A story about journaling

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April 14, 2016

Given the apparently vast interest in journaling, bullet journaling, pens, fountain pens, ink and various aspects of the disappearing art and skill of chirography, I decided that there might be an audience for my thoughts on these powerful matters. So, here is my story of journaling, with plenty of references to the tools and gizmos I have adopted, created, used, settled-on, and come to over the years. Reader beware: if these subjects are not intrinsically interesting to you, reading this may have permanent negative side effects.

The planner days

As all young business guys, back in the day, I carried a planner book. It wasn`t quite so much about journaling, but time management in particular, no matter how interesting it was to look back at old calendars. We kept lists of todos and appointments because there was, apparently, no other way. I tried a lot of systems, from the cheapest agendas, to the various sizes and types of Quo Vadis planners, to the Harvard Planner system, which I settled on for several years. [Here's] what Hardvard Planners look like. Lots of columns and check boxes to avoid re-writing task lists. These offered the most complete system for managing tasks and keeping notes. No matter the bulk of the snap ring binders, I used them sometimes because of the built-in expandability. I bought the expensive, proprietary loose-leaf sheets (with 7 holes punched) and added them into busy weeks. These sheets were pre-formatted for recording meetings, budgeting, making general notes.

Personal digital assistants

Then there came the day of the PDA. Palm Pilot was the name we all knew. I used the Sony PDA, named the Clié. There were several models; I started with the cheapest one but it was so pitiful that I moved up to an expensive one that really, actually did stuff.

The first big part was about managing one's calendar. Of course, PDAs did this stuff right out of the box, but their capabilities were pretty limited compared to the add-ons you could buy. I found one that turned my PDA into a crazy, detailed, appointment and todo categorizing product that not only worked, but was easy to use and attractive. Full-colour, of course.

Then I needed to take notes - a sort of journaling thing. The big problem was the size of the working surface, which was about the size of an iPhone. Of course, you had to use a stylus because fingers are way fat. By the time you displayed a keyboard, there was pretty much nothing left. There were two solutions: a completely new keyboard layout (add-on) that heavily emphasized the frequency of letter usage, arranged in a pattern that made it easy to hit the little keys painted on the touchscreen with the stylus. There was also a folding keyboard that worked really well, but made you look like a complete and total dork when you used it in public. Either way, it was pretty geeky.

Then one day, I was in a store, browsing through the things I had to do that day while retrieving my shopping list, and the damn thing shut down. It wasn't dead, but it took some effort to revive it that evening. Ultimately, the battery was to blame, so I bought after-market replacements that needed surgery to replace. I did it, and used that Sony PDA for most of two years, but it was a stretch. I off-loaded valuable information onto my PC, and put it in the cupboard forever.

Open journaling

After trudging through the litany of calendar-type planners, laptop-based todo and calendaring tools, and personal digital devices (including phones), I decided to try using a plain journal, but had the brilliant idea to treat it differently than I had been accustomed to.

What I was accustomed to was the standard engineer's notebook. We all used these as a matter of practice. Engineers (software engineers, in this case) always have a notebook with them. We wrote whatever we wanted in them, but my observation of others' behaviour was that they got only limited use as a full-on journal, per se, but more like a casual notebook. The difference was the commitment to completeness. We'd bring them to meetings but seldom crack them open.

So, I decided on a different approach. I found a nice journal (instead of the basic, horizontal-ruled, cheap versions that companies provide their people) by Claire Fountaine with squared paper. I decided to replicate the Harvard Planner planning model with columns and check marks and pointers. I numbered the pages. I rebuilt my plan each week by bringing incomplete tasks forward and tossing those I decided to drop. I created special pages every once in a while. My wife made a nice padded cloth cover with a marker ribbon attached. Sounds a lot like Bullet Journaling, now that we have such a thing to talk about. I expect this experience has a lot to do with why BuJo appealed to me right off the bat. I've been doing this for 7 or 8 years now without having seen others do anything like it. Well, I blew through that first journal pretty quickly, but by the end, it was book pretty much demolished by use, and I was unable to obtain a replacement. (I couldn't use the nice cloth cover after this.) After digging around for a while, I found the Moleskine large notebook, which was wildly more expensive but quite lovely and promised to be more durable.

