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Journal keeping: New year. New journal. Blank page.

By Carolyn Males

I’ve kept piles of personal notebooks over the years. Mountains of them. So many that my office shelf where they reside is threatening to totter. But over the past two years of pandemic semi-isolation, I’ve consolidated my musings, sketches, collected new vocabulary words and jottings into one fat journal that sits on my desk. Inside its leather-bound pages I’ve scratched out notes on my everyday experiences alongside anniversary listings of events and innovators that changed the world. Noting the latter, I tell myself, is a way to learn something and think beyond my own four walls. Writing in this journal is a daily habit that begins sometime before dawn and continues throughout the day.

My other notebook, titled Raw Drafts, contains copies of all the mixed-media artwork I’ve created during this semi-cloistered period. This time spent alone spurred me to mess around with errant thoughts and ideas, art materials, designs and fonts. The results? The good, the bad and the occasionally ugly. No matter. Leafing through my art journal, now I can see how each design builds upon earlier ones. So perhaps I’m making progress.

“Discover joy in the everyday. Challenge yourself to explore the world and pay attention to the everyday things around you that most of us overlook.”

Meanwhile I confess that I’ve always loved the voyeuristic thrill of looking at other people’s journals, discovering their creative processes and how they view the world. Frida Kahlo’s notebooks dance with color, wild sketches and bold ideas. Andy Warhol’s, stamped with both significant and mundane details of his life, provide a written snapshot of a bygone era. My favorite, The Journey is the Destination, offers a collaged narrative of offbeat travel experiences depicted in photographs, paint, sketches and words collected from the notebooks of the late photojournalist Dan Eldon.

So with the blank slate of the new year ahead of us, I asked a few journaling devotees to tell us about their own practices.

Pamela Johnson Brickell:

Artist, educator, event illustrator

“Everything is eye candy for me, and I just love capturing it all on paper.”

I journal whenever I can and wherever I am. I always have a sketchbook with me. I use pens, pencils and watercolor. For example, in our kitchen we have a scope set up looking at the bird feeders, and if I’m doing something like waiting for the water to boil, I’m at the window looking through the scope, sketchbook in hand, always recording what birds are doing. When we’ve gone out to restaurants, I tell my husband, “You can’t eat that quite yet. I’ve got to get down the presentation. (He is a patient man.) I sketch the day away capturing all the goodies that happen like golf tournaments, special events: parties, festivals, weddings.

My sketchbooks are a place of learning and discovery. Along with sketches, I write down what’s going on with weather, date, time and anything I happen to see. And I also note colors I’ve used. I often include a “what was I thinking?” note and jot down what I would do differently. So when I look through the journal, I can be transported right back to that very second I made the entry. It’s really a magical memory lock for me.

I like working in ink because you just draw and then you’re committed. It’s helped me be a very fast sketcher. Because it’s in sketchbooks, I don’t have the fear of oh, I have to be precise. Instead, I’m in constant learning mode. This way you discover the progress you’re making, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes a day.

Sonya Grant:

Entrepreneur, designer

“I script my life for everything that I want to do and everything I want to accomplish.”

I use my notebook for developing new designs, collecting random thoughts, doing inventory count and control, but mostly I do a lot of manifesting in it. A year or so ago I started getting into crystals, energy and writing down everything that I want to happen. I watch the universe work and figure out what I need to do to make those things come to pass.

My notebook is black with my logo on the cover. This is the journal I began when I started the business, and it’s getting pretty raggedy. I’ve used almost all its pages, so I have another one prepared as a backup. I write with a gold pen with a diamond gem at the top. I write in it every day and keep it wherever I am. If I’m out and about, it’s in my purse. If I’m at home, it’s literally right by my pillow.

Writing for me is more therapeutic than typing. I feel I can process my thoughts at a slower pace in more detail. There’s also an emotional connection involved in writing everything out. When I’m writing something down that I want so badly, I can end up getting tears on the page.

I look back and see how far I’ve come. I remember that on July 7, 2010, I wrote down that I wanted to have basic colors for my line available in local shops in the next five or six months. Then after it happened, I went back and highlighted that entry. That’s when the power of manifesting became real to me. It’s more keepsake that way. I don’t know where I’ll be ten years from now, but I know I’ll have this notebook.

Dr. Rabbi Arthur Segal

Retired head and neck cancer specialist, rabbi and author

“My journal is where I keep myself spiritually centered and learn what’s in God’s realm.”

