"What Should I Write in My Journal?"

By Quinn McDonald | Posted 9/18/07 | Updated 6/9/23

The idea of keeping a journal is often more comfortable than actually keeping one. We fall in love with journals with lined or non-lined pages, leather covers, inside pockets, ones that are the right size for right now. We bring them home, write on the first page, and then store them on the shelf.

Why do people quit keeping journals? The biggest reason is fear. "I have to be neat," you think, or, "I better write profound thoughts," or "I have to write something every day."

Not at all. Journal pages are a way of thinking out loud — and often not in words. Journals help you create your outlook on life, they are the GPS system to your spirit.

How do you make this happen? There aren't rules for keeping a journal. You can have as many journals as you want — I have at least four:

  1. A large one to hold big pieces of papers, plans, and a map that I keep track of places I've traveled to.
  2. A small one that fits in my bag, perfect for trips and notes.
  3. A soft-cover journal made out of Nepalese lokta paper — a tan paper with a natural finish that is great to write in.
  4. A large-format, spiral-bound pad of hot-pressed watercolor paper. I like to experiment with watercolors, inks, collage and other wet media. I need the right surface for the work.

And that last sentence holds the key to keeping a journal. The right one for the task at hand. You don't need to fill one journal all the way, then move on to the next one. Want to write a short note? Use a small journal. Want to spend some time exploring your emotions? Use a pen and grab that leather-bound journal with the ribbon bookmark.

The only important action is to date the pages. That way, you will know what your thoughts were on any specific day, no matter what journal you write in.

To give you some ideas, here's how I keep my journals. I use sketches, collages and ephemera in my journals. They are vital elements that can change the way you keep a journal.

In the journal with watercolor paper I create 'thinking collages.' These aren't art and they aren't for display. They are "first draft" ways to catch ideas. They are neither complete nor perfect. All it needs to do is speak to me, remind me of an emotion or an event. They are meditations on paper.

Thinking Collage by Quinn McDonaldAs an example, one has a photograph of my grandfather, a man I never met, but about whom many stories have been passed down. He was a doctor in the last century, and his gift was his curiosity. So there are things on the page that represent not knowing, exploring and discovering.

On the bottom left is an illustration I tore from an old book. In calligraphy, is says, "Teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress." There is a quote from Rumi, the Sufi mystic, that says, "Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment." I didn't write a long essay on the importance of not knowing, but the collage says it all, and reminds me of the value of curiosity.

Another journal page is filled with doodling. My favorite markers of the moment are two fat gray markers — they have a point on one end and a chisel tip on the other. One is 50 percent gray, the other 20 percent. I was playing around with values and hue. This page isn't a composition, it's doodling. I noticed I was drawing plants, which are green, but using two shades of gray. Then I thought of the e.e. cummings poem that starts, "I thank you god for most this amazing day," and wrote down the first verse in the doodling. I found a phrase in a poem that says "Green is a solace," so I added that, too.

These three pages are just as important and valid as if I had written down elaborate descriptions and carefully formed logical thoughts. As I put down the pictures, or doodled with the pens, my mind was free to roam and think. It was soothing and helped me sort out thoughts. And that's the best reason for keeping a journal.

Copyright ©2007 Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved.