5 tips for getting started with your journal

Journals can be many things to many people. Dot-grid journals seem perhaps to be used most frequently as a sort of personal planner: setting health goals, tracking habits, creating useful calendars, checking off items on a to-do list. These are all fantastic ways to use a dot-grid journal – and there are lots of resources available to help you if you are interested in the bullet journal system, or other personal-planning-type journalling methods.

For me, my Knitting Season journal has just one purpose – to support my creative making.

I use one journal to help me with three different kinds of making – writing, designing, and knitting.

I regard my journal as a tool, and not an aesthetic object. It is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. My journal is a thing that provides the preconditions that are necessary for making a project happen. My journal is the place where my making begins. It’s a location for recording initial thoughts before I start to make, and it’s a space which I can also use to document and help the process and the progress of the making.

Using my journal effectively is all about getting my creative making moving – whether I’m planning a range of different projects for the coming year, working my way systematically through a series of design ideas, or developing vague thoughts that might at some point turn into concrete paragraphs, and eventually a book chapter.

To get the making started, the journalling has to start as well. So if you want to use your journal to support your own creative projects, here are five simple tips for getting started.

1. Don’t regard your journal as precious.
I know that many people find it really difficult to start a journal – to simply put pencil or pen to paper on the first page. Journals themselves are pleasing, pristine objects. You might find the stationery and pens you’ve acquired to be so beautiful that you don’t want to actually use them. The paper of the pages of the journal themselves could be so lovely that you don’t want them to be spoilt. You might regard the act of starting a journal as very similar to cutting into a piece of gorgeous, costly fabric. What if your sewing skills aren’t up to producing that dress you’d planned to make? What if it ends up fitting badly? What if all that fabric and time and labour and money go to waste? But then, you’ll never have the dress if you don’t cut into that fabric.

Your journal is not a precious object.
It is a tool.

Try to start by recognising that what goes in your journal will always be provisional and will never be complete.

You need to accept that the pages of your journal are provisional spaces and to understand that that those spaces will be characterised by some necessary imperfection. Good and not so good and plain terrible ideas are going to get recorded alongside each other. Plans may be abandoned, and some goals left woefully incomplete. Creative making is always an uneven process. There may be many false starts and many forking paths. But however chaotic and unruly your journal seems, the amazing project that you are going to go on to make out of the range of ideas that begin haltingly and messily in its pages may well be perfectly ordered. Sometimes in order to make something beautiful and complete you have to make a mess first. That’s what your journal is for.

2. Get things started
If you are the type of person who finds a blank page terrifying, or are awestruck into inaction by the pristine beauty of your journal-as-object, you need to do something to get things started.

Keep the first four pages blank for your retrospective table of contents or index, (see my linked post for more about organising your material retrospectively) and then, on the next page – just make a mark.

*Use some coloured pencils to test out different shades for the projects you’ve planned, or create a palette of your favourite yarns, listing the shade names next to each colour.
*Cover the page with your favourite stickers or some stencilling.
*Make a sketch of a garment you’d like to make.
*Write a sonnet.
*Copy a quotation.
*Paste in a picture from a magazine.
*Draw a poorly-rendered but affectionate caricature of a family member.

Once you’ve made some marks on the first page, do the same with the second. . . . and then just keep on making marks.

3. Keep things moving
Try not to be a perfectionist. The pages of your journal don’t have to look beautiful (though it is of course very nice when they do). Remember: the journal’s function is not principally aesthetic. Its first function is to be a useful tool for you. Just keep recording thoughts when they occur to you, and jotting down ideas. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think an idea is good enough or feel a thought’s not fully formed. You can annotate these thoughts or ideas as things to come back to later. Draw a line. Turn the page. Move on. Relax into the wonderful provisionality and the fabulous never-to-be-completed nature of the pages of your journal. And keep those ideas coming and the pages turning.

4. Know when to start making
Your journal provides you with a place to plan for any creative project you intend to make. But for some people who have a tendency to over-plan, a journal can also become a sort of substitute for a project itself. Journals are fantastic for planning, but there is definitely a point at which planning can turn into procrastination. Have you sketched the same cardigan more than twice? Have you rehearsed the same idea or turn of phrase over several consecutive pages? Do you keep planning the same project – in a slightly different iteration – over and over and over again? As long as you are still recording things in your journal you might be able to convince yourself that a project is moving forward, when in fact it has started to stand still. It is very useful to be able to recognise the point at which the planning just needs to stop. Over the years, I have got quite good at recognising that point, and I would say that simply knowing when to start is the key to really enjoying the creative process and being reasonably productive. So try to recognise when it’s time to begin to start making. Take a breath. Steel yourself. Cast on your project, write the first sentence of your story. Cut into that fabric and start to sew.

Remember: the journal is the precondition for the project –
the journal is not a substitute for the project itself.

5. Allow the journal to support the making
Finally, when you start work on a project your journalling doesn’t have to stop – it just needs to change direction. From being an ideas-generating tool, your journal has now become a tool that supports your creative process. The pages of your journal can now run in parallel to the progress of your making. If I’m producing a chapter, and find that I’ve written myself into a corner, I often find that a wee hour or two with my journal rather than with the work itself can refresh my thoughts sufficiently for me to be able to resolve whatever problem I’ve created. Similarly, when I’m knitting a design, I use my journal to keep detailed notes about the process: how to construct a sleeve or neckline; how to describe a potentially tricky instruction around a collar; how to remember exactly what to do with the left and right hand needles when binding off a steek. What I record during my making process definitely isn’t pretty – there are lots of scribbled numbers and instructions and crossings out and elipses – but it is invaluable.

So to summarise, here are my five tips:

1. Don’t regard your journal as precious
2. Get things started
3. Keep things moving
4. Know when to start making
5. Allow the journal to support the making

And finally – and most importantly – have fun with your journal!