I pray and meditate thrice a day and before I even say hi to my wife, Ellen. The Hebrew word for prayer is Tephillah. (Hebrew root of self-judging.) When we pray, we are praying inwardly to God, who lives inside of all of our hearts “if we let Him.” (That’s a quote from The Talmud.) So when I pray, I’m judging what happened yesterday, but my plans are for today and what’s going on in my life. The second part of that is meditation in which I silence myself and listen to God and my heart for God Orderly Direction. (Notice that the initials for that are G.O.D). It centers me.

The counsel or guidance I hear is what I end up writing on a pad that I keep by my bedside. I use a pencil because pens don’t write uphill. I jot these notes while my eyes are closed and I’m hearing the advice. But before I do write these things down, though, I have to check to make sure the messages that I’ve gotten are coming from God or a good place and not coming from ego because my ego can get in the way. Afterward I go to the computer where I can expound on them or write an essay for public use if I wish. Then I throw the handwritten notes away.

Amos Hummel:


“I keep lists.” My lists began when I got an old typewriter in 1981 and started lists of Hollywood movie titles and interesting names. Today I keep those lists on my phone, but now they’re lists of ideas, names, humorous concepts, philosophical gems –– all basically artwork ideas. They’re pretty long, but because they’re digital I can easily scroll through them. I use them to stimulate ideas and titles that I sometimes incorporate into my work. I also keep a picture journal on my phones. They’re like little sketchpad

I write all this stuff down as it comes to me. It’s like the poet who said, “Ideas come through me like a train, but if I don’t get them down before they’re gone, they’re gone.”

Here’s a list called Illyricacy: those lyrics you get wrong or mishear like in “America, the Beautiful” heard as “Oh beautiful/forever waves of gray.” Another called Different Ways to Spell Bluffton and Beaufort: Bufeourt (circa 1317). Strange ideas for names: Alonso Woodstacker, Deets Skeeter, Fardette Faraday, Professor ManBurp. Humorous concepts: Pleated jeans and topless muumuus or Acadanemia — weak-minded people. Questions to ponder: What is the fascination with the exact height of tall people? What does space smell like?

Mary C. Milner:

Animator, illustrator

“In journaling, you’re hashing out rough ideas.” Depending on my mood that day, I either use Procreate on my iPad or traditional pen and paper. For that, I use loose paper and then put the pages into a binder or folder. I like to do at least one small drawing a day and then compile all of them into a collage for that week. If I’m sketching down a quick idea, I’ll grab the first piece of paper I have, and then I’ll Mod Podge [glue] it onto watercolor paper and mix it in with other things for a collage.

For everyday doodles, animals come naturally to me. (I’ve got two cats, and I dog sit). But I try to be diverse and draw other things like scenery and people. I do some journaling at work and at home or whenever I have down time. I sit at a desk –– it keeps me from getting sleepy.

Journaling helps to relax me and take my mind off whatever is bugging me at that moment. It’s quite meditative, and that is an invaluable thing to have at your disposal on a stressful day. I feel like the best way to get a train of thought going or a concept rolling is to sketch down lots of little ideas and make a note of thoughts you have during the day. I compile all these little bits of inspiration. Then I can go back and see I’ve got ideas for bigger projects like animation, illustrations, paintings and printmaking.

Some advice: Just draw expressively, don’t try to make it pretty or perfect. You don’t have to draw it well. The most important thing you can do is to capture the mood of something. Do what makes you happy. Chase your bliss. Whenever you can draw, draw.

Cynthia Gorski-Popiel:

Musician, piano teacher

“The whole purpose of journaling from my perspective is to serve as an honest outlet for things that run through my mind and that need a safe place to live.”

I usually journal early in the morning, somewhere between 5 and 7 a.m. when it’s too early to walk the dog, and I’m the only one up. I use my iMac in the family room, though occasionally I use my iPad when traveling. I don’t do it every day.

I write about the things that I can’t say about relationships, actions people take that are both personal and impersonal, and about politics. And I write about things like performing in recitals that truly terrified me. When I was younger, I wrote poetry. I’ve done some version of this for as long as I can remember, though often in a disorganized way on yellow pads, drawing pads, scraps, etc. Sometimes I give my entries a title, like “When Grandma Wasn’t Old,” thinking about how my youth was so different from that of my granddaughters. LL

Famous journal keepers

Leonardo da Vinci
Ben Franklin
Charles Darwin
Mark Twain
Frida Kahlo
David Sedaris
Courtney Love
Richard Branson

There are many different kinds and ways of journaling. To name a few:

Dreams • Gratitude
Artistic • Ideas
Goals/ Business Plans
Food • Travel • Books
Fitness/Health • Family/Baby
Bullet Journals
(To Track Plans And Progress)