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Keeping a journal

A Mini Workshop ~ Getting Started

What is a journal?

In the simplest sense, a journal is a record.
A journal can be:

•  a chronicle of your daily activities - factual, or
• ephemeral - thoughts, impressions, dreams
• descriptions of sights, sounds, tastes, and smells
• it can be just words, or
• images or 
• things - ticket stubs, restaurant napkins, bottle labels, stamps, feathers, leaves
• or a combination of all of the above.

There are no hard and fast rules. Rules choke you. Throw them out the window.

In this mini workshop I focus on the creativity - whether you are using traditional or electronic methods of recording. 

Choosing the Format: Paper or Electronic
Advantages of a paper journal:
  • portability, convenience, immediacy, reliability: jot in it whenever the mood strikes
  • romantic, historical
  • tactile, 3-dimensional; vehicle for saving objects
  • inexpensive
Disadvantages of a paper journal: 
  • length is finite or limited by nature
  • hard to reproduce or share or protect (back up)
  • secondary steps needed to combine images
Advantages of electronic journaling (self-contained on the computer, or on the internet, like this blog):
  • fast, good for words
  • theoretically infinite space
  • easy to combine with digital images
  • easy to add sounds and video - especially with new technology like FlipVideo
  • easy to back up and share
Disadvantages of electronic journaling:
  • not tactile
  • skills needed
  • expense (computer, software, hardware)

Tools for Journaling

Traditional Notebook Journal
Choose a journal with acid- and lignin-free paper. That will keep the pages from yellowing and the writing from fading, which will make your journal last even longer.
• Custom one (mine) - paper bought bulk, cut and drilled
• Commercial - Moleskine, Clairefontaine 
Make a little tool kit.  Watercolor pencils and "water brush" (a brush with a water reservoir - perfect for quick painting), pigments, glue sticks, double-tape, scissors, envelopes, Moleskine accordion file, good pens (I like Micron 02 permanent / archival black ink) as well as fountain pens and more creative ink.

Electronic Notebook Journal
Choose a product for recording your journal in your computer.
• Microsoft Word or Apple's Pages
• MacJournal and WindowsJournal by Mariner Software
• Notebook by
Notebook and Mariner products allow you to publish online but work offline.
In the case of online journals, you can buy a membership in one with many tools and design options or use more basic ones for free. Here are some of the free ones:
• myspace and facebook

With these sites, you have the option of making entries public, private, or friends only. The friends-only option is readable only to other people who subscribe to the site and have you listed as a friend or who have the password that you created to protect your entries. 
Just make certain that these companies do not try to 'steal' the rights to your work, that you own your material and are not giving away your ownership by 'agreeing' to their terms and conditions (Facebook famously tried to steal all rights to all words and images posted on their pages . . . )
  • Hybrid: you can create your work electronically and then use that media to publish a book. 
  • You can combine traditional journaling - objects, receipts, labels, etc. - and affix them into the printed book., Mac books (iPhoto) are examples of sites and services that do this.


There are two types of people - when confronted by a blank journal.
• is excited, sees open possibilities, and creative juices start flowing
• is stricken by the terror of the blank page

"Lower your standards." - William Stafford's cure for writer's block

Open that blank journal or open a new document and just begin.

But how?! Here is some advice.

First, Have a Routine
Chances are that if you are here, you yearn to be more creative in your life.
One of the best tips to focus on that is to make quiet time in your life. An hour in the morning with coffee or tea and sunrise and birdsong, writing in your journal. Or in the evening, a glass of wine and sunset.
I can’t stress enough how important that is. Even if you still are strangled or don’t know what to write - just open the pages, and record empirical things - weather, mileage, a list of wildlife or plants, names of places or people.
Use All Your Senses
If you’re really not sure how to begin recording your trip, think about what really matters to you.

  • Did the Muslim call to prayer you heard in Istanbul five times a day move you? Describe its sound.
  • Did you have an unforgettable meal in Bahia de los Angeles? Tell what you ate and describe the taste, texture, and smell of the food.
  • Each of us remembers or is moved by different things. For some of us it’s people - for others, animals. Ornament. Color. Light. Smells. Simply record them.
  • Even if all you record are the names of restaurants where you ate, the hotel where you stayed, or the people that you met, and any snippets of the language you picked up - it makes the accounts of your travel experiences much more complete.
  • Quotes - if you know a quote that makes you think of your destination, include that in your journal. If quotes seem beyond you, then record favorite local slang.
"Too many people delude themselves by thinking the mind is dangerous and must be left out. Well. The mind is dangerous and must be left in." - Robert Frost

"Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Art is a big mistake." - Allen Ginsberg

Suggested Writing Exercises

Sometimes exercise is good for you. Here are some good ones to try if writing is tough for you and you need to break free of the Terror.

