Paper Therapy

Journaling — a self-indulgent practice of divulging our innermost thoughts onto paper. I like to think of a journal itself as a paper therapist, a place to ink my thoughts with a locked-in contract of confidentiality so long as no one gets their nosy little digits on it. Now, journaling rivals writing-only journals of the past with people bullet journaling, crafting journal entry titles in calligraphy or spending countless hours doodling in the margins. For most people, journaling seems to be a come-and-go process — there are periods where their whole lives play out in the pages and times when the pages are in a coma, unaware of the events occurring around the writer.

I would love to say I was that kid who had stacks of journals chronicling my first bicycle ride to my first kiss, but that’s not the case. Journaling had a rocky and forced start for me, way back in 2006. My mom bought me a journal emblazoned with a glittering pink butterfly; she didn’t want my handwriting to “go to sh-t during the brain-melting Georgia summer,” as she put it to my eight-year-old self. I had to write at least a five-sentence entry daily. She wasn’t going to read just to see if it was done. Forcing me to write put a dryness in my pen. I’d scribble in some sentences on everything, from my grandparents visiting to the not-up-to-par Betty Crocker boxed mashed potatoes I had for dinner. I definitely didn’t have a way with my words, but all my entries had strong opinions crammed into five sentences. I had some meaty content, so my mom always encouraged me to write more, but because I loathed mandated journaling, I vowed to only write the bare minimum — even if my 12th place out of 13 kids in the local swim competition yearned for a sixth sentence. That forced summer journaling continued on for three more summers until I abandoned my not-so-beloved butterfly journal.

Since my butterfly journal days, I kept buying journals, letting them pile up on my bookshelf as “decoration” and waiting to find something worthy to write about. A saga of events during the winter of my junior year of high school caused me to pick up one of my blank journals. I recounted everything from the finger-numbing weather to my friend throwing up in the front seat of my car — I’ll spare you the details. Journaling became an obsession for me, but I could only find the time in the wee hours of the morning when I’d get carried away by my thoughts. I returned to my journaling days when I came to NYU, and my journal became a medium where I would psychoanalyze all the characters around me — from my neighbors to the man in the park. As of now, my journaling days have become stagnant, waiting for the next big spike of inspiration.  

Others, however, haven’t quite been as stagnant. Gallatin sophomore Sarah Lifson has been journaling since she was in fourth grade, contributing to a stack of 30 journals she has now. She started journaling when her family moved to West Virginia, throwing off her routine and depriving her of friends. Her journal became her friend during the transition.

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“I try to keep one journal at a time,” Lifson said. “It’s mostly writing but I’ll also put relevant scraps in it, like ticket stubs or a sticker. I used to write a bunch of poetry, and I was composing music for a hot second so some of my older journals have those kinds of things in them as well.”

Journaling everyday becomes a burden which deters people away from their pages. Lifson and Gallatin freshman Echo Chen experience similar bouts of intermittent journaling. But even with being busy college students, they find the time to journal.

“Over the summer, I just stopped journaling because nothing was really happening,” Lifson said. “I never made the conscious decision to stop. But I restarted this year even with my insane schedule so I usually journal in between classes, meetings and activities. I always try to have my journal with me in case something happens that I want to talk about.”

Chen also tried journaling during her early years but never really kept it up until four years ago when she vowed to journal daily.

“I’ve been consistently journaling since junior year of high school, and I have seven [completed] journals on my bookshelf now,” Chen said, flipping through her current journal. “I’m working on my eighth one right now. Before [junior year], I tried to journal, but I could never finish.”

Chen’s journal is the Instagram-perfect journal we all strive to achieve but get discouraged after the first sign of failure. Known to be artistically inclined, she artfully journals everything from to-do lists to sketches of park trash cans. She sticks to blank or dot-grid page journals to let her pen, pencil, brush pen or whatever is in her pencil case run across the pages.

“I set aside an hour everyday to draw, write and, essentially, create,” Chen said. “If I journal for an hour, it gets me to be productive to work for the rest of the night. I draw the titles in grey brush pen and they’re usually done in calligraphy. I can journal anywhere — in the park, in my room, wherever.”

Even though hundreds of thousands of Instagram pages show off people’s try-hard journal aesthetics. Chen said she’s an artist by nature, which comes off as “aesthetic” to other people. Pointing to her shark-whale flying over New York City drawing, Chen notes her journal at times being kind of bizarre and a mind-trip of sketches.

“I’m pretty tacky — I’m half tacky and half aesthetic,” Chen said. “It could be frills and whatnot for other people, but my journal is just me.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 6 print edition. Email Pamela Jew at [email protected]

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