It was a battered old storage trunk held together with rotting leather straps that ran around the circumference and locked with flimsy metal fasteners. Not big, but a body could be folded into it and discreetly transported to the desert in a pinch.
It once belonged to my great Aunt Somebody on my father’s side, and was now sitting in our carport flaking decades of decay onto the cement floor. Somebody else in the family had held on to it until they died and it was passed on to my dad.
We opened it with a skeleton key– super hazy now– but I think there were some clothes, a few books of little interest, a pair of shoes… and maybe a bible inside. They weren’t my memories, so I didn’t understand why anyone would keep them.
But on the peeling, water damaged bottom of the trunk were two scrapbooks.
I was in my late teens and didn’t care about old stuff from people I’d never met. I had always enjoyed the scrapbooks my mom made, but they were well crafted, good-looking collections of my immediate family in funny clothes and regrettable hairstyles.
I wasn’t enamored or amazed, epiphany hadn’t touched me in the secret places…
These bound time capsules pulled from an otherwise lame collection held photos, newspaper clippings, movie ticket stubs and hand written journal entries in the margins and open spaces of the weathered pages. A piece of a 45 record, a gumball machine ring, and a second place ribbon from the state fair were barely sticking to the pages with cracked yellow glue.
The first one was pretty full but the second went mysteriously blank about halfway through as if the author had said, “Ah, who cares” and quit.
I wasn’t enamored or amazed, epiphany hadn’t touched me in the secret places, but I liked something about those books. The idea of personal experience being recorded and available for future discovery was intriguing.
A few years later I started keeping a mini journal in the Ansel Adams monthly planner Mom gave me for Christmas every year. (I think today the style would be called a bullet journal.) Short weekly recaps with a handful of standout stories and mundane reminders. I kept these little reports for three or four years planning that I might move on to a full size journal at some point.
I think that early experience of finding those old scrapbooks with part of a stranger’s life story locked in the yellowed pages stuck with me.
In the summer of 1995, I moved a hundred miles north from Tucson to Phoenix, AZ. I was starting my first big-time job and a new chapter of life. Being in this exciting and inspirational place, it felt like the perfect time to start recording my experiences.
I’ve kept a sketchbook journal ever since.
Out of sheer embarrassment, there are plenty of entries that I would love to black out like a redacted government UFO report, but the good stuff and memories far outweigh the screw-ups and naivety.
Why write in a journal? Artists usually keep an ongoing sketchbook to practice drawing and try out new techniques, but why add words to the mix? I think the writer Austin Kleon answered this question with a great 1,2,3 punch.
I’ll add a fourth reason to the list:
It’s my shrink.
In addition to the drawings, ideas, writing scraps and small delusions, it’s a place to unload all the garbage in my head where the only opinions are mine. A self-sounding board.
You can write ugly things and get shit off your chest. It’s a steam vent for life’s bullshit so I don’t stab the next asshole I meet.
Writing is a great way to get your head right and get your shit together– like a long drive on an open highway. A journal is the place for those secret project ideas, grand designs and thoughts you’re afraid to say out loud.
Bonus Value: It’s a great progress report that shows how you’ve improved your writing, drawing, and critical thinking skills over time. A personal inventory and life review. Meditation. Motivation.
Sounds great, right? Well here’s the catch:
Unfortunately, this time machine is only programmed to travel backward. You can only time-jump through history. It’s a great tool for plans, goals, and mind maps that project into the unknown, but the future is always a blank page of possibilities.
Most people call these records sketchbook journals. I call them blackbooks because that’s what graffiti artists call them– just sounds cooler.