Category Archives: Material culture

Selecting a book

Once you’ve resolved to give your journal a tangible material form—whether handwritten or on printed-out typed pages—the next step involves choosing a book to keep it in. This decision feels momentous, though your choice can always be revisited for the next volume. As Tristine Rainer puts it in The New Diary, “The structure and design of a book can influence what and how you write in it” (14).

Of course, you can choose any style of book. But journal-keeping experts offer a few points you may want to consider:

Pre-formatted diary, or empty notebook?

You can buy themed diaries of many sorts, already printed up with dates (calendar-style, line-a-day books or five-year diaries), commercial artwork decorating each page, or workbooks of guiding questions that offer prompts for what to write.

Does it makes sense to adopt someone else’s journal “system”?  Cathy Hutchison, who developed “Your Visual Journal,” says that systems like the Bullet Journal or Intensive Journal “are the result of someone else’s trial and error. They provide scaffolding for your thoughts, so that you don’t have to invent everything yourself. For sure, you can develop your own system. But using someone else’s as training wheels while you build journaling as a practice into your life can be a big win. Besides, most of the popular ones are popular with good reason. They work.”

Their structure can create a comforting routine, and push you to develop your thoughts in directions that you might choose to go, but especially over time, pre-formatted diaries may feel restrictive, limiting the range of what you’d like to explore. “Most dated diaries,” warns Ron Klug, author of How to Keep a Spiritual Journal, “even the largest, do not provide adequate space for a thorough journal” (27).

Blank or lined pages?

Many journal-keepers reach for a book with unlined pages, allowing for the open-endedness of smaller or larger lettering to match a mood, the chance to experiment with visual sketches or cartoons, or the freedom to write short passages that each head off in different directions—sideways, diagonal—across a page. A pre-ruled notebook may work against this flexibility of design.

On the other hand, if ruled pages evoke warm memories of childhood compositions, or dot-grid pages open creative possibilities, or quadrille blocks enable experimentation, choose any format that pleases you and makes you want to write.

Type of book: Loose-leaf binder?

Ron Klug notes that a loose-leaf binder offers good flexibility, allowing you to insert, temporarily remove, and rearrange the pages. Dividers can indicate different types of entries, so you can keep several journals in one (with sections labeled as your dream journal, to-do lists, monthly summaries, etc.). If your journal is a larger size, you can fold a few pages in half to bring along for writing entries away from home.

Drawbacks of a loose-leaf book, though, may include practical challenges to keeping the whole thing together, a lost sense of chronological flow, or the too-easy temptation to discard pages you might later wish you had kept. Tristine Rainer avoids the 3-ring binder as too reminiscent of school and homework; moreover, she cautions that this format might “influence the writer to become too concerned with filing, rearranging, rewriting, and even removing pages. Too many diaries are nipped in the bud by harsh self-criticism” (18).

Or scraps in a shoebox?

While it can enrich a journal to insert notes and mementos, most experts advise writers against a diary that consists entirely of miscellaneous scraps, even if assembled and stored together in a shoebox or folder. This casual approach may encourage spontaneity and the varied types of paper will add real-life texture, but once time has passed, reconstructing a chronology and restoring completeness to the record could prove impossible.

Or a hardbound volume?

An expensive blank book could generate the feeling that what’s written on its beautiful pages should somehow measure up in formality or quality. Committing your words to pages that can’t be removed or rearranged may feel intimidating. Klug observes that high-quality bound volumes, besides the financial outlay involved, “may be so elegant that they inhibit your writing. You may be afraid to ‘mess them up’ or you may be too concerned with conserving space to write freely” (27).

For other writers, though, the pleasure of a well-crafted volume may nurture their commitment.  Numerous journal guides recount the sensory experience of browsing through the selection of fancy stationers and binderies. Amanda Hobart, having received an elegant journal as a gift from her parents, describes on the CreateWriteNow blog how she developed a regular writing practice that helped her overcome severe anxiety: “I personally found that it made a huge difference that my journal was beautiful and expensive, I treated it with more care and placed a high importance on it.”

Cathy Hutchison, of “Your Visual Journal,” encourages writers to invest in a variety of books and tools, keeping options available for different moods and times: “You shift the story you tell yourself based on the look of the journal you work in daily. If your fingers are touching quality paper and binding, that’s a different message than catching your sweater on the frayed edge of a spiral.” She argues that the journal represents an investment in yourself and your ideas, concluding that people should allow themselves to splurge on journal supplies: “What’s the pricetag on feeling like a badass?”

