For the last couple of years, I’ve been using my personal journal as a planner. I draw a grid with one box for each day of the week, and I fill it in with everything that’s going on for those seven days: Meetings, appointments, drinks with friends, tickets to shows, work trips, and all the things I believe I should do every day in the interest of having a well-maintained life like meditation, balancing my checkbook, exercise, and writing. After all, wasn’t it Annie Dillard who said that how you spend your days is how you spend your life?
This system has worked so well—not perfectly but well—that I started doing it in the separate notebook I keep for work. The whole process of making these lists has turned into a weekly ritual, a Sunday afternoon conversation with myself in which I say, “What do we need to do this week? What do we hope to achieve? Who do we want to be, and what does that look like?”
(Writing this blog post was on this week’s list).
This past Sunday, when I was making my grid and writing in the days of this week, I noticed something: Next Sunday is March 3. On that day, I will have been keeping a consistent journal for twenty-five years.
I kept a journal off and on before that—the earliest entries I still have are from the fall of 1991, when I was in the sixth grade—but in 1994, something changed, and I’ve never been without a journal since. I’ve gone for weeks or even months at a time without writing in it, sure, but it’s always somewhere near and accessible to me.
My earliest entries deal almost entirely with story ideas. I was in the eighth grade and addicted to fantasy fiction paperbacks. I was determined at that young age to become the next great author of trade paperbacks featuring wizards and balrogs and dragons. Though that dream never came to pass—thank God—it did lead me to befriend the owner of the bookshop on my walk home from school. Her name was June, and she always sold me paperbacks at a discount. She also had a nice collection of blank journals in her shop, and one day, allowance burning a hole in my wallet, I bought one so I could keep track of all the story ideas I was having.
Eventually, as I started to read better things, my mass-market paperback dreams gave way to better and grander ambitions, and the journal entries became more about my life at school. It’s appropriate that I once published a couple of them in a book called Cringe, because those old entries are teenaged and painful. Through high school and into college, my taste in notebooks ranged toward the fanciful: There was gold leaf, wild patterns, and whimsical covers, and I filled the pages inside with stamp markers and stickers and page after page of wondering what my life was all about and how I’d find out who I really was inside and what I could do in this world.
I still haven’t figured out the answers to any of those questions, but I’ve gotten much more comfortable with not knowing. And my journals have come along with me every step. My early college years saw me mostly speaking to God in my entries, wrestling through years of spiritual turmoil around being gay, around not connecting with much of what evangelical Christianity was putting before me, of listening close to sermons at church and trying to work them out in life. My journals traveled across Europe with me. One was a cheap notebook I bought at an airport bookstore. The next was an expensive hand-made leather journal I purchased in a little shop just off the Ponte Rialto in Venice.
As I came out, graduated college, experienced my first crushing heartbreak, and moved home for two years of disappointing dates, terrible jobs, and financial ruin around every corner, they evolved again. These days, with our every thought spewed on social media, I sometimes find myself struggling to keep up with all I have to say. Typing would be so much faster, but there’s something in the writing things down by hand that makes you consider whether a particular complaint is worth voicing, whether this hot take is actually meaningful and productive, whether you’re actually dealing with something hard or just hitching a ride on the struggle bus for a bit.
Twenty. Five. Years. It strikes me as so odd that a quarter century has gone by with me documenting this life. Nowadays, my notebooks are solid-color Leuchtturm notebooks like you see in any hipster stationery store, and I love them. My entries tend to be short-ish—most end when I reach the bottom of the page—though every few months, I hole up in my home office and go to town on a dozen or so pages as I work my way through some challenging season of life—of which the years 2015 to today have offered plenty.
I’ve never had a great habit of journaling that lasted. But I keep my notebook near at all times, because I know eventually, something’s going to come up either inside my heart or out, and I’ll know the only way to cut my way through it is on the page with a pen, writing something I know no one will ever see. It offers something akin to therapy: A place for me to be completely honest about how I feel without worrying about hurting someone’s feelings or burning bridges. It’s a place for me to be spiritual without being all noisy about it. It’s a place for me to have conversations with myself or the authors of or characters in a book I’m reading.
And every week, I sit down with it and look at my week. What would you like to do this week? What needs to happen? Who do you want to be, and what can you do every day to get there? Frequently, these planning sessions are bookended by writing entries asking myself exactly those questions. My journal is a mirror, a listening ear, and a bar napkin on which you sketch down an idea before it evaporates. It’s added more to my life than I could ever imagine measuring.
And these days, without me planning for it, all the entries end the same way:
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.