Deb Molly’s Rules for Keeping Journals

To continue the, ahem, tradition that Debs Joanne and Erika started by talking about their writing traditions — or, in Deb Erika’s case, creepy superstitions — I thought I’d share some of my own. I’ve been keeping journals since ninth grade, and over the years, I’ve developed a whole list of weird little rules and rituals around them.

(Warning: some rules are completely insane.)

 

Molly’s Rules for Keeping Journals

1. You can write as much as you want, whenever you want, however you want.

When I was little, I had this idea that a diary only counted if you wrote in it every single day. My grandma used to give me those little diaries with the date already printed at the top of each page, and they used to stress me out beyond belief. First of all, it was impossible to write in the dumb thing every single day, so I’d miss a day, and then I’d feel guilty and try to write two days’ worth, but then I’d miss two or three days, and the idea of catching up on all those days was so overwhelming I’d just quit entirely. So the first thing I had to do in order to keep a journal was give myself permission to write whenever I wanted to. Every day for a week? Fine. Three times a day, and then not again for a month? No prob. It sounds dumb now, but giving myself that simple rule allowed me to stop guilt-tripping myself for not writing, and I went from writing because I had to to writing because I wanted to.

Those little diaries also gave me the crazies about how much I could write. I felt like I should fill up the page, but I couldn’t go into the next page, because it was already dated for the next day! So in order to start journaling, I made the rule that I could write as much as I wanted — one sentence, a page, six pages, anything.

The “however” part of the rule was the last tool I used to break free from the oppression of those dated diaries — in my journals, I could write in huge letters or tiny ones, in marker, crayon, pencil, or pen; I could turn the whole book sideways and write like that, I could write in a spiral from the center of the page, I could write backward. I could paint pictures with the tiny watercolor kit my cousin gave me one summer, or color with the free crayons at Perkins. I could write giant and angry or small and fussy, I could write poetry or plays or fiction or long lists of inside jokes. I could cover the back pages with phone numbers or lists of books I’d read. I could write whatever and however I wanted.

2. You don’t have to write about what happened.

I always joke that I must have been an archivist in another life, because I have always been driven by the need to preserve the present for the future. Ever since I was little, I’ve loved photo albums, time capsules, letters to Future Molly, scrapbooks, old papers, and — yes — diaries. But my weirdly obsessive need to archive everything got in the way of my writing freedom, and writing started to feel like a chore. “I really should write about what happened at that party,” I’d think. “But I just want to talk about how the cute boy kept accidentally brushing my arm!” Even in elementary school, I’d dutifully record the events of the day: “Today we had a math test, then I had basketball practice, and Mom took us to Pizza Hut for Book It.” BO-RING! So when I started journaling, I made the rule that I would only write about what happened if I wanted to, and told myself that Future Molly would be more interested in my FEELINGS than what happened anyway. (Not sure if I was right on this count, but it’s too late now!)

3. Every journal must have a title. 

In college, I had a poetry professor who wouldn’t allow us to turn in poems without titles. “Untitled #47” didn’t count. He believed that titles were important, and that we could all use more practice giving things titles. I was happy to hear it, because it affirmed the rule I’d developed for my journals years earlier: they all had to have titles. I don’t even remember why I started titling them, but it helps me to keep them straight in my mind (again with the archives thing). And honestly, it IS good to practice titling things! Titles DO matter!

3b. Every journal must have a list of all the journal titles that came before. 

Okay, this one is just crazy. Sometimes I like to pretend it’s a ritual akin to a Buddhist Lineage, where each new monk can trace their teachers all the way back to the Buddha, but it probably has more to do with my love of archives and weird lists.

3b.5. The list must be generated by memory.

Even crazier. I get it. This one I’ve relaxed in recent years because a) I don’t go through journals as quickly as I once did, and b) I am going senile in my old age.

4. The pages should be numbered (odds only). 

This one started because I liked to count how many pages I’d filled since ______, and I was constantly flipping through pages and counting out loud. I realized I could number them instead and save myself lots of time. I do odd pages only because it’s faster.

4b. Date, time, location. 

Not a hard and fast rule, but I usually note the date, time, and location at the top of the page whenever I’m writing. Sometimes I get really specific, like “9:38 pm, Saturday, November 25, 2006 — Mom’s kitchen with 105.5 FM and hot apple cider.” Other times it’s just “Tuesday afternoon, 14 July, StoryStudio.”

