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The Multimedia Journal: More Than Just a Notebook

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Diaries used to be a really big deal, particularly among girls who every night confessed their most intimate secrets in them. Not so much anymore. Dedicated diarists are scarce these days. They’ve pretty much been replaced by a bunch that enthusiastically “journals.” Journaling is a lot more serious, essentially gender-neutral, and definitely a more demanding exercise. Plus, it has more (as grown-ups might say) purpose. Presumably, that’s why many so-called life coaches love it.

I’m not here to talk dirt about diaries or journals (or even the silliness of life coaches), which have their fans, but rather to advocate for a hybrid model that’s grown increasingly popular. Adults who journal — that is, who regularly keep handwritten records, observations, lists, reminders, and ideas in a single bound book — are often thought to be more centered and highly organized. I’ll go with that.

But the hybrid journals that intrigue me most are produced by folks who don’t much care about being centered. They are centered-averse. Their journals are 3-D, multimedia affairs that sometimes look to be the leavings of brain-addled artists. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Such journals are wondrous to behold: part day planner, part sketchbook, part notebook, part scrapbook, part file cabinet. Each page is a mash-up, a veritable freeform festival of ­infobits.

I first set eyes on a handful of “creative journals” (my name for them; you may call them whatever you please) years ago when I was interviewing the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). We were in her writing shed on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Without my even asking, she volunteered to show off a few of her journals, which were crammed to the margins with ­teensy-tiny notes going in all directions, Scotch-taped clippings from local newspapers, favorite phrases and recipes from things she’d read, even stapled patches of fabric.

“It’s not a hobby. It’s a lifestyle. This is not like your grandma’s diary.”

Not long after that, I encountered a couple of artisans pitching merchandise on a New York City sidewalk. Their prize product: journals in which finely detailed pencil sketches (ever see Leonardo da Vinci’s amazing notebooks? — well, something like that) shared several pages with miscellaneous scribbling done in beautiful calligraphy. Pre-journaled journals! (For the record, I didn’t bite.)

One of the companies best positioned to take advantage of this trend is Utah-based American Crafts. It designs and markets a line of formatted journals targeted at women. These provide users with cues as to what goes where. Less freeform and so, I’d say, not cool. But for many people, it’s a starting point toward more creative journaling.

American Crafts’ marketing director, Jessica Roberts, told me that, yes, “messy, mixed-media” journals are indeed “much more acceptable” nowadays. In essence, it’s okay to draw outside the lines. Journals are a hot category, Roberts said. “It’s not a hobby. It’s a lifestyle. This is not like your grandma’s diary.”

Selecting exactly the right paper, pen, and ink is an important part of keeping a journal that accurately reflects who you are and how you perceive … everything. There are now entire magazines devoted to better journaling. And smartphone apps, too. The apps’ intent is to circumvent bound journals altogether, but that totally misses the point of maintaining a great physical journal.

The art of constantly stuffing your disorganized life into a little bound book is a challenge, surely. But if done with pizzazz, imagination, and acceptance of imperfections throughout, it can serve each and every day as a focusing experience. The exercise might be messy, but also highly liberating.

In the last issue, Neuhaus wrote about the demise of print encyclopedias.

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