. . . Or spiral-bound?

Other writers swear by the virtues of a spiral notebook, which keeps all the pages together and in order, but costs far less than a bound volume. “The 79-cent therapist” is Kathleen Adams’ nickname for her journal. In her book, Journal to the Self, Adams appreciates that “they’re inexpensive and come in a rainbow of cover colors and designs. I buy them by the dozen. You may keep the notebooks intact or tear out the pages to file in a 3-ring binder” (45).

A spiral binding conveniently lies flat and–at least for right-handed people, whose writing hand doesn’t bump against the spiral—allows writing up to the inner edge of the page, something that can be difficult with a stiff sewn or glued binding.

For those who don’t like lined pages, Adams acknowledges that it’s a little harder to find blank books in a spiral format. Also, the paper quality and durability may be cheaper than what you want, if you envision keeping your journals for a long time.

What’s the ideal size?

“Smaller notebooks can be tossed in a tote bag or briefcase; larger ones are bulky to carry around,” notes Kathleen Adams. Consider whether you plan to keep your journal on the go. Christina Baldwin says, “My journal goes with me nearly everywhere. . . When I’m driving around town, it’s on the car seat beside me, waiting for a few minutes when I can catch up with my thoughts. When I fly, it’s tucked in the seat belt next to me, waiting for the tray table to be pulled down.” (Life’s Companion, 11). If you plan to carry it around and write with others present, Stephanie Dowrick mentions that you may want to look for a book whose unobtrusive appearance “won’t attract others’ curiosity” (Creative Journal Writing, 55).

Ron Klug prefers a larger book: “I don’t generally carry my journal around unless I’m on a vacation or a trip” (28). If you write mostly at home, a large page may appeal, as it offers a wider canvas on which to compose. But Klug doesn’t turn off the journal-writing even when the book itself is not at hand: “If I have some idea or quotation I want to capture while I’m away from home, I jot it on some scrap of paper and later transfer it into my journal” (28).

Looking over past journals, Stephanie Dowrick sees that “most of my journals have inserted pages that I have scribbled when I have had some spare moments, old envelopes with notes, postcards, tickets, and other very precious memorabilia placed between pages. If I have a ‘journal-writing moment’ when I am far from my journal, I certainly don’t want to waste it” (57).


Above all, when selecting your journal make it a priority to choose a book that appeals to your senses and encourages you to write. Looking at the book’s cover design, the texture of the paper, and your writing instruments should lift your spirits and put you into a writing mood. “When I pick it up and feel it in my hands,” says Tristine Rainer of her journal, “I immediately feel anchored, centered, at home” (18).

Some journal-keepers decorate a plain book to individualize it, perhaps selecting a picture or photograph to place on the front cover. Fold-out pages can be inserted, or the book’s inside covers can be personalized with stickers or inked designs. Christina Baldwin, in One to One, encourages journal-keepers to “create a form uniquely our own. Beginning a journal or starting a new volume is an excuse to indulge yourself a little . . . This is not about getting fancy or expensive; it’s about creating a pleasurable link to the object you’re writing in” (30).


Material diary

While the book called a diary is built out of words and ideas, we also encounter it as a physical artifact. A diary contains multiple meanings, says Philip LeJeune in his book On Diary: “It signifies by virtue of its paper, its ink, its spelling, and its script, and many other aspects” (47).

Those who study human societies, past or present, sometimes divide their objects of study into examples of material culture and non-material culture. To study material culture involves examining physical objects and places—like tools, clothing, food, and architecture—to understand how people interacted with things and how they shaped the spaces around them. Figuring out how they handled material possessions can clarify and at times complicate the picture of the non-material culture (concepts, imagery, values, beliefs) by which that group of humans lived and behaved.

The material qualities of a diary—what it’s made from, the type of binding, texture of paper, color of ink, margins, page numbering, placement of headings, presence of a title page, the writer’s penmanship, added annotations, preserved mementos tucked or affixed inside—all contribute to the diary’s total meaning. Some clues are intentionally inserted, while others reveal things about the writer’s status that we might not know from their words alone. For example, even a reader primarily concerned with the words may observe how size and evenness of the hand-lettering unconsciously alters when the writer feels intense emotion or fatigue.