Incidentally, in addition to writing my name in my books, I also note the month, year, and city of purchase. What can I say: I’m a nerd for dates and places.

5. You may not rip pages out of your journal. 

Journals are sacred, even if they’re just school notebooks. They shouldn’t be used for homework or grocery lists, and if you take notes in them, as I frequently do when I find myself at random meetings, those notes will be preserved FOREVER. You can, however, paste pages INTO journals, which I also frequently do, because I know that — unlike random folders, boxes, envelopes, and other places I store old papers — I’ll never lose my journals.

6. Not having your journal with you is no excuse not to write. 

That’s when you grab a sheet of loose-leaf, or a flier, or a napkin, and plan to paste it in your journal later.

7. You must begin a new journal immediately after finishing an old one. 

This one is plain superstition — I feel more susceptible to accidental death when I’m between projects. Truth.

 

How about you all? Please tell me I’m not the only one with a whole list of weird rules and superstitions about keeping journals! 

32 thoughts on “Deb Molly’s Rules for Keeping Journals

  1. What’s wrong with me? I am not a fan of journals. When I taught teachers, many fellow profs required their teachers to journal about their teaching. I couldn’t bring myself to have the requirement in my class. Did that make me a bad teacher?

    Seeing your list makes me think that I was never taught how to journal. I noticed that our 5th grader has a journal and her teacher is teaching her to use it just like she’s teaching her how to use the agenda book. They have some of the same rules that you have listed.

    I am going to have to think about this more. Maybe journaling is not so bad after all.

    • I was always bad about journaling in/for school, even though I’m a strong believer in reflective practices (especially in education!). I always resented when the teacher would respond to my journal entries. A good friend of mine taught fifth graders and responded to their writing with post-its for this reason — so if the kids didn’t want their teacher’s writing all over their journal, they could just remove it.

        • She’s the best. I’d like to think I have something do to with it — after I spent all of college complaining to her about my stupid high school teachers who wrote all over my journals! 🙂

  2. I think if more people (including me) observed #1 and 2, journaling would be more popular.

    The #3 rules, however, are indeed completely insane. But you’re cute, so we’ll forgive you.

    • It’s funny, as I was writing this out, I kept thinking that Rules #1 & 2 are so obvious, and I must have been dumb for needing to state them so explicitly to myself!

      Also, *BLUSH*!

  3. I LOVE this post. This little peek into Molly is great (and likely not as crazy as it seems to she who wrote it). I always wanted to be a journaller, but I’m lazy and inconsistent and growing up in a home with three older brothers, it never seemed a safe endeavor. NO KEY is impermeable to nosy brothers, trust me.

    • Yes! That’s why I wrote in school notebooks all through high school — less likely to be interesting to prying eyes. But by then, my sister wasn’t interested enough to go out of her way to spy on me, beyond the occasional picking up the phone and listening when I was talking….

      Incidentally, I strongly strongly believe that parents should NEVER confront their kids about something they learned by snooping in journals. (Note that I didn’t say parents shouldn’t READ journals — I get why you’d want to, if you were worried about your kid — but confessing to your kid that you read them? And worse, PUNISHING your child for something s/he wrote? Awful.)

      • Amen to that! Like you, I’m not saying parents should never snoop — frankly, I think that’s part and parcel of the whole “protect your kids” thing — but to react negatively to a child expressing his/her thoughts is awful. Not to mention, stupid. IMHO, of course.

        • I am pro-snooping. 🙂 But if you confront your kids about what you find, you take away their journal — and maybe writing — as a safe space, possibly forever.

  4. Let’s see…I haven’t kept a journal since 1978, and that one only has one entry in it. Guess you could say I’m not much of a diarist. *grin*

    I suppose my blog is the closest thing to keeping a journal I’ve ever done. Maybe it’s the accountability of having an audience that keeps me going there. (Well, except for the occasional breaks, like now.)

    Love your rules, though! Wish I had that kind of discipline. 🙂

    • Not sure I would call it discipline — it wasn’t until I gave myself permission not to write for months at a time that I managed to journal on a regular basis! Also, “journal” seems a small word for what I keep — but I don’t know another word for “writing notebook plus scrapbook plus emotional drama sounding board.”

