I was 11 years old when I first started keeping a notebook. It was one-fourth the size of a regular composition notebook and had bright pink acrylic plastic as a cover — a freebie from a Jollibee Kiddie Meal.
I don’t remember much of what I wrote there, except that I planned to go on a diet and that it had a scribbled message from my aunt about womanhood, which she wrote on my 12th birthday. I know this because, during my party, she publicly called me out about my dieting plans while rifling through the pages to find a worthy space on which to write her “Message of Womanhood.” I felt ashamed. From there, I resolved not to keep notebooks again, scarred by the realization that someone could just one day flip through my sacred pages and expose everything.
But pop culture always sold me on angsty teenagers with beautiful bedrooms who also happen to be avid journal-keepers. Back then it was called a “diary,” and almost always a diary entry started with: Dear Diary, well, it looks like I have a new best friend and a space to write my thoughts in! So I started writing my silly little thoughts in my silly little diary. Again. This time, I was older and wise enough to know never to completely reveal my plans (dietary or not) and to choose a notebook conspicuous enough to camouflage with my school notebooks. Even though I itched to adorn my diary with sequins or scribble on the cover, I figured it would help me feel at peace that my own safe space looks just like any other notebook — to keep prying eyes away.
I've always felt that I move through the world with a screen in front of me — always so unreachable. It may be part of that specific remoteness that comes from being an adolescent, or because I did not have spaces of my own where I was able to sit down and listen to myself completely. I wasn’t allowed to process. In my diary, though, I was ruthless at describing mundane parts of my day, observing even the faintest change of emotion. It became a space where I was there, reachable. I bore witness to myself in a way no other person could.
There’s a powerful analysis here that I’m trying to scratch at. Something about giving yourself the space because who else will, right? But for me, it transcends that. Had I not started writing in my journal, I’d never have the emotional life that I have now. On days when the people I love seem to be too much and not enough and the feeling of wanting to swim for miles and miles gnaws at my chest, my journal is there to bear witness. A few hours later, when these feelings subside, I’ll run to my journal and tell of it as if it’s a prophecy made true.
My journal also became what my grandmother would call a “scratch pad” for jotting down premature ideas and inane curiosities. I know we all do that kind of writing in our diaries, but what I mean here is where my most fruitful “writer-y” writing happens. I don’t trust myself padding around a keyboard anymore — I’ve written lots of bad stuff through it — so I bring pen to paper and settle conflating ideas within my sacred pages, my safe space.
It’s silly to write down, or scream out loud to the world, but if I had not started journaling I don’t know what kind of writer I’d be today, or if I would even be one. This isn’t to say I’m the Greatest Writer/Person/Emotion-Haver, but for the sake of looking back and, like, realizing stuff — I’ve come a long way from that 11-year-old girl who knew so little of the world and her body to be planning diets. Now, I never go out without a journal or a pen.
During seasons of my life where I’m experiencing some new and profound joy, I buy a new journal and eat up the pages with ink, almost immediately. I’ve fully embraced this habit of notebook keeping as protection; my own safe space in my own head. At first a coping mechanism for loneliness, insecurity, and fear, it’s now a crutch for my ideas and curiosities. As the late great American writer, Joan Didion, once said: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
What’s great, too, about journaling while you’re a full-fledged adult is you’re unafraid anymore of someone stumbling into your deepest darkest “Dear Diaries” — you’ve cultivated a very specific grown-up audacity to own your thoughts and musings, however silly they might be. The other day I was scrolling on TikTok, as one does, and saw a #journaltok flip-through from a teenager creator. “Lucky them,” I thought, “for having a journal as organized and blingy as this one.” I felt a pang in my heart because I would have wanted to deck the journals of my teenage years the way I pleased. But I scroll away, content at the realization that someone’s inner life and future plans are refined through their journals.