Diaries and the Wild Mind: How to Start (or Re-start) a Journal Habit

Some (but not all!) of my diaries from the past several years.

In common with Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, May Sarton, Anais Nin, Gary Snyder, Katherine Mansfield, Joan Didion, Leonardo da Vinci, St. Therese of Lisieux, and countless other writers, I am a diarist.  I have kept a diary, with more or less regularity, since first grade.  When I fall into a period in which I neglect “the notebook,” as Gary Snyder refers to his journal, I find myself less settled, less clear, less creative, less sure of myself, less inspired, and–yes–I think also less intelligent.

I used to keep a separate notebook for my nature observations and sketches alongside my everyday diary, but now I just throw everything into one book, which seems right to me–life and nature tangled together, as they are in truth.  When I teach writing, the habit of keeping a journal is the first thing I recommend:  Carry a notebook everywhere, and write whatever and whenever you like.

DailyJournalHoriz480Starting (or returning to the habit after a long hiatus) is the hardest part.  Even seasoned writers know that blank pages, especially the first blank pages of any project, can be strangely intimidating for flat, inanimate objects.  Here are my top three tips for staring down page one, and getting started in the habit of diarizing:

1.  For your first diary, choose a cheap notebook.  I think that  once you are in the habit of keeping a journal, you should choose a book that delights you.  But does this sound familiar?  You want to start a diary, and so for inspiration you purchase some elegantly bound book filled with handmade, flower-petal-strewn paper. A book this beautiful deserves to be started while you are sitting in the perfect place, with the perfect pen, and the perfect cup of tea.  The first words to grace its pages must also be perfect:  thoughtful, intelligent, yet personal.

How intimidating!  Mark Twain himself would be struck dumb by such requirements!  And so the gorgeous diary sits empty, sometimes for all eternity.  Now you feel guilty for not starting a diary as you’d intended to, and for buying an expensive journal that gathers dust.

Composition books are perfect for starting to journal, or getting back in the habit.  They’re a comfortable size, a perfect number of pages, and unintimidatingly cheap.   Once you are settled into the habit of keeping a diary, then go for the flower paper, or whatever inspires you. (I am lovingly devoted to my current diary–a cover of rich, aged leather, with refillable fountain-pen-friendly paper.  It looks like it could have been carried by a medieval bard, and I plan to use it for the rest of my life.)

2.  Counter first-page jitters by starting with a quote or poem. I still do this, and it’s magical–the first page fills up, and you don’t even have to think of what to say!  Here a few from my recent notebooks:

“Je choisis tout. ” (I choose all.)–St. Therese of Lisieux

“Everything I do gon’ be funky from now on.”  –Dr. John

“It is true that we are called to create a better world.  But we first of all called to a more immediate and exalted task:  that of creating our own lives.” –Thomas Merton

Or there is always the diarist’s perrenial favorite from Mary Oliver:

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

3.  Whenever you don’t know what to write, try this:  “So, right now I’m…”  This will cover everything from crying over bad break-ups to observing limpets at low-tide.

spiral staircaseI don’t often read through my old diaries, but after gathering them for the photo at the top of this post, I heaped them onto my desk, and have been peeking into the pages now and then. Wow–if I hadn’t written most of this stuff down, it might as well not have happened, as far as my memory goes. The most wonderful thing I am learning  (or is it the most disheartening thing?) is that I am just the same as I was ten years ago–the same things make me anxious, joyful, peaceful.  The same issues–living simply, living creatively, living wild,  learning what it means to be a mother, a wife–lie at the center of my mind’s wandering.  I see, as I never have before, that my life is a spiral staircase (or maybe a kettle of vultures on a morning thermal) winding around itself, but with an ever-higher view.

And if none of this is enough for you,  a new study shows that keeping a diary about emotional events can dramatically  speed healing from traumatic physical injury.

Are you a regular, wanna-be, or on-again/off-again diarist?  I’d love to hear your stories.


  1. I love the idea of keeping a diary or journal,
    but lack the discipline needed to write daily, or
    even weekly. Then I feel guilty and try to force
    myself to write something on the page. I will
    keep your tips in mind . Thanks.

    1. lyanda

      Thank you, Linda. Try seeing it as a delight, rather than a discipline. Easier said than done, sometimes, but once you are in the habit, it doesn’t seem like such an obligation. Also, I certainly don’t right every day.

  2. Beth St. George

    I am an on-again/off-again journal writer, but you have inspired me again. I used quotes from your blog to re-start this evening and already feel more settled and less “in limbo.” I am an avid reader and can see myself using quotes from my current book to jump-start my journal, too. Kevin and Enda in Jeannette Haien’s stunning novel, THE ALL OF IT, “…both had the same fierce want…” to live by the sea. What is my fierce want?
    Lyanda, thank you for your inspiring blog.

  3. I love the idea of having one diary/journal for everything, but I’ve always assumed that I need to have several, depending on purpose. Each time I travel, I start a new diary, adding illustrations, ephemera, etc., and when the journey is over, the book is complete. I have an “ordinary” diary for day-to-day entries, and a literary one for notes on reading and writing. It would be wonderful to work my way down to only one that I carry everywhere. Thanks for sharing your process.

