Maybe you kept a diary when you were a kid, but moved on and haven’t looked back. Maybe you currently keep copious notes on your activities, thoughts, and feelings. Maybe there’s a place in your heart for both the nostalgia of diary keeping and the creative forward-facing action of keeping a journal today. These two ideas are not in conflict. We keep journals not only to remember but to grow.
Toni Thayer is a writer and teacher in secondary, university, and community settings. Her plays have been produced in Chicago and New York, and locally at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, Dobama’s Night Kitchen Theater, and through the education department at Great Lakes Theater. She has received Awards for Individual Excellence from the Ohio Arts Council. Additionally, she has taught English/Creative Writing at Hathaway Brown and journal keeping or journaling courses for Literary Cleveland.
The most important thing Thayer wants anyone interested in keeping a journal to know is that there is no wrong way or right way to do this. “There are all kinds of ways books are used from an intensely personal diary to keeping to-do lists or lab notes. Part of the experience is experimentation,” she says. “It’s what an individual wants and enjoys with it. The experimentation is a valuable thing.”
She promotes the idea that regardless of the field we’re in, or what our daily activities might be, we all use different methods to turn our thinking in different ways. “As a writing teacher and writer, people talk about keeping a writer’s notebook. I always assigned my students to keep a writer’s notebook as a place to write down ideas and practice different aspects of writing. Things might go into a draft. It was very one-dimensional. Some students responded to that. But not all,” she says.
“As a teacher, it felt like busy work, so I thought a lot about what we wanted to get out of that experience as writers.” She came up with a method that she calls the DaVinci Notebook. “Instead of the assignment just being an open-ended ‘write in your journal,’ this was a deliberate multi-modal and multi-interest approach. I wanted the students to write about foods or colors or fashion or cars or anything that interested them.”
Thayer named the technique after Leonardo DaVinci’s famous, somewhat jumbled notebooks.“He was the definition of a Renaissance Man,” Thayer states. “He was interested in art and science, optics, physics, and how the world works. His art is part of the break from classical learning; it’s both representational and observational. He took science from a rote perspective to science and art created through observation. He was multi-disciplinary, experimental, and curious.”
She comments that his notebooks may appear chaotic to some with notes about plants next to anatomy sketches, facing a page with mechanical drawings. “But look how notebooks are used. Artists use them in their own way, scientists have lab books and observation books. There’s a history of logbooks from sailing ships about weather, or conditions of the water used throughout time. A designer may have a list of a hundred ideas for a new dress or an interior designer may have a concept book. Lists are used in all kinds of ways. Lists are very generative. They open up new possibilities.”
Back to her students, Thayer says she was inspired to encourage them to use their journals observationally. Take it and record things in a time and place through all five senses, as an example. She encourages them to draw in their journal, even if they’re not artistic. “I wanted them to draw, to paste in pictures, and make their journal as varied as they can at least for the first time keeping a journal to find what’s interesting and inspiring to them.” She also encouraged her students to come up with prompts for each other.
“For writers, artists, or anyone, really, a journal is a way to experiment and play and open your mind to new possibilities and ideas and broaden how they think about their experience of the world” Thayer states. “A journal gives us the freedom to keep something in the most beneficial, fun, generative, and interesting way, and we don’t know that way until we take the time to experiment.”
She describes how her seniors at HB sometimes loved creating the journal, sometimes hated it, some completed the task dutifully, but her DaVinci method was a big hit. “My students had so much fun with it that year. We would share our notebooks in class and those were very celebratory days. Students were much more engaged once we flipped the class that way.”
With her success, she has taught her journaling course twice so far for Literary Cleveland. “A couple people wandered away,” she acknowledges, “but for these adult writing students this method expanded their sense of their own creativity and possibility, and their ability to make connections between ideas and inspirations.”
How to get started
Thayer has tips on getting started with a journal and cautions that this is a personal exercise. “This is not about producing something for other people to see and judge. This is time between yourself and the page,” she says. “Everyone is creative – that’s one of my central tenets as a teacher.”
She recommends using a special notebook or pen if that’s what inspires you. Even a scrap of paper can be a start if you plan on pasting it into a book later. She says to set a timer for five minutes to begin with and write whatever comes into your mind. If there are no words, doodle on the page. Continue on without judgment or editing until the timer goes off. Then gradually increase the time of your writing session.
One easy way to start is by making a list. For a gardener, for example, start writing down your favorite flowers. A list may lead to a memory, such as grandmother’s peonies. Use that as a prompt for the next session.
“Seeing what comes out of your head during a free writing session, the more you’ll find threads – maybe your childhood, maybe your kid’s childhood. Journal about workplace problems. This is a place to sort through your thoughts and experiences. You can give yourself a topic, say ninth grade, and just write whatever comes out,” Thayer says.
Another way to go about this is to record observations. “Write in the morning,” she instructs. “Start observing what things look like outside the window. Start noticing things, the season changing, the bird in your yard every day. Cast your eye around your house. Write what you see but use all five senses. Write about what the lawn or a rock smells like or might taste like.”
A different method is to write in sensory mode, present tense, or through memory. At the end of the day jot down something you remember in each of your five senses. Thayer confesses her preference when making a journal is to write in longhand using a special notebook. “But people are free to use what they like. I had a student whose creative space was PowerPoint, using images, words, and music. That’s how they assembled their journal entry, and who am I to tell them that’s the wrong way to do it?” She also recalls a student who wrote poetry using their phone while on the treadmill. “There really are no rules,” she adds. “Create an entry while you’re waiting to pick up your kid.”
She is a big advocate of experimenting with your medium. She encourages people who are most comfortable using lined paper to try using scraps or unlined paper or turn the notebook in a different direction.
And all of this because why? “We do this to know ourselves better,” Thayer states. “To engage in our life and our world more deeply and to know our own mind – to see how our mind works on paper. We do this to expand how we see things and think and tap into our creative and associative power. It’s fun in a journal but it’s also something you take with you into the rest of your life. You’ll get to the point where when you see something, you’ll say ‘I can’t wait to put this in my notebook.’ You’ll want to keep the experience of that and ultimately become aware of things more keenly.”
Toni Thayer currently writes, instructs, and works at Loganberry Books, which carries journals and inspiring writing instruments, as most local bookstores do.