  5. This post makes me so happy! I love journaling! Like you, I used to be the type who felt the compulsion to write every single day about the most random things ever. These days, I, like you, just write whenever I feel like it — and I’ve found it to be much more meaningful that way 🙂

    • Yay! Writing is already hard enough — it shouldn’t have to feel like a chore! Also, I believe journals should be totally self-indulgent, which doesn’t really mesh with the whole compulsive discipline thing!

  6. I totally do the date-time-location thing. I like to remember where and when I wrote specific entries.

    It took me years to realize I didn’t have to write every day or write about what happened – but once I did, it was SO freeing. (I end up writing most days, anyway – and sometimes I do write about what happened. But I don’t HAVE to. Which makes all the difference.)

    And I’ve been known to start a new journal mere hours after finishing one. I seriously get twitchy if I don’t have a journal in progress.

    • Journal soul-sister! Maybe we should go into business, make journals that say “Write in me when you want to!” on the cover. 🙂

  7. I remember sitting with Molly Backes at the Forum Grill, writing a letter to future Erin in my journal that made her promise to never destroy her old journals no matter how angry she was at her old self. I think I even let you write something in that journal…unheard of! I’ll have to go looking for it (I recall never finishing it because the pages were too small. I am so freakin’ picky about the color and size of the pages and the lines and how the book sits open, and how the cover feels, and on and on and on….).

    • Oh, college. Drama + free time + loneliness + great writing teachers + intense procrastination = the golden years of journaling.

      I definitely remember writing in the forum with you! I also remember a time when someone looked over my shoulder at what I was writing and then started yelling at me. “You’re writing about your HAIR???? I always see you writing in that book & I assume you’re writing these beautiful, poetic, profound observations about life, but you’re actually writing about your HAIR?”

  8. I have also been a sporadic journal writer but have recently gone back to college (there is about a 40 year age difference between me and other students). My professor has convinced me of the therapy of journal writing. I like your post, especially about adding time and location to journal entries. What is important to me besides getting my emotions and thoughts on paper is leaving them for my children. Also a great source for the essays I’ve been writing…and my blog posts.

    • I love the idea of leaving them for your children! My mother kept a journal when she was pregnant with me, and it’s amazing to read her giddy, nervous, and SO YOUNG voice!

  9. I’ve never kept a journal. I’ve tried plenty to keep a diary, as I liked to call it back in the day, but I couldn’t get myself to remember really. Well, actually scratch that. I do keep a blog, so that must count for something. And I have kept travel journals on big trips so that I know where I went, which has come in handy. Although now I usually just write my mom an email with everything we did that day, and then I refer to said email if necessary. How very techy of me! And very mom-dependent,too.

    I think that you’re absolutely right about one thing–future Molly will care MUCH more that the cute boy gave you goosebumps (adorable!) than the fact that you went to math class (and?).

    Finally, I LOVE LOVE LOVE lists. Journals, no. Lists, yes. I keep a running list of every single book I’ve read since 2002. Now that goodreads exists, I use that too, but I still keep my handwritten list. I love writing to-do lists (though I hate doing them.) And I love writing lists of lists! No wonder we get along so well.

    • Once my best friend and I sat in Perkins and listed every. single. inside. joke. we had after years of knowing each other. It took like 20 pages. To this day, it’s one of my favorite lists (though I have NO IDEA what have of them mean anymore!)

  10. Love journals! I invent reasons to buy new ones. And I always have my novel journals (to go with my index cards, as mentioned yesterday on Erika’s post). I have my novel journal and my bedside journal and my Artist’s Way morning pages journal (don’t use that one often) and my dream journal and my therapy journal (when I’m going through one of my therapy bouts, as all neurotics must now and then :-)) and my books-read journal and my desktop journal and my eating journal and my writing workshop/classes journal and…

    But, I can say that I don’t have many rules around those journals. 🙂

    • Oh my goodness! That’s so many! I can barely keep track of one (though it’s usually in my purse). I feel that way about pens though. A good office supply store is like heaven.

  11. Molly, I am so lousy with journals. I kept them for a while–and cringed upon revisiting them (is that the point?) so I (I hope you’re sitting down…) TOSSED them last year.

    That said, I might have to try again now that I have this guide!

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