I’ve been completely open to what I write in. My first was a sketchbook that I was using in my art class in high school. My second was a blank book that came free with a magazine. My fifteenth was a leather bound book that a friend gave me when I moved to Florence, Italy. The one I’m writing in now is a bound notebook I found under my bed (that most certainly belonged to another member of my family, but has long since been forgotten). I get to the end of one journal and the other one just comes into my life when need be. I don’t ever stress about it. You’ll see this as a constant theme here. This is supposed to be an exercise in releasing stress, not causing more. The tools you use to write and capture these memories aren’t important at all. My only advice is to always try and work with materials that will hold up – good ink pens and sturdy notebooks when possible.

The day after my 21st birthday, I sat down to write everything, I could remember, down on paper. I can definitely remember feeling like I was going to die from the hangover. I kept the labels from my first legal beer and wine, sipped on the cobblestone streets of Florence, Italy.

Now, let’s talk timing. I write almost everyday. But, let me be the first to say that there are days when I feel like I have nothing at all to say. This happens to everyone, even people that have been writing in silly books (like I have) for over two decades. So, when this happens,  I just surrender. I put pen to paper and I simply start to write. I dump my thoughts onto the page without any pressure to be a creative storyteller with my text. Usually what ends up coming out is more important than if I were to sit there and try to rewrite my day. What I have ended up putting on the page is a true reading of my day from an emotional standpoint, not just a “detail the day” sort of recollection.

There are no timelines, for journalling. Just write until you don’t want to anymore. One sentence, one sketch, one saved letter, can be enough to record the day. No essays required here as this isn’t homework. This is memory work. But, I do recommend doing it everyday in the beginning. Journalling is just like exercise. You have to create a habit.

What I journal

First of all, I have one tradition that I have never broken when journalling.  Whenever I start writing in a new book, my first words are always written on the last page. At the top of the last page, I write a wish, dream or a goal. The idea is that every ounce of energy, from writing in that book, can be channeled into helping make that wish, dream or goal a reality. I’ve written stupid things like “will be married and madly in love” -can you tell I was a teenager in love with rom coms?- to “will be able to look at me and my family and feel thankful that we are all alive, well and still in each other’s lives.” Obviously not all the wishes come true, but I’m a firm believer in at least putting them out there.

After the last page is down, I feel a lot of pressure to immediately get stuck in. So, I get the first page out of the way as soon as possible. It almost feels like a hurdle one has to jump. Those first words…. But, I don’t always use words, and here’s where things get a little interesting.

My journals are everything. They are not limited to writing. I sketch on the pages. I paste in pictures from magazines that inspire me. I share headlines from papers that earmark life-changing events that have happened around me. The pages of my journal almost resemble a messy scrapbook at times. But, I like to think of them as the props to my writing. They are the spices to my alphabet soup. Nothing is off limits. If I can make it somehow fit onto the page, it’s a go. In Florence, I once sat on the Arno and painted the landscape onto my pages and followed that with a poem. Yes, I cringe when I got back and read poetry. Honestly, I must have really fallen into the whole Romantic phase of life and stuck there for a while.

A life-changing event indeed. So many people I knew were directly harmed by this event. I couldn’t find the words, for a long time, to write about it. But, I never wanted to forget how my country felt on this day. So, I saved the headlines and let them remind me of the sorrow and pain felt across the world on September 11th.

Where I journal (it’s all about location… or is it?)

Here’s an admission – I don’t always carry my journals with me, especially if it’s a large notebook and I’m working with a carry-on only trip! Instead, I find creative things to write on that I can then paste into the journal when I return home. In hotels, I write on hotel stationary or post cards. I even wrote on a leaf I found while camping once.  However, I do sometimes make journalling in London or Beaufort a special occasion, as I’m on my home turf and I’m not lugging the world around with me. So, I’ll choose a special place and go to write, to be creative and to find inspiration within. Sometimes this special place is as easy as Starbucks. Other times, I find myself on a boat on the Thames or on the roof terrace of a hotel with a Bloody Mary to hand. I’ve also, many times, been at home, in bed, bawling into that same journal. And you can only imagine what those pages looked like.

