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In Context: Everything Included on a Journal Page—How Do I Find It?

June 10, 2022

In my last two posts I wrote about just getting stuff down on the page.

There’s one drawback to this approach if you have a noisy internal critic who likes to interrupt you and tell you what a mess of things you’re making.

If you have 10 things on a page, many of which might not relate to each other, how do you ever locate something if you need to?

Everyone who writes and draws in a journal and doesn’t care about ever looking back for sketches to make into a painting, or observational notes to put into a piece of finished writing can stop reading this post right here. You journal for a different purpose than I do. Your purpose is valid, just keep going with your current method that works for you.

But if you like to locate things again, and you have a pesky internal critic, chances are he’ll tell you that you’ll never find the important bits on your pages…

Here’s a little clue from my past. When I was younger and had no budget to buy quality sketchbooks, or supplies to make them, I used what I could get and adapted. Before I went into publishing my design sense was pretty much ruled by all the thousands of books I’d read over the years. I understood that I could bring order to pages, and the content, by creating boxes and columns just like my favorite magazines had. I also knew that how I did this would give things varying degrees of importance and impact. And so a life of playing with pages began.

Of course when I started to work as a designer in publishing I started to pay even more attention to the various guidelines and rules of design—often just to break them. It is after all my journal and I can do what I want to do in it. (Say that to yourself right now!)

I believe it’s more important for me and my happiness that I write down things I overhear (“Aggressive Ambivalence” on this page) than to not write it down when I hear it. When will I remember it later if I don’t write it down?

And if it matters to me who said it, and in which context, but I don’t want to have all that information on my page because I’m about to start a large sketch—well then I simply turn to the back of the book where I have 3 to 4 pages of notes in each of my journals. Two columns to the page, and very small writing. There I put a date and any other needed identifiers. Then I return to my page.

Do I note everything down? Do I sometimes omit something that later I wish I’d focused on? OF COURSE. I’m human. But as I practice this approach, my hits are much higher than my misses. And I’ve learned an important lesson about letting go.

I would rather have a full, if somewhat imperfect record, than no record. That’s just one part of what “letting go of perfect” looks like. And it keeps your productivity going. (“Letting go of perfect” is something one of my mentors used to say, and something I always talk to my students about.)

In Monday’s post I wrote about how I don’t mind if things go together. That applies here.

At some point I’d written the phrase I wanted to remember. Later in the afternoon I rewatched an episode of “Sharpe” and did a quick sketch because I wanted to work with brush pen and ink wash before the end of the day. I worked on the recto page because I wanted to be sure to get both ears in. I put wash on the background because it seemed to call for it. That left me with a “column” of space on the verso page. And so I thought about my day, my walk, and the neighborhood, and my own unusual neighborhood (of mostly college students who are basically not neighbors).

Do I care that any of this has nothing to do with Sean Bean? Nope.

It’s just important that I get things down on the page.

Sure I have tons of pages where everything is related and all of a part, like my MN State Fair journals. But having pages with random items doesn’t bother me in the least because I grew up doing this. The only difference is that I now have more design tools to use if I choose to do so. 

And my “secret weapon” for retrieving things from my journal—because I am one of those people who wants upon occasion to find all I’ve ever written about our postal carriers and find not only all the sketches I ever made of the taxidermy at the Bell Museum if I need to do a quick sketch of an animal, but also I am a person who wants to find all the sketches I’ve ever made of Sean Bean in my journals—is I index my journals.

You can read about how I index my journals here.

Even before the age of computers and word processing and simple indexing I would index my journals with a handwritten list at the end. 

Again, another way to retrieve all the information passing through my filter.

It is a powerful thing to be able to retrieve things. 

If you aren’t making pages overflowing with everything you notice because you’re worried you might want to retrieve it and can’t, you can always set up a simple indexing system.

That’s something you can point out to your internal critic if he says you’ll never be able to find that found dialog you overheard on September 2, 1996 when the man in the hallway of the restaurant was screaming into the wall phone while three people were waiting to use the phone, and you sat and drew it all out of the corner of your eye without looking at him…back when you had ninja vision…

Things like that, you never know.

Here’s the Point

Your internal critic will try to convince you that you can’t do something because it will lead to another dead end or inability to do something else.

Don’t let anyone tell you how to set up and fill your pages. By all means learn the rules and conventions of page design if that matters to you, but break those rules whenever you want. And write down anything of interest if it matters to you and how you want to create your pages.

If retrieval is important to you I guarantee you’ll discover a way to make that happen. A way that works for you. Because that’s what creative people do.

And then, because I’ve been at it for a long time, I’ll just add that there have been huge disruptions in my life in the past 5 years. And one was the disruption and corruption of my journal index.

Things happen in life we can’t control. Will I get the index back? Most of it yes. Does it matter that it isn’t complete?

Yes it matters. But it isn’t the defining characteristic of the indexing.

The index has served its purpose.

And if you start indexing (doing it in a healthy way which doesn’t add hours to your work load—mine literally takes 30 minutes or less a month), I hope you don’t have any of the disruptive events that cause the system to not be complete.

But what you need to know is that it isn’t going to matter. Not really. If indexing helped you get on the page what you wanted on the page then it served its purpose.

Its real purpose was all the stuff you spilled out of your brain onto your page. Productivity and practice. The rest doesn’t matter.

Indexing is convenient (especially if you teach and are looking for specific examples to share with students) but it doesn’t matter.

What matters is the result the indexing had. Throughout my life I didn’t let organization be the focus. I dealt with organization reasonably and sidelined it so that I could do my creative work.

Don’t let the voice of your internal critic or some random bystander, or your soulmate tell you something can’t be done in a certain way.

You get to decide how things get done as long as you aren’t harming yourself and/or others.

Tell your internal critic to shut up. Then you keep journaling.

If your soulmate tries to interrupt that, well, I suggest that person is an imposter because your real soulmate would listen and if necessary help you devise a system to do what you need to do.

Listen to yourself. Get on the page what you need on the page. The journal is in reference to you and no one else. 

Do your creative work. 

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