On Paper Journals and How to Use Them

One thing I always look forward to doing as far as “back-to-school” shopping goes (gosh, I feel old just saying that) is buying new journals.

For academic course journals, I’m a fan of the trusty old Composition Book. I love the contrast of the dark binding with the busy rorschach-esque splatter pattern. Like a nice proper note jotter with a crazy side. Nowadays, these journals can be found in many colors besides black and white. This is mainly a plus because I happen to have a strange, synesthetic color-coded system when it comes to class notebooks. Here’s what it is: when I get my class list for the semester and I read each course title, a color immediately appears in my brain and gets paired with specific said title. So for example, this semester at VCFA, I am taking:

  • Modules (made up of several 3-week intensive cross-genre workshops and seminars, built around common themes, and taught by various faculty members)
  • Forms (exploring various written work and films critically and creatively, as well as participating in in-class writing exercises)
  • Publishing & Fieldwork (Gaining professional experience editing literary mags, interviewing writers, editors, agents, and investigating publishing endeavors and arts-related careers)
  • Professional Development (Airtime for practical literary matters, formatted as Q&A, generative & practice-based exercises, and discussion about professional trajectories)

Naturally in my head, the color-coding ended up like this:

  • Modules: blue and yellow
  • Forms: green
  • Publishing: red
  • PD: traditional black and white

So now, I have five lovely new journals for the semester—my own mini writing rainbow. And with no doubt, they will fill up with ink pretty darn quick.

Now on the other hand, non-academic journals are a different story. I love blank books. At bookstores, I enjoy a good paw-through of the section with diaries and sketchbooks and planners. I love the crispness of blank white pages and the texture of the unwrinkled cover and the bound book spines you have to crack open. In fact, I have a collection of them, buried somewhere under my bed, all acquired over several years. Some I have bought myself and others have been given to me.

Several (as in most) of these books are still blank.

Why is this? I think it’s that there are too many possibilities of what to put on that first page. I not only worry that my handwriting isn’t good enough or that I’ll use the wrong kind of pen, I tend to think about the purpose of the journal. Instead of taking it page by page, I think of the journal as a whole. As a kind of self-contained novel in itself.This might come from a sense of nostalgia for the types of journals Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf would have kept. These books of theirs have become artifacts of their lives. That sort of significance weighing on one’s private diary is enough intimidation on its own.

The thing is, I actually really love writing by hand. I find typing easier, but I love the act of putting ink to paper. I like not having to follow lines, which is why I prefer unlined journals to lined ones. I tend to write in blocks, add arrows and marginal doodles, and practice unique hand-drawn fonts. In a way, my written journals isn’t necessarily about the substance; instead it’s more about the aesthetic of the page.

Blogging seems easier to me, but perhaps it is just a different writing creature of its own. Serving a unique purpose that paper can’t provide for me. Maybe it’s easier because websites are developed without any lines. Maybe because there is an innate ability to work “undercover” from behind the screen. One can erase a word and retry a thousand times and no one would know the better. Hell, you could even delete an entire blog post if you so desired. Any post can be the last post. Each post is separate and yet still connected by a thin digital thread.

And yet, I’m still drawn to the paper journal. Because I love to feel their weight in my hands. Because they are a type of documentation with a lifetime guarantee stamp of permanence. Because it’s hard to color-code a class title by blog posts.


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