Journaling By Hand

“To me, typing is like work. Writing with a pen is like playing.
And you can write on planes when they’re taking off and landing.”
– Neil Gaiman

Journals over the years in various forms of degrading handwriting.

Though I spend a lot of time on a computer writing in places like this site, my journaling has never moved away from a bound blank book and a pen.

There have always been writers who opposed new technologies. I know pretty big-time writers today who avoid email, computers, social media and having their own website. But all of those things are essential somewhere down the line even if you start with a pencil and a legal pad.

One of my favorite writers,  John Updike, said word processing made producing text “almost too easy.” In a letter to his editor at The New Yorker, Updike wrote, “I’ve bought a word processor and we’re slowly coming to an understanding. It’s quick as the devil, but has very little imagination, and no small talk.”

I’ve been down some parallel paths in past posts: writing by hand in general, my lousy typing, and the reported death of handwriting, but here I’m focusing on journaling.

I came across this book online –  The Yellow Wall-Paper Sanity Journal: What to Do In Your Own Four Walls
by Sara Barkat. It’s an illustrated journal (based on the earlier The Yellow Wall-Paper: A Graphic Novel.

All I need to journal is a blank book (sometimes lined, some years not) but if you need some inspiration and prompts, including some poetry prompts and instructions for several form poems like the villanelle, pantoum, catalog, and limerick.

I also read an article about the benefits of writing by hand. The benefits might be greatest for those of us who spend most days in front of a screen reading and writing.

Some of the benefits are surely for your brain and creativity, but your eyes will benefit from the rest.

Regions of the brain associated with learning were more active when subjects completed a task by hand instead of on a keyboard. As Updike noted, there are benefits to slowing down when you are writing and allowing some thinking along the way.

Writing by hand could promote “deep encoding” in a way that typing does not. I’ve read that before including a study that compared students who took notes by hand with those who took notes on laptops. Researchers found that the students using laptops tended to write down what the professor said word for word, while those who took notes by hand were more likely to listen to what was being said, analyzing it for important content and “processing information and reframing it in their own words.” When asked conceptual questions about the lecture, students who had taken notes by hand were better able to answer than those who had typed their notes.

So fast typing is a blessing and a curse. Maybe I’m prejudiced because I never learned to type. I am still a two-finger typist and although I am pretty fast, it’s pretty slow.

I moved about 25 years ago from writing my poetry on paper to composing directly to the computer. I changed my writing. The older poems always ended up being typed anyway and seeing them in a printed fashion helped me.  I also began to revise more because it was easier and neater to do. For a time, I saved multiple versions and drafts,. I don’t do that anymore. Too many pieces of paper and second thoughts about what I wrote.

While there will always be things you want to write quickly, there are others that can benefit from the time it takes to write them out by hand.

It would be daunting to try to type up my twelve volumes of journals. (I’ll leave that to some graduate students working for my biographer.) But I actually enjoy looking at my old journals – the changing handwriting, marginalia, occasional illustrations, bad teen years spelling and grammar, and the predictions that 99 out of 100 times turned out to be wrong. Ah, youthful optimism…

Okay, this post is finished. I ran Grammarly on it, revised and now I’ll click the schedule button and send it on its way. Then, I’ll make a cup of tea and take out my current journal and write about mid-December 2020.


I’m hearing a good number of people upon reflecting on all the extra free time they have while staying home during the pandemic. A few seem to be accomplishing a lot, but at least as many of them are a bit ashamedly saying that they are accomplishing less.

I’m still writing but I have come to realize that as the weeks crawl by that I am writing less. Let me amend that: I am writing less for the world.

I write on 9 different sites and I keep a calendar of those posts so that I remember to keep them updated and so that I don’t post too much on any one day. For most of 2019, I averaged 12 posts per week. At a glance, I can see that I have been decreasing that number for the past two months. But the writing that has increased is my personal writing in my journals.


“In the journal, I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” —Susan Sontag

I wrote here recently about things being solved by walking (solvitur ambulando)   and I guess I think of those journals as a way that things might be solved by writing (solvitur scriptures?).

I’m not alone in my journaling. I saw an article about people doing gratitude exercises in order to avoid negative thought spirals, anxiety and depression.

Gratitude journaling is one of those practices. Journals can be daily but just have to be regular enough to keep your focus. A gratitude journal focuses on the good in your life and is a record of the things you appreciate which is most difficult to write and most important to write on days when you can’t find the light.

I haven’t gone fully gratitude in my journaling. In fact, I started a new journal in January and by March I was using a section of it as a timeline of the pandemic.  My journals have always been a record to aid my memory. I record the joy and the pain, the big events and the small moments I’m afraid I will forget.

I’m rarely at a loss for something to write, but if you need inspiration there are people who offer that too.

I discovered that Suleika Jaouad had started a 100-day project called The Isolation Journals. She emails a daily prompt at 5 a.m. I always read them though I don’t always write based on them.

In the updates, Suleika lists some quotes about journaling and diaries.

“It is an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old school girl.” —Anne Frank

“The diary is an art form just as much as the novel or the play. The diary simply requires a greater canvas; it is a chronological tapestry which, in its ensemble, or at whatever point it is abandoned, reveals a form and language as exacting as other literary forms.” —Henry Miller

“The diary taught me that it is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately. I learned to choose the heightened moments because they are the moments of revelation.” —Anaïs Nin

I have decades of journals, but I have never kept a diary. I don’t record every day and a diary always seemed to me to be about more emotional things than what I write in my journals.

“If you read someone else’s diary, you get what you deserve.”  ― David Sedaris

The day 55 prompt was meta: “Write a journal entry about why you journal. Are there certain stories or forms you gravitate toward? People or places you prefer to leave out? Do you imagine anyone reading your entries? Do you notice a difference between journaling with prompts and without? As a private practice or one you share with others?”

My answers are complicated.

My regular journaling habit has not changed much in isolation, other than recording the news of the pandemic changes.


I have a garden journal to record my plantings, blooms, harvests, the seasons, first buds, frosts, pests, diseases, care, and cultivation tips. That journal is pandemic-free.

I have a travel journal with my trips and family vacations with dates, places, hotel rooms, restaurants, weather, attractions, and fellow travelers. This journal is sheltering at home. I had put post-it notes in it with some notes on two vacations we had booked for 2020 (France and St. John) that have been postponed until 2021.

I have kept several dream journals to record dreams that I actually remember upon waking. Reading that journal is very strange. I rarely recall even writing about the dream weeks later. It’s almost like someone else wrote down those dreams. I haven’t had any isolation or virus dreams that I have recalled, but I have heard that others (particularly children) have been having odd dreams.

I have a ledger book where I keep many lists: the best films I saw each year, book read, records of my sleep patterns, medications, herbs and vitamins I have tried, medical records, poetry submissions, and many other smaller pieces of my life. I have always been a listmaker.

“For any writer who wants to keep a journal, be alive to everything, not just to what you’re feeling, but also to your pets, to flowers, to what you’re reading.”  ― May Sarton

I have image journals that began as collages made of things that interested me. They covered periods of my life – college, work, marriage, parenthood – and in the past decade they have been recorded month to month. Pages contain photos, advertising, ticket stubs, newspaper headlines, patterns, scenes, maps and anything that reflects on the month.

I know that I record all of this to aid my own memory, but I have always known that part of me believes I am recording all of it for others. I don’t know who they will be or when they will read those words but I know they are listening when I write.

film collage
One of my collages of film stills from my undergraduate days shows what I was watching – including a French cinema course.

Journaling Is A Moveable Feast


I was trying to recall the details of something that happened to me almost 40 years ago, and my memory failed me. But I have kept journals since I was 16, which remember much better than I do. I say “journal” rather than “diary” because I never was able to do the daily entries. But I have been chronicling my life with entries that cover the past week or the past month (if I was busy with other things).

I was partially inspired by a diary my father kept while he was in the Navy in WWII (bottom left of the photo above) that recorded his travels and battles, including landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. My own first journal was written in a notebook my father had from when he worked for Bell Laboratories in New Jersey (top left in photo). I found it after he died. I was 15, and I wanted to fill those empty pages.

Journals and diaries have a rich history and some actually get published, either because the writer becomes famous or because no one else has written about that time or place.

I went through a period when I was in junior high of reading a lot of adventure books and some of those were really journals. Herman Melville had two early best-sellers with his first book, Typee , and a follow-up narrative, Omoo, about his time in Polynesia and sailing the South Seas. Another one was Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana. The story of his 1834 sea voyage was a big hit and at the time was one of the few books that described California.

One of my favorite journals that was published almost didn’t exist. One day in 1956 when Ernest Hemingway was having lunch at the Hôtel Ritz Paris with his friend A.E. Hotchner. The chairman of the hotel, Charles Ritz, told Hemingway that there was a trunk in the hotel storage room that he had left there in 1930.

Hemingway didn’t remember leaving it. But he did remember a trunk that he had lost in Paris at some point. When Hemingway opened it, he found clothing, menus, receipts, memos, hunting, fishing and skiing equipment, racing forms, letters – and most importantly, a series of notebooks and journals.

But this was 1956 Hemingway. He had won the Nobel and the Pulitzer prize. People knew who he was even if they had not been one of the hundreds of thousands of people who had bought and read his books. He was a celebrity author.

But he had been in a car crash in 1945 and smashed his knee, and in two successive plane crashes, had a bad concussion, a broken skull, cracked discs, burns, kidney and liver ruptures and a dislocated shoulder. Plus, he had the remnants of WWI injuries, bad insomnia, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, and was self-medicating with a lot of booze to deal with the pain.

Writing was not working for him. For someone who saw writing as what have his life meaning, no writing meant no meaning.

Hemingway had kept a detailed  journal when he lived in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, in the 1920s. He was a poor, young, struggling writer hanging out with other expat artists and writers. The writing he did in his notebooks is full of the people of that time and place – Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce and Ford Madox Ford.

“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”

Rediscovering those notebooks and rereading them must have been wonderful. I know the feeling. I sometimes – not too often – go back to my journals looking for something I can’t quite recall. But I always end up reading more.

When Hemingway was rereading his journals, it was a time when he found it difficult to write. The journals gave him a starting place. He worked from those notebooks for the next few years calling the project his “Paris book.” He started writing the book in Cuba in the autumn of 1957, and continued working at home in Ketchum, Idaho, in Spain and in Cuba. He made some final revisions in the fall of 1960 in Ketchum, but he was in a lot of pain and fighting a deep depression.

It would be the last book he would work on, but it wasn’t published while he was alive. His publisher wanted to call the book Paris Sketches, but his fourth wife and widow, Mary, didn’t like the title and asked Papa’s 1956 Paris lunch companion, Hotchner, to suggest something. Hotchner recalled that Ernest had said “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.” That became the book’s title.

In the revised 2009 edition of A Moveable Feast, Patrick Hemingway included his father’s “last piece of professional writing.” It was a forward to the book that had not been used. It’s sad. No wonder it wasn’t used in the original published version.

“This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if the one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.”

Early in the morning of  July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway took a shotgun from the rack in his home, loaded it, put the barrel in his mouth and committed suicide. A Moveable Feast was published three years later.