On keeping a journal

For many years I kept a paper journal for writing notes, very much as described below: dollar store notebooks when I was young and poor(er), then moleskins when they were still made in Italy by that small company that sold out to the Moleskin empire, and just any old blank or gridded notebook since then. But a few years ago, I started doing voice recordings on my phone or Evernote instead. Laziness and being old enough to not always want to carry a backpack full stuff drove me there. It’s fine. But I seldom take so many notes anymore because of it. There was something to the free form jotting that helped me stretch out. So to that end, I always assign my students one ungraded task each year. I doubt many do it, but the ones that do seem to be the ones that go on to publish more and better work: keep a notebook and write at least five observations or thoughts in it each day.

Writers’ habits don’t just emerge. We cultivate them—they are first aspirational, and then superstitious. If something works once, we hope it will work again. Years ago, in graduate school, I noticed how certain poet friends would casually, but with intent, remove a small notebook from their jacket pocket or bag and jot something down. I noticed it the way you notice how someone smokes—the glamour in the gesture, and how it is referential; it aligns one with a tradition. I started keeping notebooks so I could be a writer who keeps a notebook.

My notebooks are not diaries because they have no timestamps. Dating the entries would impose a structure, a sense of continuity and narrative, on the writing inside. They capture thoughts, not events; they are lyric notebooks. I’d be having thoughts anyway, but now I write them down. Before I can write one, it has to become a sentence, an object with a shape. When I was seven or eight, I confessed to my mother that I couldn’t stop narrating my life back to myself; I thought it meant I was crazy. “No,” she said, “it means you’re a writer.” I’ve since gotten used to that layer of language like running commentary between my direct experience and the external record of it.

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