Archives for category: Journaling

It’s been over a month since I posted about how I turned my journals into something I actually use.
I’m still at it, which means that this is something I’ll probably do for a long time since habits that last a month for me tend to stick.

Already, though, how I use this journal has evolved. I’ve discovered that there are things that a notebook is good for, and for things that notebooks aren’t good for, I’ve discovered digital tools that do better.

The Good

Conventional creative wisdom says that the best way to treat a new idea is to just let it be what it is. If you jump into judging it too soon, you risk killing a good idea that just hasn’t had the time to develop.
Preserving embryonic ideas is one of the things that keeping a physical notebook does phenomenally well, especially if you invest in a high quality notebook, the kind that would make you feel terrible if you tore out a page.
At first, I was hesitant to bring the notebook ideas that might be truly ridiculous because there would be written evidence of how much I entertained stupid ideas, but as I relaxed, I noticed something magical. The notebook has become like a slow cooker for ideas where each stage of the process is preserved from the moment the idea is articulable to the point when the idea crystalizes into a story or blog post or personal revelation.
This is the most direct change that has come about from the journal, but there have been side-effects, too.
Before I started keeping this notebook, I was a verbal thinker and needed to process my ideas aloud. Sometimes this was a good thing. When I talked with Leander about what I was thinking early in the thinking phase, truly terrible ideas tended to die relatively quickly. But thinking aloud is a real time-sink, and we would spend entire evenings sometimes hashing over nebulous ideas.
I still hash out a lot of my ideas with Leander, but ever since I started keeping a notebook, I’ve been able to do a lot of the initial percolating myself, and the conversations that we have are much better because the ideas that I bring to the table have a lot more meat on them.
As someone who lives in a product driven society, it is easy to under-value the process part of the creative process. Usually, the musing phase of the process is invisible, but recording my thoughts during this phase has made the invisible visible. And it’s harder to tell yourself that you haven’t been productive when you are holding a notebook that has more pages filled in than it did yesterday.

The Bad

You’ll notice that I’ve spoken a lot about the early stages of the creative process. This is because a physical notebook is wonderful in the early stages, but in the later stages writing by hand is bulky and awkward. Revision is difficult enough when I’m marking up a typed page. Trying to read notes in my handwriting and then throwing revisions in the mix, too, is utterly impossible.
I’ve also discovered that the notebook is less than ideal for projects that begin with a definite form. In the beginning, all of my blog posts were dutifully written in the notebook and transcribed into Blogger, but I’ve since discovered that there’s no benefit to this. These days, I might jot down some notes in the notebook or a rough outline, but it’s much more efficient to do the actual writing on a computer.
Re-occurring record keeping is also something that the notebook doesn’t do very well. Recently, I’ve gotten into coffee roasting, which is a process of trial and error, so it’s important to keep track of roasting times in order to duplicate successful roasts in the future.
At first, I kept all of my records in the notebook, but after testing half a dozen varieties, organizing became a nightmare, even with the index, requiring me to flip through pages of notes to find out how much time it took the Ethiopian beans to reach second crack. (More on the process of coffee roasting later.)

The Digital Helpers


I was a relatively early adopter of Evernote, and when I signed up for my account Evernote was much less developed than it is today. So, as sometimes happens with early adoption, I spent years listening to people gushing about Evernote, wondering what the big deal was…even though I had an account.
Recently, though, Moleskine came out with an Evernote Notebook. Since I’m a bit of a Moleskine fangirl, I had to investigate. I haven’t actually tried the Evernote Notebook yet, but rediscovering Evernote has been invaluable. It’s the perfect intermediary for ideas that have developed enough to be sorted into projects but aren’t yet developed enough to have their own folder on my computer or to be released into the real world.
Being able to take pictures of notebook pages and search (even with my terrible handwriting) has been a wonderful bonus.