30 minutes alone: 

Watch the behavior of an animal (bird, insect, squirrel...) or flowering plant or tree and write field-note style on everything you observe about that animal, without any interpretation. Fill the pages with as much "thick description" as possible. Alternatively, you could do this for a particular site, and describe the vegetation, topography, birdlife, etc., in as much detail as possible. (Knowing names of things are not so important as describing the details of what your senses take in.) 

Could repeat this with different animal or plant. If you choose an animal, note something specific about its behavior, such as, record what it pays attention to that you normally do not.

Walk and Record

Walk for a few minutes (e.g. 10) in a nearby natural setting andconsider how that place connects you with someone significant in your life.Write on that connection for 20 minutes without lifting your pen from the page.

From Joan Logghe, amended by me:

1. List favorite words you like the SOUND of, first ones that flash into
your mind. 2 minutes. Go.

2. For each of these nouns, invent a simili or metaphor (is like, is)
writing the FIRST thing that flashes into your mind (this should go
rapidly, 10-15 seconds per word). You can preface this by explaining that
this is the perfect opportunity for cliches to rear their ugly heads, but
when you write _immediately_ from the senses and from the inner self (or
shadow self), our words connect with energy and power. Metaphor works at
both an intuitive and a logical level. (Eg. the lake is a potato pancake
gone cold.)

the river current
a mesa
my mother
the sky
my father
the desert
the pond
a mosquito
wild horses

Other ideas:

1. Write about the geography of your childhood - OR map it out with a marker on a large sheet of newsprint. 20 minutes.

2. Begin with "one true thing" and write for 15 minutes - see where it takes
you. (e.g. I wrote pieces starting with "I had an old scarf I picked up in Kathmandu," and "My father wore iddy-waddies." This can be amended to something nature-related, such as "Cottonwoods turn yellow in autumn" or "I
am in love with ravens.")

3. Write about your "fierce attachment" to a place. 20 minutes.

4. Tell who you are through landscape. "I am warm red sandstone in evening light. I am raven croaks and aspen leaves spinning on the wind. My
past is all whitewater plunging into mountain pools. My father was the moon, my mother a marsh filled with birdsong..."


If you are like me, you take many pictures and collect a lot of memorabilia - artifacts. By the time you arrive home, remembering everything you did each day can be almost impossible and organizing a pile of collected memorabilia can be daunting. With a little tool kit and pre-prep, it’s actually not all that hard to do it, even on the road.


  • Journal that will stand up to ‘stuff’ - Clairfontaine, Artist Sketchbook. Prepare pages with Gesso - every other or every third (to stand up to glue, etc).
  • Moleskine accordion file
  • Glassine or other envelopes
  • Simple glue sticks, tape, scissors
  • Pens, a few colored pencils (Prismacolor) or watercolor kit (mini)
  • Tins (old Altoid tins are perfect)

What are some items you might use?
  • ticket stubs
  • plane boarding passes
  • menus
  • food labels
  • information from travel brochures
  • coins
  • paper money
  • feathers (but remember, technically it is illegal to posses animal parts if from rare / endangered animals)
  • small stones
  • packaging
  • soil - for color
  • berries - for color

Keep it simple & everything goes.

Create pockets out of small bags you received when buying souvenirs for holding things that you don't want to cut up or adhere to the journal.

Keep the album in your bag and pull it out when ever you have some down time.

If you are traveling with others, ask them about their most memorable parts of the day; it can help you remember thing that you had forgotten about.

Artistic tips:
  • Use colored tissue paper to create layers - Golden Gel Medium (soft/gloss) for the adhesive, and apply the gel with a sponge brush. While the page dries, place a piece of waxed paper over it.
  • You can also highlight work with different types of leafing... gold, copper, etc. Adhere it with gel medium, too. 
  • Don't get caught up in using the most/only perfect adhesive for the job; gel medium works well for almost anything. When it won't hold, use Household Goop.
  • Source:
  • Reference: Visual Chronicles: The No-Fear Guide to Creating Art Journals, Creative Manifestos and Altered Books (Paperback) by Linda Woods (Author), Karen Dinino (Author) 


What can your journal become?

Books. Articles. Personal satisfaction.

Our books, San Pedro River: a Discovery Guide, and the Southern Arizona Nature Almanac were both created largely from my daily nature and travel journals.

Final thoughts

Words are powerful. The moment an ephemeral thought or observation is captured and applied to physical existence, that thought or idea or fact takes on another dimension. 

It has weight, can be used, passed on, accessed. Most good essays begin with a journal or field book entry.

Another good reason to keep a journal is that, by paying attention to and recording life’s events around you, you tie yourself more firmly to place—be it your back yard or a whole mountain range.

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