I also started carrying a pocket-sized Moleskine notebook. I called it my memory. (People thought it looked like I had my passport in my shirt pocket.) I made no secret of dragging it out during conversations to jot quick notes. I bought packages of them and gave them to other people. The last few pages of these Moleskine notebooks are perforated so you can easily give out pieces of paper to others. (I've got a pile of them on a shelf in my home office, and I still have a bag of unused ones hanging in the cupboard.) There were problems though: there were not enough pages, so I glued two notebooks together by their covers. After about a month in my breast pocket, the covers would deteriorate badly, and the perforated pages would start falling out. I used packing tape to reinforce the covers, but the whole thing was starting to look kinda weird. After a couple years of this, I fell back to a system I used in college to keep quick notes in my pocket, shopping lists, etc.: a folded-up sheet of 8.5"x11" paper that I kept in my shirt pocket, with the current usable surface exposed and the used surfaces hidden. This still works well in a pinch if I find myself needing notes I want in my pocket, because obtaining such a piece of paper is easy almost anywhere. By the way, I keep a bullet space pen in my pants pocket always. If I loose it, I buy another one. Space pens were my goto writing instrument for many years because they never fail and are really easy to carry. I tend to use fountain pens in my Bullet Journal.

Electronic journaling

The one problem I found (and still have) with notebook journaling is findability. No matter how well organized my journal is, with the index in the front and all, I still can't find particular notes that are not part of special module or if I don't have a clue of when they occurred. This caused me to try journaling on my portable computer. I stuck my manual journal in a drawer and implemented a copy of TiddlyWiki on my portable computer. For those who want to know a lot about this, have a look at http://tiddlywiki.com/. Here is a summary of its characteristics:

  • all the code and data of the wiki is kept in a single html file that stores itself when you make updates - kinda spooky, really
  • it's driven by a mountain of Javascript inside the file that you can modify if you're brave enough and add plug-ins for special purposes - I did this to add a new journaling tricks
  • because it runs in a browser without installing anything, you can use it on corporate machines that are severely restricted by centralized control mechanisms, because it's really just a web page
  • you can cross-link articles a million ways and create trees of tags that are incredibly powerful
  • searching is stellar

I set myself a goal of using it for 2 solid months to iron out the wrinkles and get used to the process. I gave it up because, as much as it solved the findability problem and worked well for typing notes, it was too busy to adapt dynamically in the way that a manual journal adapts. And it was a lot of fuss to incorporate simple diagrams, which are, of course, a snap in a paper journal. I also missed the chirographic aspect too - using my hands to create memories and stylishly creating pretty pages of text. I wouldn't have thought that these aspects were important until I started to miss really them.

Biting into the bullet ... the bullet journal, that is

Actually, it's the bullet journal that bit me. After going through the whole process of creating my own approach to bullet journaling all on my own, to see others adopting and adapting similar behaviour was a gratifying moment. Not that I needed the validation, but that it gave me a new perspective from which to view what I had invented for myself. I picked up a few of Ryder's tricks, adapted some of mine based on others' experiences. I also got into writing instruments - fountain pens to be specific.

Nice pens are fun

After I worked with space pens for years, I wanted something that wasn't exactly a draggy ball point. I found a site that talked about pens, The Pen Addict, that reviewed pens and papers. It was revelatory. So, after trying out a few of Brad's suggestions, I settled on Pentel Enerjels for a couple years. I still find them very nice to write with. The metal versions are nicely proportioned and weighted, the ink flows perfectly and provides a fine, very dense line that doesn't bleed through the rather bleedy Moleskine paper. I have three of them loaded with black, blue and red cartridges. You can also get plasticky versions. If you're looking for a rollerball, gel sort of pen, I highly recommend these.

But I digress. A couple years ago (that would be 2014), my cousin's husband in England gave me his mother's Cross Century II Medalist (a fountain pen) that was just sitting in a drawer since her death a few years earlier. After struggling to get it to work properly by trying a couple different inks I bought locally, I started looking around for other fountain pens on the internet, and stumbled into the mother lode. Rather than buying huge expensive pens (some of the prices are breath-taking), I started out with the beginners' recommendations and haven't looked back. I also learned how to clean and fix misbehaving pens, so my Cross Century II works like a dream now, filled with Noodler's Ink Sqeteague. Crazy fun and really nice. Problem is it bleeds through Moleskine paper, so now I'm invested in Leuchtturm notebooks and Rhodia notepads.

I've probably spent a total of about $400 over the course of about 6 months on pens, ink and paper, and not regretted a bit of it. For $20-$30, you can get very nice instruments, and, when filled with good inks, they write beautifully on decent paper. The cheapest pen is $5, the most expensive $30 US, which is now about $42 Canadian. I have two that I use constantly now: a Pilot Metropolitan with a medium nib, loaded with Chesterfield Archival Vault (an iron gall formulation) and my Cross Century II loaded with Noodler's Ink Squeteague. I'm also fond of my Nemosine Neutrinos (with a fine nib) and Noodler's Ink Blue is very attractive.

So journaling is not only a practical solution to organizing my life, I derive considerable pleasure from the physical act of keeping a journal. Considering the unfortunate circumstances of so many people in this world, this all seems like serious self-indulgence. Maybe it is. Maybe it's a lust for pretty things and idyll time. Making this part of my life happy and workable gives me the energy to get to the parts I don't like so much.

Keywords: pens, ink, writing, journaling, paper, notebooks

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