Every professor I’ve ever had who had anything to do with writing has always instructed me to keep a journal:
Write everything down.
Write at least five hundred words a day.
So I did, and do, and plan to keep doing so, but it took me a long time to figure out how to journal for myself and not for an audience or a professor. I initially thought that my journals could only serve a singular purpose, devoted to a specific topic or event. This lead to a lot of frustration and abandoned journals as I tried to fence my writing in to a specific genre in a specific journal.
Everyone has their own opinion on how to make your writing better, how to improve your prose output, how to help you plan for the best writing possible to exit your brain and land on the paper. Those suggestions might work when it comes time to take your thoughts and ideas out of the journal, but your journal should be grounds for free range writing, no limitations, no sectioned off genres.
I think it’s pretty unfair to hold yourself to such high expectations as a writer for your own journal. A journal is where you can screw around, figure out what you like and want, what works for you, or even just work on your hand writing. It’s your own personal writing pasture where no one but you is allowed to come in to change the terrain.
I still have three working journals, but I’ve accepted the fact that these aren’t going to be read by an eager audience, that I most likely won’t be writing a complete masterful work in one (although pieces of my masterpiece are bound to be floating among some of the pages… one can hope), and that I definitely don’t have to conform them to any kind of rubric if I don’t want to.
Your journal can be anything- lists, magazine and newspaper clippings, your tax return, page numbers from books, half-assed poems and crappy prose, outlines, shadows… anything at all. No one is judging your journal and neither should you. The journal, sacred as it is to any writer, is a one-seater car- there’s no room for anyone else to be perched on your shoulder, dictating your work. As much as I don’t want this article to sound like a professor lecturing at you (because I’m not one, and I’m not trying to), the only way I’ve been able to get comfortable writing in my own journal is to just straight up ignore most of the syllabus and rubric journaling guidelines I’ve had to adhere to for the past ten years. My journals now contain a multitude of subjects and projects and pieces. Most of them are small bound books, usually black, and portable.
While my journaling is no longer a source of anxiety for me (where do I write this? I can’t put it in this journal. The other journal is full…) causing me to lose track of or even forget the sparks of creativity that flashed into my brain moments or days before, it does help me to keep better track of my ideas and to improve my writing. Even if my lists of words that all start with the same letter, or about things I hate, or goals, or my accounts of events and dreams amount to no passage of significance in my future work, at least I’ll have something to look back on, not regretfully, and learn from or be inspired by.