bookshelf of filled journals

Mad in Pursuit Notebook

My Journal-Writing Ritual: 9 Tips from 19 Years

(Published Nov. 30,, 2022 as Newsletter No. 5)

Dear one, do you keep a journal? I’m remembering a Saturday morning when I took my cup of coffee down to our basement study and opened a new notebook and wrote, “12.20.03. The second day of the rest of my life.”

I had retired. After 24 years in a job that consumed me, I was on my own, the big retirement party behind me. I had abandoned the office for the studio (our spare bedroom) and my new “art life” yawned before me.

I didn’t have to be at an office by 7 a.m., but I needed to be somewhere.

As much as I wanted my new life to rise organically from the ashes of the old, this Susan-phoenix was no good at catching a breeze and drifting willy-nilly into the future. I needed a new set of habits—a ritual.

Of course, I had kept travel diaries since the early ’90s and also posted random “great thoughts” now and then on my Mad in Pursuit blog. But someone had given me Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. The book persuaded me that starting every day with a writing session would clear my mind and energize me.

Nineteen years later I can say, “Yes, it does!”

For her morning pages, Cameron recommends three full pages of fast, stream of consciousness handwriting-on-paper, purging your mental plumbing of all its hairballs.

That’s how I started. Pages and pages of peacock blue ink in a letter-size notebook.

Gradually, I developed my own style. I worked out project problems, drew pictures, took notes on my reading, pasted in clippings and stray sticky notes.

If an appointment makes me miss a day, I don’t stress. Nothing is ruined. I’ll pick it up the next day.

If I need the early morning brain power to maximize my focus on a project, no worries. I always circle back to my morning notebook.

The Habit

[1] Supplies

  • Notebook. Get one that isn’t scary-beautiful but not dollar-store ugly. Picking it up every day should be a pleasure. I chose a loose-leaf Circa-style notebook (photo above). After a while, I invested in a hole-punch so I could use up my stash of pretty paper.

  • Pen. Add color pens as your joy requires. I don’t color-code, but sometimes I change pens if I’m switching from mind-mapping to note-taking or if some great thought needs embellishment.

  • Glue stick or tape. For adding in those random slips of paper, clippings, and sticky notes you don’t know where else to put.

  • Carrier (optional). I found a knitting basket with a hard frame and outside pockets that is perfect for my kit.

[2] Make it a ritual. Make a standing date with yourself. Free-float with your first cup of coffee or brain-dump at day’s end. Same time, same room, same chair.

[3] Keep going. If you miss a day or a week, no biggie. Before long, you’ll naturally want to get back on track.

[4] Be random. This is soul therapy, not a business report. Don’t overthink it. Don’t over-structure. Only be as compulsive or artsy as it pleases you to be. Pre-structured bullet-style journals are not for me. I like to wander. I like to surprise myself.

[5] Throw in everything. Ticket stubs, random sticky notes, doodles, photos, clippings. I love the scrappy feel of this.

[6] Write whatever is on your mind. Include intentions, reviews of yesterday, mind-maps, diagrams, sketches, notes from your reading, quotes, ideas. Personally, I avoid whining and griping. Keeping it positive and idea-oriented gives me a better start to the day. Some days I just doodle.

[7] Make it as messy and disorganized as you can tolerate. A filled page is beautiful no matter what it contains. Enjoythe lack of constraints.

[8] Keep it private. That’s liberating.

[9] Start over. If your first attempt doesn’t work (the pages are too small or the ink bleeds through), rip it apart and paste the interesting stuff into a better notebook. This feels very good.

Have you kept notebooks like this? Anything goes? Every time I randomly open one up—2005…2009…2013—I’m amazed at what I was thinking, not because it was so amazing, but because I’d forgotten about that special moment in time, that one morning amid 6,000 mornings that I brought my cup of coffee to my easy chair, put my feet up, and wrote my mind.

What is your experience keeping notebooks or journals? Did it become a revelatory ritual or a resolution unfulfilled? What made it work? Or what killed it?

Till next time,


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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.