  4. I’ve kept a journal for about 6 years (whoah, didn’t realize it was that long until I looked back on it) in addition to blogging, and I think starting it young was a really good decision. It’s so fun and rewarding to look back over the years and see how my voice has changed and matured, my inspirational quotes of choice for the day (I always started my entries with a quote), the things that were happening in my life at the time and what I thought of them. Sort of like a concrete record and reminder to myself that I’m a complex and changing person. Sometimes months pass in between entries, but I’ll invariably hit another wave of inspiration and then jot down a lot of entries at once. And this post has provided said wave! I’m off to go journal…

  5. Like you, I’ve also been keeping a diary or journal of some kind since elementary school, though only regularly for the last 5 or so years. These tips are excellent! They make me feel inspired to write more often in my journal than I have been doing lately. I like how you have combined your natural journal and your regular diary into one; in the past, I’ve usually separated my journals into separate notebooks, but I’m trying to slowly combine them all together again, which will be a much better reflection of what my life is actually like – everything all jumbled up together.

  6. Hi Lyanda,
    Thank you for this great article. I’ve been keeping a daily journal for over a quarter century and would feel as if I’d lost a good friend if I stopped. Among other revelations, I’ve been able to look back to the beginnings of my late life career as an artist and appreciate the forces that influenced the huge risks and leaps of faith it took to get where I am today. Like you, my memory wouldn’t have been sufficient to give me back the realities of any of the moments I’ve journaled about beyond a year. So I treasure my own piles of journals. I would love to find a refillable leather journal such as the one you have. I love leather journals, but have always resisted them thinking after I filled one I would have to shell out for the next and the next, etc. I write in mine with a fountain pen (a sensuous experience in itself!) and would love to find refillable paper that would work with that. I would so appreciate you pointing me the way to find these things.

    1. lyanda

      OK, I will tell you what kind of diary I use these days, but if you are prone to paper obsessions I warn you to avert your eyes. When I was in high school I visited Japan for the first time (I’ve been back a few times since), and fell in love with their stationary–they make the most beautiful paper, and are also use fountain pens more regularly than we do here, so the paper tends to be very ink-friendly. I use a Midori Traveler’s Notebook. It takes re-fillable notebooks of Midori’s amazing paper, and you can put more than one small notebook in at a time, so if you want a separate notebook for jottings, or a sketchbook (they have different kinds of paper available, including sketch), you can have one. You can find them online in the US at Goulet Pens.

      1. Hi Lyanda,

        Thanks for your great and informative reply. Yes, absolutely I’m paper obsessed (I’m a printmaker and painter as well as a lover of vintage fountain pens, so it goes with the territory…but I looked anyway : ) I agree that the Japanese make absolutely wonderful paper (like their cutlery & knives – a well established art in that country). That must have been some trip(s) you took ~ a lovely adventure I can only imagine. I love the simplicity and quality of the notebook, although their largest size is smaller than what I generally prefer and the simple composition books I use have 100 pages, which, with my daily, prolific writing habit, I can easily go through one of them in a month and a half. I’m afraid with the small number of pages in those journals, I would eat them up like Pez candy. And, I’m very familiar with the Goulet Pen Company. I’ve been buying ink and paper from them since they first came online and love their small family operated business and customer service mentality. Thanks again for helping me find these beautiful journals – maybe I’ll find a use for one anyway. You know how ‘paper people’ are!

  7. I’ve been keeping a journal (on and off) since I was in elementary–that’s about 15 years of journaling. I’ve become a lot better at keeping up with writing in the past 7 years or so. I’ve found that keeping one has really helped me notice things a lot more. I can see a particularly gorgeous sunset and staring at it and thinking about how to describe it when I get back to my journal has me remembering it all that more vividly. Sometimes, even when I have nothing to say, I still try to write something because even just the act of writing is kind of cathartic. I used to write in any old notebook I could find, but now I have to love a notebook to use it as a journal. I always put a quote at the first page, to get the ball rolling. I keep page numbers and add an index at the back so it’s a lot easier to look for a specific entry.

  8. Jill

    Hi, I’ve just seen this post and find it interesting. I have kept journals for years but my previous ones were full of angst and negativity and it was exhausting reading them back, not to mention I didn’t want anyone else seeing them. Now I keep a visual diary where I glue things in and write about things I do and put down my feelings to an extent but nothing too personal. I still need to vent my frustrations but the venting isn’t something I want to keep, any ideas on how I can go about this without putting into my visual diary as I want that to remain non private and I don’t want those negative journals piling up again.

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  12. Elicia Pera

    When I read the section when you described how you felt when you don’t write, I thought “that’s me.” Writing in a diary saved me in more ways than one. I became my own mentor as a teenager, and it helped me get through some very trying times since I picked up a composition notebook in the sixth grade. Writing in a journal has to be one of the greatest pieces of advice I could give to anyone. Write on!

  13. Blair

    The last time I kept a journal was 3 years ago. Since then I have tons of notebooks but I still don’t have the guts to fill it in. Every time I tried to write something I ended up ripping it off. Its kinda frustrating. Thanks to you I am a bit motivated to start over and try to be more creative!

  14. C Squared

    I followed #1 and it’s working great for me! I’ve been trying to keep with journaling for the past few years, but some of my journals are unfinished because they were expensive and ornate, and I was too intimidated to write in them. I recently bought a mini composition book with a cute geometric design for $1.50 at Walmart, and my writing has never been better! I feel free to be more honest, expressive, and imaginative, because I can’t “mess up” this journal. If I don’t like what I’ve written, I can just tear out the page and try again. The only thing I would add is that even if you use a cheap notebook, it’s still good to shop for colors and patterns you like so you can enjoy writing in it (mine is blue and yellow).

  15. Kristin

    Really enjoyed this post. I am 36 and have been journaling since I was 14 (actually, even younger, but I only have the ones since I was 14; the really old ones are lost to the sands of time.) I write every day, and I try to write first thing in the morning because I find that’s the time when I can be most honest about my life. If it’s nighttime and I haven’t written yet, I will just make a short entry about three things I’m grateful for that happened that day. I don’t like to dwell on anxieties before bedtime.

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