My journals have always doubled as sketchbooks. 

Deciding to reread

I had never planned on going back and rereading my journals for any reason until much later in life. I knew there had to be a great deal of distance between the “me” that was weeping into my journals and the “me” that was, hopefully, older and wiser. But, against my better judgement, I opened up the archive this summer. I was writing a book proposal and I wanted to look back for some clarity on a few moments that needed defining. What I found was tough to witness. My God was I a wuss. I whined about everything, obsessed over boys and had an incredible desire to be accepted and liked. Basically I was a human growing up, as we do. But, seeing it in ink is hard to stomach. I read and kept reading and came out the other side with a rather incredible sense of how much I had changed over the years. There were stories in there I had completely forgotten about, love letters long since shelved away in my brain and pictures of people, places and golden moments that left me smiling from ear to ear. I said I would never reread, but I was so grateful for the perspective it gave me in doing so.

So many pages on love, marriage and children and dreams for the future….alongside random collages made. Can you tell I was an arts major?

Where to keep them – the importance of privacy

When I first starting journalling, I thought nothing of leaving my journals in my room, unprotected and open for any and all to read. I wasn’t exactly sharing nuclear codes or outlining future philosophies. As I got older, however, things changed. I will never ever, not in this lifetime anyway, forget the morning I woke up in my London flat to find one of my first boyfriends in the UK reading my journal like one would the daily paper. He was flipping through and genuinely consuming every word. He turned to me, as I entered the room, and said, “this is great stuff. Where are the pages about me?” I nearly threw up. That relationship didn’t last long, and it wasn’t just because of the boundary issues. But, it made me reconsider the value of what I had on my bookshelves. That year, I took all of my journals home to my parents’ house in Beaufort. I put them in plastic containers in the attic and left them there, where no one would ever casually be found flipping through a notebook or two. Call me paranoid, but I just didn’t want to ever tempt any individual to go journal jogging again.

I kept every rejection letter I was sent from companies in London. I mailed my resume, overseas from the USA, to over 200 galleries, asking for employment. Not one came back with a positive reply. I moved to the UK believing things would turn out ok somehow. How naive was I? But also….how right was I?
The night before I moved to London, I was sitting in an airport in Charlotte, NC, scared out of my mind, having no idea what to expect, and I wrote these words. 

I don’t know what will happen to my journals. I’m at a point now where I’m thinking they should be burned with me when I die. A girl’s silly thoughts probably shouldn’t hang around after she’s gone. And trust me when I say there are plenty of silly thoughts in those journals. More so than ever, though, those journals feel like the stitches to a great tapestry that is my life. My writing may be more for mental stability than anything else, but my heart feels grateful and full whenever I look back and run my fingers over memories from my life. Being able to touch a page from a specific day containing a very special cocktail coaster and the words, “is this the man I will one day marry sitting here across from me as my watermelon martini stains the khaki coloured coaster,” is something I am so happy that I have.

And of course that’s why I’m sharing this here today, because it’s never too late to start. Whether you are reading this in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties or beyond, may I encourage you, on this day, to pick up a nearby notebook and start writing your life story? It doesn’t need to be for anyone else but you to read. But, I can guarantee you that when you do reread it in 20+ years time, you’ll be so so glad you just plain started it at all.

So, we end this here, but I’m hoping it could, perhaps, be a new beginning for you. It is never too late to start jotting thoughts down in a silly little book. It’s changed so much for me and made me so grateful in a 1,001 different ways. It’s what you make of it and the time is all yours for the taking. Make memories, while memories can be made and capture them forever more. That’s my two cents and I’m leaving it there.

NOTE: most texts have been blurred as I write a lot about friends and family and other personal issues that I’d like to keep personal!


Updated January 16th, 2022

First Published January 17th, 2017



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