Suggestions for what to do about partially filled journals.
Above: This image has almost nothing to do with today's topic, except that I have decided to leave the rest of the page BLANK! My choice. Pentel Pocket Brush Pen Sketch with Stabilo Tones used wet, then dry. This is a page from my current journal which I made with Winsor and Newton 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper. The background was prepainted with Golden Fluid Acrylics, with portions masked off with masking tape. The fortune from a dinner cookie was also pre-applied before I reached this page and reads, "The star of riches will shine on you beginning next month." We have wild turkeys on my cycling route and I used notes, sketches, and some reference photos made on this fall's rides for this "thumbnail sketch" which will probably turn into a large acrylic painting.
I labeled this post "not quite a superstition" because I have written about working chronologically in your journals and leaving blanks in other "superstition" posts. But after I posted Journaling Superstitions #12—Art Papers Are Only for Painting, I received a number of notes from people who have lots of journals that are only partially filled. This post had hit a nerve as to why those journals weren't filled. In writing to these people it struck me I should say something to all the blog readers about this: It's OK to have a partially filled journal.
If you find that you have a ton of partially filled journals then now is the time to do a little analysis of what's going on. Are you stopping a journal simply because the paper doesn't do what you want it to do? Because you have too much activity in your life? Because you are too critical of your output ("That doesn't look like the bowl of fruit on the table")? In order to produce full journals you have to first discover an inkling as to why you have unfilled ones.
Do your analysis with honesty but with as little judgment as possible. For instance if you just had a major operation and can’t even sit up in bed it’s unlikely that you will be able to complete any pages. Then by the time you get back to your journal you might feel the need for a fresh start. That’s not something to feel negative about, just go on from that point.
If on the other hand you find that every time you get a hangnail you stop working in your journal, put it aside and then return to it weeks later deciding that, "no, I really do need a fresh start"—well then without being judgmental I need to tell you to look a little more closely at your actions. Something else is going on there. Journaling is not as important in your life as you like to claim it is, or hope it is or will be. Other things are always bumping it off of your to do list. I’ve talked about ways to cope with this in other posts and I’m sure I will write about it again. For now I just want you to look at why you have those unfinished journals—honestly assess the situation.
Once you have done that and the end result of your assessment is that you want to continue visual journaling (because maybe you'll find that journaling isn't really what you want to be doing and you would rather be quilting or playing tennis), I would suggest that you box up (or shelve in a back room) all those partially filled journals and put them out of your mind. Today is the point you’re starting from and you need to go on from there with the intent to finish the journals you start.
OK, that’s the extreme treatment, for people who have discovered there is something keeping them from keeping their journals. I don’t believe it does any good to dwell on the partially full journals. That’s why I’ve told you to put them away.
Let’s say you’ve discovered other reasons why you have partially filled journals. We all have partially filled journals.
Here are some reasons why I have partially filled journals:
1. My high school mentor died. After I wrote about him I wanted a new journal. (Obvious enough, personal choice.)
2. Dottie died. My project of drawing her every day came to an abrupt halt with more than two thirds of the final book unfilled. Nothing else was going to fill those pages. The book was finished. (Another obvious choice.)
3. I went on a trip and didn’t take my writing journal and when I returned I wanted a “fresh” start. (Another choice.)
4. Ten years ago I sent some current journals off to be photographed and included in a book on journaling. The publisher had the books for over 6 months. When they were returned to me the garden/nature journal didn’t make sense to continue because the seasons had changed drastically. I left it partially unfilled. Additionally, it was a push towards putting all my various visual journals into one volume. A happy event over all. (An event that was taken out of my hands, but which I then made a choice about how to frame in my life.)
See the pattern of choice emerging?
Here is a reason for filling a partially filled journal:
I started a journal for a nature group I belonged to but the group rarely got together as a group to sketch. All my nature sketches were in my main visual journal so I gave up working in this particular journal. A couple of months ago I pulled this journal out and started to work in it again, not as a nature journal (I’d long since left the group) but as a practice journal for working on tan paper with pencil and colored pencil. I’m doing studies from master drawings. It’s a great way to make sure this paper doesn’t go to waste. (And damn if this wasn't one of the finest books I've ever made with fantastic khaki bookcloth that is no longer available!)
Here is a reason for NOT filling the same journal:
If I had emotional baggage or a sense of defeat connected with this journal it would be better to just shelve it and walk away. I want to live in the present moment with the journal I’m working in NOW.
There’s an attitude shift that’s important for you to recognize. You could decide to fill all the partially filled journals you’ve ever started and instead of that being a worthwhile goal you could actually be setting yourself up for failure—for more non-filling!
Don’t set yourself up for failure.
If, in your analysis of why a journal went partially filled you discover it’s because you didn’t like the paper or the format of the journal, well then don’t go back to that journal. It has taught you what it can teach you. If you want to inflict pain on yourself go out into the yard, pick up a rock, and whack yourself on the head. (Don’t really do that I’m just using that as an example of how silly it is to work in a book you’ve already discovered is poison to you.)
Here are some reasons and ways to fill a partially filled journal:
It’s free paper. Burn through it as quickly as you can. Take the book to life drawing and do one- and two-minute warm up sketches and gobble up those pages. Fill the book with test swatches from your new paints. Try out new pens. Doodle while you are on hold with the doctor's office. Fill pages with thumbnail sketches for paintings. Fill the pages with speed sketches as I discussed in my series of French Bull Dog sketches starting with my post on December 6.
All of those are healthy responses to a partially filled book.
But if you bring something else to that book, like an attitude of “this time I’ll fill it,” or “this time I’ll only paint lovely images,” or “this time [fill in the blank for you own Achilles’ Heel]” then you are setting yourself up for disaster and that box and shelf idea is looking better and better.
The most important thing about keeping a visual journal is that it reflect and support your expressive needs. None of us needs to wallow in half-finished projects. We, all of us, need to focus on the present and what we are doing now. We learn from the past and we go forward with different choices—choices that are geared to make our journaling efforts effortless or at least fun.
So before you dig up all those old journals which have several signatures of blank pages do a little honest assessment of why they are there in the first place. If you can’t unemotionally go back and simply use the paper, then don’t even get those books out. Frankly you don’t need the anguish. The paper isn’t worth it (unless it’s the old Folio and then send the books to me and I’ll fill them!). You can always get more paper, but you may not be able to get more peace of mind easily.
Even if you have hundreds of unfinished journals filled with delicious art paper you are better off leaving them all in the closet and sitting down with yourself and asking: WHY?
Armed with that question’s honest answer and the information you gained about your working preferences (I don’t like pen on this paper, I only like smooth paper, I need a watercolor paper, etc.) go out and buy a couple sheets of the paper you need, fold and tear them into pages you can collate into one or two signatures and make a simple two-signature Japanese Pamphlet. Instructions for this structure can be found in many books, maybe even on the internet. If someone will remind me after the holidays (January 3 or later), I’ll dig up my worksheet on that structure and post it—just to get you going!
Armed with that small journal you can start to really work on your daily journal practice. You’ll be using paper you love. You’ll only have two signatures of it so if you don’t like the paper because it was new to you and recommended by a friend, you’ll still be able to get through that journal, fill those pages, and learn what it is about that paper you really don’t like so that when you return to the paper store you can tell the clerk and he can help you find a more suitable paper. Either way, you have just set yourself up for success. (Also a two-signature journal is easy to carry about with you—no excuse to leave it at home where it can't be used when you find that adorable dog or perfect building you want to sketch.)
After you finish the first two-signature journal you’ll make another journal with two signatures to fill. And so on. Either with new paper or the same paper. It depends on whether or not you think there is anything more to be learned right now by working on the first paper or if you have burning desire to work on another paper. (Actually I recommend you make that next journal when you still have at least two page spreads in your current journal!)
When you finish one of these journals put it on a shelf you’ve cleared specifically for your journals. And then the next one goes up beside it when you complete it. And so on.
After awhile you’ll make a thicker journal, or you’ll decide that the paper you really love is just like the paper in [insert name of commercially made journal that you love here] and you’re going to buy one of those and work in it. And then it will go on your shelf completed. Or you may decide to keep working with small two-signature books, except that when you finish four or six signatures you will learn to bind them all into one book. The possibilities are endless. But all of that is superfluous because what matters is you have those successes on that shelf.
And the next time you stop a journal before it is filled and put it up on the shelf you will realize you’re OK with the emptiness it represents because the emptiness is not a rebuke but a choice.
Now you’re living in the present moment.
There is nothing intrinsically bad with a partially filled journal. If the existence of such journals is upsetting to you then know you have choices in how to deal with this situation. Make a choice and move on. That's what journals are about. Finish a page and turn the page. Never think it isn't a choice.