Keeping a Journal

July 21, 2014 holman

My memory is horseshit.

My friend has a staggeringly impressive memory, effortlessly explaining in great detail about the first conversation we had together. I pat myself on the back if I’m able to remember which country it happened in.

But one of the best things I did last year was start writing a personal journal again.

Journals are the Google of the mind

Remember when you had to remember things? Well, probably not. But if you did remember, you’d recall not being able to simply Google facts from the dinner table.

Keeping a personal journal is like that. It’s how I realize that my memory isn’t completely faulty, it’s just slow to make connections from time to time. It’s startling how many entirely-forgotten events will vividly come back to me if I just have a starting point. Reading an old entry will transport me pretty close to that initial frame of mind.

What to write about

I started a journal in high school, but mostly stopped in college. It kills me that I didn’t write during the first few years in the working world. It almost feels like I didn’t even live those years.

I mean, what I wrote in high school was not Pulitzer Prize quality material:

June 16, 2004:
The movie “The Day After Tomorrow” somewhat frightens me. What would I do if there were an apocalyptic event? I feel like I should layer up. Maybe wear heavier coats.

Most of my entries were banal commentary on girls, depression, school and music, and were oddly passionate about things like how to correctly serve popcorn while volunteering at a local community event. The fierce passion about these events has greatly tapered off now — save for my continued interest in popcorn — but reading them today is interesting. It brings me back.

It’s not just about writing “important” entries, either. Reading how I coped with my friend dying, the first few dates I went on, living through the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion… those are really fascinating to me to read now. The entries where I write in detail about an utterly boring, normal day are also fascinating. I think in some sense you’re as defined by your mindless thoughts on a three hour car trip as much as you are by the trip you take halfway across the world.

How to journal

Journaling is different than writing for the public. Favor quantity over quality. Pick whatever gets you writing as much as possible. If that’s a notebook every night by your bed, do that. If it’s an app, use that.

For writing, I take a combination of approaches, depending on context. Most of my day-to-day goes into Day One. It’s beautiful, and works on Mac, iPhone, and iPad. For other contexts, I’ve found a plaintext file in a directory works great.


Writing doesn’t tickle your fancy? Take photos. I geotag every photo I take, and I try to take photos for me: little visual reminders of situations I’ve been in. Not everything needs a special filter so you get Maximum Instagram Likes™. Unremarkable photos of a brick wall might later remind me of the interesting conversation I had while leaning on it, for example.

Write for you

Like most things, if you do something regularly you’re eventually going to become better at it. Writing’s no different. What’s more, the act of writing is kind of like defragging your mind: if I had a rough day dealing with someone, I’ve found that sitting down and writing about it helps organize my thoughts and emotions about what happened. I end up understanding the situation better and feel better prepared for dealing with it in the future.

Just remember that, above all, this is about you. You’re the one living your life. If you don’t keep track of it, what’s the point?

This guy Socrates said: “the life which is unexamined is not worth living”. I don’t remember what he means by that, but I’ll think about it later.