Writing things down

You will want to remember your college years. Good, bad, complicated, inspiring, whatever. You will someday want to remember who you were hanging out with sophomore year and how it happened that the whole gang ended up at a hot springs in the middle of the night that one time. And you’ll want to remember just what was so hard about that April when it felt like everything was meaningless. The good and the bad, both.

Journaling in a photo gallery  

Journaling in a photo gallery

I decided to start writing things down when I realized that I couldn’t remember when my group of friends (creatively referred to as “The Group”) really became “The Group.” Of course it was a gradual process, but I had lost the details. That revelation came sometime in the winter of my freshman year—not long after said friendship had solidified. But the details were gone forever in my memory and there’s no getting that back. So I decided to start writing everything down.

I highly recommend that everyone do this somehow. I’ve used different methods over the years, but the times when I’ve been consistently recording my days have been times when I lived more vibrantly and truly appreciated my range of experiences as they were happening. I remember them better without even reading back—my memories have solidified around these notes to myself, and now I have them forever.

You don’t have to buy a book labeled “diary.” Find a journaling method that works for you.

My freshman year, I kept a “journal” by outlining my days in a word document. Each date had eight or ten bullet points of what I did and who I did it with. And that’s it. If I wanted to write about how I felt about things or the stories behind whatever went on, I did that in other documents that I have and treasure. Most days looked something like this:

March 1, 2007 (Thursday)

  • Comparative Lit- The Great Gatsby discussion
  • Prep for sociology essay
  • Show family around town
  • Ice cream with friends and family
  • Cards and Daily Show/Colbert Report with Kelly (sister) and friends
  • Pack for coast trip

Another (less eventful) entry might read

Random date

  • Class
  • Study session with Kara
  • Internship meeting (event planning for next Thursday)
  • Long phone call with Madeline
  • Dinner with the group
  • Watched The Office

What you lose in detail, you gain back in consistency. This kind of “journaling” takes less than five minutes a day. And I have that for almost two and a half years of college. I can’t even tell you how much that means to me now, just a few years on.

I’ve since journaled in several different ways. When I was traveling, my journals are mostly in the form of long reports I wrote to family and friends. The different audiences heard some different stories, which means I did a decent job at documenting things across the board. These letters home range from the excitement of Machu Picchu to the first night out dancing in Chile to the diplomatic genius that was the email to my folks after I was robbed in Nicaragua (the gist of which was “I am safe but this happened and I’ll need some money help and also remember I am safe”). The trick when you’re “journaling” primarily via email is to actually keep everything indexed and tucked away somewhere.

My junior year of college, I was hired as a student blogger by my university. I wrote two blogs per week for the next two years of undergrad and during my first Master’s degree. I wrote about my life as a student, and the activities I participated in as part of campus life. I loved that job, and in addition to serving as a useful source of skills and credentials, it also documents a formal reading of those years. It’s not the same as a journal, but it is a record of that time.

Several times I’ve attempted to journal in the conventional leather-bound notebooks, and while they make me feel literary and self-satisfied at the beginning, I consistently find that these notebooks only get about a third of the way full. I also have journal entries and notes to self scribbled on the backs of class notes in spiral-bound pages, which is perhaps the least efficient method of remembering or indexing anything.

A journal.JPG

For the past year, I’ve been writing “morning pages” as described in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I discovered the book at a particularly low moment when I had just moved to Belfast for my Human Rights Law program, and was lonely and bored and sort of reverse-stressed by the loneliness and boredom (but that’s a story for another day). Although the book as a whole didn’t appeal to me so much, her morning pages have become a constant part of my life for the past year. I write, with pen and paper, three pages every day. Usually it’s the first thing I do, before I check my email or get dressed. It’s a brain dump of the day before and a preparation for the day to come, and an occasional creative rant that has led to some gems of creative writing. When I was working on my most recent thesis, it was a place where I could informally gather threads of ideas together. When I was starting work on this blog, it was my primary method of brainstorming under low pressure.

I think I’ve skipped about six days in the past year. It’s not exactly a diary, but it is a place where things are written down.

The start of the morning pages marked a turning point for my time in Belfast. When I started writing things down and really reflecting on the good and the bad in my life, I began to take action. I felt more confident in the good and more responsible for the bad. I asked for support and found resources, and got involved in some great communities and organizations. I got busy, and had more to write and think about. And some of why I think this is important as college advice for any student is that my start in Belfast was the first time I had been a new kid on campus for a long, long time. I was feeling the emotional mess of transition from one to another world of school and community and friendships, and threw myself into a whole new and foreign system.

I learned a lot that way, as you do in college. And now I know I have a record of that time. I’m particularly glad of that—I’ll remember the whole of the experience from the good to the bad, and what I did to improve the tough times.

So however you do it, from epic novel-length daily brain dumps a la the morning pages, or in outline format, do yourself the favor of writing things down. I promise you’ll be glad you did.


Do you journal? Blog? I’m of the opinion that tweets don’t count—no matter how creative you get with those 140 characters, I doubt they’ll add up to a coherent memoir 50 years from now. Share your journaling strategies here!