How I Became Someone Who Keeps NINE (!) Journals — And Maybe You Should Too

When did I start keeping NINE journals?!

If there’s one thing there’s no shortage of in this world rife with poverty, conflict, corruption, unemployment and climate change it’s writing advice.

And somewhere along the way I took it little by little.

I never read one specific list extolling the virtues of the ten journals you should keep in order to be a successful writer. Or your best self. I guess it just happened over time. It wasn’t until I was packing to go home for the holidays that I realized I had been keeping NINE journals. And checked bags or not, I was not about to heft all of them home.

None of them are a diary in the Dear Diary sense of the word. And I do not maintain all of these journals daily – some I don’t even write in regularly. But they have proven invaluable in physically organizing my thoughts and ideas so that I can mentally compartmentalize my life. They allow me to sort my thoughts like socks in the right drawers. There is a “correct” place for everything now.

While this might be more work than it’s worth for some people, for busy people with or without anxiety, some of these journals might optimize time and focus mental energy.

This notebook is my personal secretary, calendar, and to-do list. I’ve burned through half a dozen or more of them since I started using them about ten years ago to stay more organized at work. When I saw the professional benefits I started using it in my personal life as well.

I think it started with my catch-all coffee-stained notebook where I was jotting down deadlines, project components, rough ideas for articles, words or Latin phrases I didn’t know and wanted to look up later, customer service 1–800 numbers I needed to call for something or other, gift ideas for upcoming birthdays, confirmation numbers for bills I paid over the phone and various other indecipherable messes.

It also serves as a filtration system as some of these fragments will get fleshed out in other journals, grow into articles I post or develop into polished content for clients. Some of it that goes nowhere is at least not occupying mental space anymore, clearing room for new ideas.

After finding this notebook in a gorgeous housewares shop in Guanajuato, (where I resisted the temptation to buy a large hammered silver mirror, among other treasures), I started dedicating a notebook just to new Spanish words and their definitions. As much as I wanted to believe I could commit new words to memory I knew that I needed to physically interact with them if I were going to get them from RAM to hard drive for permanent storage.

If you’re learning another language or languages this is an excellent learning tool and motivator. Knowing I have countless blank pages to fill and I still won’t even approximate all the words I have yet to learn is a tremendous motivator. I have notebooks for French and Arabic too but I’m not nearly as consistent with those.

Not only does this keep my attempts at teaching myself more organized, filling those blank pages remind me to strive for excellence, to somewhat formally commit to this endeavor instead of just hoping I’ll remember a new word I overheard or read on a menu. I’ve added slang I’ve heard while driving in crazy traffic — quitate la verga, te mamaste, and watching heated soccer games — hijole, golazo, as well as a lot of nouns from Neruda and Sabines poetry — arrecifes, cenizas, juguetón, hormigas. Combined with common phrases I hear in daily life, ni madre, a poco, de plano, a ver, osea, I hope to speak more naturally in my second language and sound less and less like Yoda.

Three years ago I started writing at bedtime — plaintive requests to my reptile mind to iron out ideas during the night shift so that I could wake up and be a humble transcriptionist of well-articulated narratives and heartfelt stories.

With beautiful artwork from Guatemalan muralist Light Andrade. This pic does not justice to what she’s capable of. Her colors inspire me.

I had read about a transcription service in India that was taking advantage of the time difference from the U.S. Doctors in the U.S. were sending their patient notes from each day’s appointments to the transcription service in India where the day was just beginning. By “tomorrow” in the U.S., the transcribed notes had been sent back and were ready for the patients’ files. This is the relationship I wanted with my subconscious. Except I wanted it to be doing high-level unraveling and exploring and problem-solving I struggled to organize and create in my conscious mind. Not only has it been working beautifully I’ve also noticed an improvement in my memory retention and a decrease in my nighttime flurry of anxiety.

When I switched back to an old purse I found a prayer journal I used to keep — full of petitions for my friends and family and Miss America-esque pleas for world peace and an end to starvation and child prostitutes and slavery the world over.

Though I never wanted to pray to God like my own personal Santa Claus I remain convinced that unselfish petitions can be rattled off like a wedding registry if you’re praying for others.

This is a centering exercise as well. It reminds me to not be so focused on my own struggles and keeps me from indulging my fears and doubts by re-channeling them to loving concern for others.

When I was in therapy I started keeping a happiness journal. It’s a pocket-sized little notebook with bright flowers and an orange satin page marker. I started using it for personal affirmations when I was struggling to believe that there was anything inherently good about me. At that time I could literally only think of one thing and it was laughably inconsequential. But I continue to add things and it will double-function as my Compliment Journal — an idea from Henriette Klauser, author of Write It Down and Writing On Both Sides of the Brain.

But an important caveat — what we think of ourselves, how much we value ourselves is just as important, if not more than what others think of us.

So I need to be careful not to rely on the external praise of others. For every compliment I write down I need to include a self-affirmation — and not one that simply piggybacks on the compliment.

Speaking of Henriette Klauser, I read her folksy book in a heartbeat and instantly started implementing her strategies.

This is where you unapologetically ink all of your greatest desires without worrying how outlandish or impossible or materialistic they might sound to anyone else. Write down with reckless abandon everything your heart desires, big and small — international travel, sports cars, a book deal, a new couch, an orthopedic pillow — your private desires are your own and no one ever has to see this notebook if you want to keep it bound in secrecy while you pursue your dreams and goals.

