The Journal: Vehicle to the Past or Future?

I started keeping a journal at about age 12-13. I began numbering them in college, retroactively assigning early journals negative numbers, so that time stretched backward and forward from the zero of freshman year. By now, they number in the 50s, the current journal being LIII (because journals should be counted in Roman numerals, of course.)

It can be sustained because it has no breath.
It can be sustained because it has no breath.

Growing up, my journals were a place for rants and rails against parents, teachers, and the brutalizing small town racism my childhood was steeped in, but they were also a place for poetry (both mine and Dylan Thomas’) and philosophical exploration. I hated it when people said, “Is that your diary?” My ambition was for my journals to be a literary endeavor in themselves. I wanted them to be like the letters of Vincent Van Gogh, filled with observations about life and art as well as personal fears and experiences, or the notebooks of Virginia Woolf or Fitzgerald, fields for exploration and the sowing of writing endeavors.

Early technical concerns
Early writing craft rants.

And much of the time, they are. When I read back, sometimes I am thrilled to follow the sweeping trains of thought I have had the leisure to indulge (and am equally embarrassed, of course, at the passages that are absolute nonsense.)

However, as life heats up, there are times when my journal entries dwindle to mere lists. Especially during times of heavy travel or adventure, a simple catalogue of the day’s experiences can be all I can muster, yet it’s enough to bring me the sense that I have captured the day.

The Record
The Record: adventurous

While traveling, I started calling this list-journaling “The Record,” and eventually, even once I returned to fixed locations and lengthier musings, I kept up “The Record” as a quick check-in to where I was in the world or the day.

The Record
The Record: mundane

But regardless of the level of detail, I have always viewed my journals as a place to record what was, be it the past or the present, a philosophical argument, or the errands I ran. Basically, a journal for me was a work of memory.

Enter the Bullet Journal, a system of planning and taking stock that’s both administrative and depictive. Designed by Ryder Carroll, it’s without question a planner more than a journal, but because it’s taken on an illustrative form for many, it embodies the quality of a journal through its presentational and documentary nature.

I came to know about this trend via an interview with Kara Benz by my beloved Goulet Pens, and I began to consider whether I should or could incorporate the future into my journals, which had almost without exception, been about the capturing the present as it became the past. After consuming an inordinate amount of videos on this topic, I came to the conclusion that I could view the Bullet Journal phenomenon as a natural expansion of The Record. It was possible that my journal could be not just reactive, but also proactive, and just over a month ago I decided to give some concepts from the Bullet Journal a try.

I have always enjoyed planning. I was lucky to attend Franklin Quest time management seminars (pre-Steven Covey-merger) when I had a corporate IT job, and I can still hear Hyram Smith proclaiming, “When your daily activities are in concert with your highest priorities, you have a credible claim to inner peace.” I maintained a Franklin Planner for a number of years, and I still use a slightly customized Franklin method for listing, checking off, and migrating tasks. I’ve made many a specialized spreadsheet and database for tracking various hobbies and projects, and worked through and absorbed techniques from The Habits of Highly Effective People and Getting Things Done, among other planning systems. Most recently I’ve collected a select handful of iOS apps which support my efforts. I’m not a strict adherent of any single method, nor do I rely on any single device, but I’ve come round to my own system, taking the best elements from all.

In my opinion, the Bullet Journal is basically a Franklin Planner without preprinted, dated pages (plus artwork, when moved!) Like the Franklin Planner, there are indexes, collections of material, daily task lists, all manner of customized charts and grids, and so forth. I had already “migrated,” to use a planner term, about 10 years ago to using the same techniques in plain notebooks rather than preformatted pages, but there were two things the Bullet Journalers do that I hadn’t tried:

  1. Put any future planning into my actual journal; and
  2. Make it visually presentational
The Record
The Record: taking over?

It was really a big leap for me to allow ANY of the planning process into my journal. I was already pushing back against the preponderance of The Record in my books, sandwiched between my pages of writing. For me, journal means narrative: long, flowing sentences that induce deep thought and evocative imagery, pages of uninterrupted handwriting, created by slow, incrementing fountain pen. One thing I knew I didn’t want was a bunch of To Do Lists in my journal, which would be even more impersonal and throwaway than “The Record.”

