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!
M. Molly Backes
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