I started keeping journals in third or fourth grade. They would be beautifully bound, cloth covers and roses, and I would treat them like the pristine, documents-for-posterity they were.

Because of that I never wrote much in them. Most contain a few pages tops. There are even corrections:

Dear Diary,

I have the biggest crush on Michael J. Fox.

Addendum, dated two years later:

Really I did not have a crush on him. I just thought I should have a crush on someone.

I never kept a successful journal until college, when my acting teacher required us to write a couple stream-of-consciousness pages each morning.

I have years of these ratty, spiral-bound notebooks. Mixed in with the daily writings are shopping lists, notes to self, drawings and diagrams, lesson plans, directions, lots of dreams. The act of writing was precious to me, but nothing I wrote was.

I just grabbed one at random and opened to February, 2004:

cabin girls thinking of little princesses piled on dirty splintered cots going on about clutching boys chaotic riot giggling power struggle over who tells who to strut it

I think it’s a memory of a seventh-grade church rafting trip. That memory might spark some writing now, but nobody has to look at this ever again. Not even me.

Those notebooks are full of whatever came to mind in the moment, no judgment, no other eyes, no purpose. And I don’t think I would be a writer now if I hadn’t started keeping them.

So here are my rules for keeping a successful journal:

1) A journal need not be pretty.

The uglier the better. It need not be covered with inspirational quotations or fit for the archives. It needs to be a comfortable size for you to write in, lines or no lines, whatever you prefer. That is all.

2) A journal should never be neat.

When I teach writing in elementary schools with Barrel of Monkeys, we give each student his or her own journal. And the first thing we make the kids do is open to a random page and mess it up. Scribble, slash, doodle, anything goes. Some kids just can’t bring themselves to do it. I used to be that kid.

3) It is always all right to have more than one journal at a time.

4) It is always all right to use one journal for more than one thing.

5) You are never required to read what you wrote in your journal.

You don’t even have to keep them, although I like to because they do spark memories and are full of random detritus that’s fun to sift through. But for me, if I put too much pressure on a journal’s usefulness, that usefulness quickly goes away.

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