Part of the freedom associated with keeping a diary resides in the impulsive choices, some textual, some material, that its writer can make. As Tristine Rainer offers in her book The New Diary, “At any time you can change your point of view, your style, your book, the pen you write with, the direction you write on the pages, the language in which you write, the subjects you include, or the audience you write to . . . You can paste in photographs, paper clippings, cancelled checks, letters, quotes, drawings, doodles, dried flowers, business cards, or labels. You can write on lined paper or blank paper, violet paper or yellow, expensive bond or newsprint. It’s your book, yours alone” (28-29).

Anaīs Nin reveals that “all of my diary volumes have enclosures: loose pages written unexpectedly on the run and later inserted into the diary, and occasionally a photograph, a letter from a friend, a newspaper clipping, a recipe from that time” (cited in Marlene Schiwy’s A Voice of her Own, 56).

While diary enclosures can revive memories for the writer coming upon them years later, their tactile nature also has power to connect the writer with other readers in an unexpectedly intimate way. Anna Jackson describes how in her research on Katherine Mansfield, “I was particularly affected by the preserved kowhai flower I came across between two pages in a notebook. After all this time, there it still was, still yellow, still between the same two pages Mansfield had placed it between all those years ago. A piece of the world she wrote about was right there as a piece of the world still, not a piece of writing. This is the diary as capacious hold-all in a surprisingly literal sense” (Diary Poetics, 17).

If you have a chance to read an unpublished diary, look carefully for these extra clues. Consider, too, what someone could tell about you from how your diary presents its material self. Does the physical body of the diary speak nonverbally? When read with care, a diary will convey more than its words can say.


127 diaries

Beginning on a sixteenth birthday, the books of many colors, shapes and sizes accumulate for over three and a half decades. While the set of books may have a few, always telling, gaps—the last semester of high school and first semester of college have no entries, nor does the whole first year of a particularly grueling professional term—for the most part, the diary steadily tracks a life from teenage years across the full arc of family and career.

Its handwriting starts out with squarish loopy cursive letters, then shifts at age 18 to compact, legible printing reminiscent of laboratory notebooks. At times the color of ink is coded to the writer’s state of mind—dark blue for a creative mood, green to explore a change, red for heightened alert, brown for domestic routines—and at times the facing page fills with related notes, quotations, dream accounts, or taped-in mementos.

Many of the books reserve a blank page at the beginning, as if anticipating the addition of a title page. Blank pages appear at the end of many volumes too, giving the impression of a writer who wants to preserve space for additional writing—as if she might find herself locked up somewhere with nothing but these journals, needing to continue to write.

When I dip into the journals, I experience vivid fragments of “what it felt like to be me,” as Joan Didion puts it in her brilliant essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” But I have never sat down and read them all from beginning to the present—a project that could take weeks, or even longer. When a volume ends, I put it on the shelf. But some part of me has always planned to return. Why else keep them? Will someone want to read them in the future? Someone other than the older self of the diarist?

Of all the vast array of books on how to keep a diary, few consider what eventually happens to all those completed volumes. Alexandra Johnson wrote Keeping A Trace, which offers advice for looking back through one’s diary to identify running motifs, patterns, and story arcs that the writer couldn’t yet have perceived at the time of writing. She discusses the diary as a source of insight and material for other writing projects.

Diaries even play a role in history. Historians’ work relies on letters and diaries, not just to record big events, but to reconstruct daily life among ordinary people. Working with 19th-century diaries in a library archive, deciphering their tiny, spiky script to find out what the diarists thought and felt, I sometimes wonder if I’ll bequeath my diaries to an archive, to serve as a record of everyday experience and observations from the late 20th century and beyond.

What to do with 127 volumes of a diary? Currently, the three long rows of variegated books fill the shelves in an upstairs bedroom closet. As the hand-printed lettering—all in blue ink, this latest time—spirals into the last pages of Volume 125, I have the next two blank books standing by, ready to fill. A lifelong habit of diary-keeping ripens into a Journals Project. I have preliminary ideas about what this project may involve, and I’ll write about them in future posts. The first stage involves reflecting and exploring possible directions. Just like the open-ended process of keeping a diary.