The idea is that physically writing down what you want — a loving marriage, a dream home or one of those gurgling water pitchers shaped like a fish — turns on your reticular activating system, focusing your mental energy, your creativity and your curiosity to see opportunities and possibilities, to pursue things you once thought foolish and to be enthusiastic in your belief that what you want will be yours. It opens your eyes and focuses your attention. It helps you scan your life and the world for potential opportunities.

Klauser writes with a prosperity gospel undertone but there are entire schools of thought on the dangers of wealth. Uncle Ben from Spider-man says it best: With great power comes great responsibility. And so far it’s been my observation that writing your desires down is very powerful.

Many years ago when my best friend and I were reading The Success Principles together we started to write down our three lists as recommended: 30 things I wanted to have, to do and to be. Honestly, I never finished any of the lists. I folded the three pages up and shoved them in the book like a wedgie for a bookmark. I forgot all about it for two or three years, maybe more.

During another bout of crushing depression, my best friend pleaded with me to find my copy and start at least trying to get inspired again. She was certain it would pull me up from the depths of another depressive episode.

By the time I found it I had completely forgotten about those lists we wrote at her mother’s kitchen table. But they fluttered out of the book and I eagerly started reading. To my utter astonishment many of those things, big and small, had come true.

I had been gifted a juicer from a coworker wanting to get rid of one. I had taken classes on canning and jarring with my mom. And my entire family had returned to Germany for a Christmas vacation where my sister and I were born. It was a head-in-the-clouds dream that I’d had since high school but couldn’t actually imagine coming true. But there we were — Nuremberg, Untermembach, Herzogenaurach, Munich and Garmisch.

I had also written, “take mom to ireland”. While that hadn’t happened exactly, my mom had just returned from a tour of Ireland with her brother, my favorite uncle. And I realized that it was more important to me that she had been where half of our family is from, the place her father always talked about. Not a soul in the whole family had been since my great grandparents emigrated here.

I also had a library and a garden with a loving partner. I had learned to make homemade soap. I was getting closer to my dreams of homesteading.

I don’t think anything and everything is guaranteed. But I know that more of my dreams have come true once I’ve written them down. So guess what I’m gonna keep doing.

Anthony Moore writes as much about achieving your goals as he does about being a better writer. One of his many tips for online writing and the short-attention span of most mobile readers is to break up long blocks of text with great quotes. I copy and paste a lot of these into a google doc but I also try to take the time to write them down in this little zebra journal. I thought it was adorable that he was grazing on the UPC.

You don’t have to wait until you’re a subject matter expert to be a great writer. Just quote the experts. The great minds, your hilarious best friends, your toddler nephew or anyone who inspires you is worth sharing. If it resonates enough with you to write it down it will likely move your readers too.

This has been such an important part of managing my depression and anxiety. I had heard of them for years and always dismissed them. Not that I begrudged anyone else keeping a gratitude journal, it just didn’t resonate as an activity I would be taking on. Then one morning, in a physically overwhelming bout of depression getting hemmed in by flames of anxiety, I would’ve tried almost anything to make the pain stop and my mind stop racing.

I had found a pile of journals on sale at Michael’s for $1. But they only had a few monogrammed letters available. A quiet little voice whispered, “gratitude”, so I bought this one with a G.

Now I try to write in it in the mornings to start my day with the slow-building joy that stemmed the tide of a panic attack that day when I first wrote in it. And I don’t just list out bullet points. The act of writing out the words “I am grateful for …” over and over again softens your heart and brings a comfortable smile to the surface.

Had someone told me that writing down things I’m grateful for would physically calm me down I never would have believed them. And it is not just a reactionary exercise in tamping down anxiety. It can also be a proactive decision you make to start each day with joy. It is a practice that cultivates peace through gratitude.

As they say, if you’re not grateful for what you already have, who’s to say you’d appreciate anything more? A gratitude journal nicely dovetails the “write it down” journal. While you dream of more in order to achieve your goals, appreciating all that you already have is a loving and peaceful foundation.

For my birthday my partner gave me the most beautiful journal. One of those gorgeous sleek books you’re reluctant to ruin with your loping cursive.

As a lifelong night owl who’s trying to be an early bird, my brain really reaches maximum functionality when my head hits the pillow every night. I’m sure my fellow night owls/anxiety sufferers can relate.

Images start blooming, sentence fragments start forming cohesive paragraphs, rough ideas crawl out of the water and start forming limbs and evolving frontal cortices. Knowing that my brain will likely be a blank slate in the morning, I indulge my noisy brain and jot them down.

Keep this one on your nightstand.

Many years ago I was lost in Rome and desperate for a water closet. I didn’t have wifi but randomly stumbled upon The Leonardo da Vinci Museum. The gift shop was one of the best museum gift shops I’ve ever visited. I bought a few inexpensive notebooks with his Vitruvian man stretched across the cover. I’m no polymath but I’m happy to take my creative inspiration from one of the most famous.

I love making soap, deodorant, chapstick and shampoo, and I keep a recipe journal of my favorite concoctions. Learning to make soap and my own beauty products was also on my “write it down” list of things I’d like do.

So I’ll add my soap-making notebook to the list as a bonus journal that I recommend to anyone who cooks, bakes or crafts anything with directions they’ll want to repeat.

twitter @h_m_edwards unsplash @heathermedwards

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