I was one of those kids who kept a journal before she learned to write. No joke, I used to scribble squiggly lines across the page and pretend it was real writing. There's a whole drawer in my desk at home cluttered with old journals from childhood and adolescence. (Mom, if you're reading this, please don't go looking for that drawer.) Inane crushes, tortured middle school heartbreak, temper tantrums — reading my old journals is a cringe-worthy journey through not only the events of my life, but also how I learned to handle them. When I was little, I journaled nearly every day: date in the corner, "Dear Diary" as the salutation, run-on sentences for miles. But as I got older, inevitably, I wrote less. Weeks, months, sometimes a whole year would pass between entries.
When I did write, the experience was as cathartic as ever; some pages I would almost destroy, writing angry words as big as I could and tracing them over and over to indent the pages with teenage fury. Others are still bumpy, the writing wavery from splotches where my tears fell on the page. I journaled for the same reason — release — but I did it less often. I started to feel guilty because of how little I wrote. I kept everything inside until I couldn't bear it anymore, at which point the stress and emotional turmoil would overcome the guilt until it all exploded on to the page.
What it became was a vicious cycle of self-care gone wrong. The more I shamed myself about not writing, the less I wanted to write, and the less I could deal with the things in my real life that I'd usually sort through on the page.
In high school, I changed my approach. I began to keep two separate notebooks: my traditional, neglected, daily-ish journal, and another notebook that was more of a random creative outlet, things I wanted to write or create that didn't "belong" in my regular journal. I wrote poems and random paragraphs about nothing, planned and started stories I never finished, sketched (terribly), and copied down quotes and poems that I liked. To 14-year-old me, the creative freedom was staggering. That random, secondary "whatever" notebook became the first place where I set myself loose, escaped rules, structure, and expectations, realized I could be and say anything and it was OK. I didn't write in it every day. I'm not even sure that I dated entries at the start. But with the pressure off, I wrote more frequently and had more fun with it than I had with the "daily" diary I had tried to maintain for so long.
Since then, I've lost count of the "whatever" journals I've filled up. The rules are that there are no rules. I can write every day or once a month. I copy down song lyrics in huge, flowing, faux-calligraphy script. I make collages and write paragraphs in the blank space around them. I've started and stopped stories, only to pick them up pages later right where I left off. I scribble down an occasional poem. Sometimes I just doodle.
I journaled for stress relief, self-examination, and contemplation, all beautiful and empowering forms of self-care. But if those were the goals I was going after, forcing myself to adhere to a rigid schedule, structure, or pattern didn't make sense. Writing about my day is relaxing, but so is sketching or writing a terrible poem and not judging myself for it. It's my journal and there are no rules. What I write and draw can be as terrible as I want and it doesn't matter; I turn the page and start over the next day, or the next week, or maybe a month later, without guilting myself for taking so long.
If you keep a journal, it should be whatever the heck you want it to be. You can date every neat, daily entry, begin with "dear Diary," write crisp paragraphs, and sign off at the end. You can make crazy collages and scribble your thoughts sideways across the lines or upside down. This is something you're doing 100-percent wholeheartedly for you, so whatever way you do it, whatever way feels best for you, is fine. It's perfect. That's what you should be doing.
The rules and expectations we put on every aspect of our lives, right down to our intimate thoughts and self-care rituals from journaling to meditation, can be comforting. They can be helpful and instructive. I think of them — stay with me here — like an inner tube pool floatie. They can keep you afloat, but they can also restrict you. And it can be a breathtaking relief to slip out from under them and realize that you can swim even better on your own.