After looking through the various methods others created and used, I decided on three modest TRIAL changes:

  1. The Record would expand to include a timebar which functions as part of the planning process, The Record entries would fall below the corresponding timebar, and one week’s The Record would still be grouped together, with narrative pages falling between each week’s The Record;
  2. I would add the formerly homeless Weekly and Monthly Review into the journal; and
  3. My To Do book would now work in conjunction with The Record.

This way, I have preserved the primarily record-keeping nature of my journal, while improving my planning process and bringing it closer to my heart by associating it with the book that holds my thoughts and dreams. Basically, I’ve linked the action plan to the dreams, which is kind of neat and, really, if you think about it, kind of a nobrainer.

I’m about two years into the change and have not looked back.

Here is what The Record looks like since the change:

The Record: then and now
The Record: then and now


And the To Do book also has some additional functionality:

To Do: then and now
To Do: then and now

There have been some advancements in the planning process since this was written, and I will be detailing them in a future post.

In the mean time, here are some of the journals I’ve enjoyed, past and future:

Looking Backward

Here are some works of memory I have enjoyed:

Out in the World: Selected Letters of Jane Bowles – heavy on the writers’ angst, but nostalgic for a particular time and place in history.

Henry and June: From “A Journal of Love” -The Unexpurgated Diary of Anais Nin – literary AND erotic angst!

Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Diary – culled from the larger body of her diaries.

I’ve also enjoyed traditional geisha diaries and Edwardian England diaries.

Paul Bowles: Without Stopping – technically a memoir, but the line between journal and memoir is largely one of selection and presentation.

Dear Theo: the Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh – this work has come under fire for its liberal editing and embellishment, perhaps rendering it more a novel by Irving Stone rather than an accurate representation of Van Gogh’s letters, but it’s the volume that put a fire in me for letters.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh – the letters, more strictly rendered, and there’s a corresponding audiobook for listening in the car.

The Diary of Vaslav Nijinski – some serious darkness, but crazy fascinating.

The Crack Up – “‘Fitzgerald’s physical and spiritual exhaustion is described brilliantly,’ noted The New York Review of Books.” (credit: Amazon’s blurb) Fun times.

Looking Forward

Here are the basic Bullet Journal proponents through whom I’ve learned about this phenomenon. I’m going to be adding more resources here as I explore further.

An interview with Ryder Carroll, inventor of the Bullet Journal

Kara Benz: Boho Berry BlogBoho Berry YouTube Channel


Does your journal look to the past, the future, or both? Drop me a line in the comments.

3 Replies to “The Journal: Vehicle to the Past or Future?”

  1. Kiran! I’m also a journal writer. I currently (like the last 5years) can’t seem to make the pages mean anything other than me sounding empty of thought and confused, sometimes even numb to life. Or, like my sketchbook anxieties, whatever I write needs to be somewhat ground breaking, insightful, or really, really good. I like the idea of The Record… And the Bullet Journal sounds interesting. Thank you for sharing! I’m inspired!

    1. Hi JJ! I also have days/years when I can’t seem to write anything of meaning, which sometimes feel horribly frustrating when I used to wax poetic so easily. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a flowing narrative is ever going to come back, but I’ve discovered it does, even after a long time. I definitely think the things we think about shift as we go through life, and how we write about things, as well. I try to just be observational about it, like about weather (oh, the writing is like this today…), which is also how I used to teach my students to look at their yoga practice when they thought they had “bad” days. It’s just weather. Hmm…maybe a good blog post in here…

  2. I’ve kept a journal in various formats off and on for about 35 years. The last five years I have consistently written my daily three pages, brain dumping, recording, and story notes per _The_Artist’s_Way_ by Julia Cameron. Recently I’ve also become intrigued by the bullet journal. As I prepare to start a new notebook, I’ve been thinking about incorporating some of the BuJo ideas. Thanks for sharing how your journals have developed and your inspiration.

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