Periodically, I rant to Leander about painful keeping track of drafts is for writers, and we muse over whether it would be possible to use Git. We still haven’t come to a conclusion on that–mostly because I’ve been trying to learn how to program for years and I’ve only just learned how to make annoying popup boxes in JavaScript (Thank you, Code Academy.)–but I have been able to make use of Gollum, the wiki that powers GitHub’s project wikis.
Incorporating wikis into my process is really new for me, so I can’t go into much detail. And since wikis were a buzzword fifteen minutes ago, it feels makes me feel like a buzz-stalker to advocate using one, but I’ve already discovered that the non-linear format and automatic change tracking is ideal for doing any kind of major world building.
But more on that later!

Over the past day or so, I’ve been picking through a book called Stop with the BS by Shane Mac.

It’s an interesting book. Written in 24 hours on a train from Seattle to San Francisco, it feels more like a blog post than a Book, but that’s appropriate for what it is. Very stream of conscious, following the route his mind takes as he rides the train.

Even though it was written in 24 hours, it’s the kind of book I want to read slowly. As of this writing, I’ve had it for a day, and yet I’m only a few pages in part because I’ve already started to implement one of the ideas.

Buy a notebook, number the pages, take notes on everything that’s worth remembering (including your own thoughts), and then index the notebook.

Shane Mac recommends for indexing your notebook this way:

When you finish a page, take a moment and write down key points on that page in the bottom right hand corner of the page (or somewhere that is easy to find).

Go to the front cover and write what is on that page and place the page number next to it. Don’t worry about re-writing another line if you use more than one page for the same book or project as you can just add more page numbers next to that topic.

What he is advocating here essentially is tagging entries with keywords and then turning those keywords into an index.

This is how I do it.

Every time I complete an entry, I create a record of what it is at the beginning of the notebook, a sort of table of contents.

Right now it looks like this:

Journal ……… 1-3

Then I do what he does, choosing keywords for each entry and writing down the page numbers the way you would for an index, but instead of writing them into the notebook, I keep this record on a piece of paper tucked into the folder in the back of the book. When I’m done with the notebook, I’ll alphabetize the keywords and page numbers to make a real index.

Like this:

Amanda Palmer: 1
Annotation: 4, 6-13, 14-15, 111-113
Chekhov: 4
Composing a Life: 111-113
Stop with the BS: 117-118
When Women Were Birds: 17
The Dream Life of Toby McClure: 37-81, 98
Writing: 16, 17, 19, 21, 96, 97, 102, 110-111, 121-122, 123

That’s a lot of work. Is it worth it?

Honestly, it might not be for you. If you’re the kind of person who keeps a very neat diary that only covers one subject or is a record of your life that methodically one day to the next, I can’t imagine what you would possibly need something like this for. Unless you’re like my great grandmother, who used to like to write the day’s weather on the calendar every day.

As for me, I’ve been journaling for a long time. The journals on this shelf start in 2007, but there’s a box somewhere in a closet that goes back to when I was in middle school.

Words. Words. Words. All of these words thrown on a shelf and never seen again, lost to me for a very stupid reason: I had no way of knowing what would happen when I opened them. Would I immediately stumble on gold, or would have to wade through twenty pages of snot-soaked whining before I found anything actually interesting?

It took me an afternoon to index my current journal, but after only an hour or so, I could tell that I wasn’t just coordinating my paperclip collection. I was actually creating something.

Every journal is a book waiting to be born.

I stumbled on a copy of Virginia Woolf’s journal a couple of months ago at the library. Even in the few moments I spent flipping through the book I could tell that the journal knew that it was a book all along. (At least, the editor who compiled it was very good at making it seem like it knew it was a book all along.) Each entry was a neatly contained narrative, and the entries flowed like a novel developing through time.

My journals aren’t like that. They’re disorganized and unruly. They take wild leaps from short story concepts to recipes to notes about the weather.

And yet, something magical happened when I went through a nearly completed journal and started indexing. I began to notice distinct threads that are picked up and put down, returned to, developed, forgotten, and remembered again. It isn’t an aria, but there’s a song there nonetheless.

Without knowing it, I’ve been writing a book for myself, and organizing it like a book transformed it from 190 pages of data into something that I just might maybe want to return to again.