A vital part of any writing endeavor is to use a journal to generate ideas for future writing projects. Journaling is an active learning process and it helps us center our thoughts to give them meaning when before they were just swimming aimlessly in our heads. Journaling also gives us a place to record our observations and our memories before life gets too fast for us to remember the small moments which brought us joy once upon a time. The reasoning for recording writing in a notebook is not new. Long before creative writing classes and the use of journals in these classes, field notebooks or logs were vital tools for scientists performing their observations in biology, sociology, and anthropology. In social work and in nursing, journals were also used during internships to record personal growth and learner observations.
Recordings in journals can be traced back to 56 AD China, while in the Western world, journaling became a common practice during the Renaissance when the image of the self became important. In tenth century Japan, ladies of the court used pillow books (so named because they were kept in the bedroom or between the drawers of wooden pillows) to record their dreams and thoughts via poetry and images. Travelers in both the East and West used journals to record their journeys, although Eastern writers integrated more images and poetry into their entries, than Western explorers who stated the facts and details of the places and people they encountered. British sea explorers, such as James Cook and William Bligh, whose logs were later published, recorded their observations, gave an accurate record of events for their chain of command, and recorded significant navigational insights for other naval captains.
Samuel Pepys, who wrote his famous diary from 1660 to 1669, is generally thought to be the first diarist. Not only did he examine current events, he had access to many of these events since he was a high-ranking civil official. He used generous details when describing the people he met and also sought to remedy his past sins by writing about how he could have done things differently. In Europe and America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, diaries were published in record numbers and writers influenced by the Romantic age and individualism recorded their reflections and feelings.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, journals became vital tools in process writing classes for recording freewrites, brainstorming notes, and notes on research and topic construction. Outside of the writing classroom, journaling is also used to gain knowledge on spiritual quests, while a large number of women use journals to record their thoughts, feelings and observations and to write against and through their Inner Critic. Journaling is also a vital tool in psychotherapy, so that patients can record their thoughts prior to their appointments, and thus speed up their treatment time.
Many times journaling focuses people who are working on a problem and need the space to develop their thoughts. Writer and teacher Ken Macrorie likens a journal to a “seedbed” that needs watering and time to develop into a mature piece of work. He claims, “Keeping a journal forces a writer to put something into the sock every day or so. Often when he reviews what is there, he sees materials that fit together and build.” Toby Fulwiler, another professional writer and scholar, states that a journal lays in the middle of the continuum between a diary and a notebook you would keep for a class. He states that the language in a journal should be kept informal and that the writer needs to use first person, so that she is personally reflecting on an issue, and not using other sources that would distance her from the material. Fulwiler also lists that a “good” journal should contain observations, questions (and more questions than answers), speculation, self-awareness, digression, synthesis, revision, and information. In addition, the writer should make frequent entries, and these entries should take some space on the page so that more thoughts and speculations can be captured.
Today we have journals to record our vacations, our dreams, and our goals. Like the journals of history, we should think of our journals as a way for future generations to see what we were struggling with at the time and to know that their dilemmas are not too far removed from ours.