Skin a Cat: Keeping a Journal

Administrators’ Note: “Skin a Cat” is only our name for “How-to” posts and does not in any way indicate a preoccupation with violence towards animals, just in case you belong to PETA or are a Criminal Minds enthusiast.

Why Keep a Journal?

Let’s go ahead and get a couple of things out of the way. “Journal” is just my term for a notebook of some kind in which important thoughts are kept. Call it a notebook or call it a paper-brain; I don’t really care (I’m not even going to mention the D-word.).

Regardless of what we call the things, it’s worth asking why we should have one in the first place. After all, isn’t that what your iPhone is for? In short, the answer is no. Smart phones are wonderful little things that enable us to manage our schedules and correspondences with ease, but their versatility is often more limited than Samuel L. Jackson would have you believe, and even those apps that would provide you with a reasonable facsimile of a good notebook often cost enough to make the convenience negligible.

You should have a place outside of your own head to keep random thoughts, creative insights, scribbles, musings, pontifications, reminders, and even complaints, and there are those who feel that you should consider writing, rather than typing, those things. Add me to the list.

Functional Cornucopia

It should be obvious that a notebook can serve as a storage device for just about anything, but I’ve always found it difficult to designate a single function to my journals (I still have several that I’ve filled only a few pages of, and many times I’ve gone back in and cut out those pages after changing my mind about what I’m going to put in a given journal). The solution is simple, but for me it wasn’t easy. I tend to be drawn to durable notebooks with high-quality paper, like Moleskines, as much for the romance of it as anything, but then end up not wanting to soil those fine, acid-free pages with anything less than perfectly developed, neatly written ideas. That’s a perfectly good way to keep a journal blank for all eternity. Our thoughts are messy, and if we’re going to store them someplace, it’s likely that place will get a little messy as well. Giving myself permission to stain pristine notebooks with my still-congealing thoughts has made my notebooks so much more useful – and indispensable.

Once you’ve jumped the perfection hurdle, the only thing left is to figure out exactly what you’re going to do with your journal. My advice: focus. Assigning a specific function to a notebook makes it more, not less, useful. So, what are your options?

Commonplace Book

I’m not following my own advice here, but you may be one of those folks who cannot abide by the limitations of a single-function notebook. Commonplace books have been used by Francis Bacon, John Milton, Virginia Woolf, W.H. Auden, and E.M. Forster, Emerson, and Thoreau, and basically included any useful thought or piece of information that the owner saw fit to store for later use. They filled these notebooks with discoveries, recipes, quotes, positions on important issues, sketches, and anything else they saw fit. If great minds think alike, then keeping a commonplace book puts you in good company.

Quote Book

I often read with a pen or pencil in hand, just in case I encounter something particularly inspiring, interesting, or quotable. This way, I can underline the passage or mark it in some other way, or even write notes in the margins of the book. The problem is that once I’ve annotated my copy of the text, the passage I found so enlightening stays stuck. Keeping a quote book is the perfect way to hang onto those affecting lines, and it leaves more room to add additional commentary. As the journal fills up, it becomes an excellent document of the ideas we are most drawn to and an excellent conversation starter or source of reflection. Songs, films, TV shows, and articles can get their own sections or simply be integrated in with everything else.

Book/Movie/Cigar/Beer/Restaurant Log

Memory is an imperfect thing, and even when it does work properly, you’re probably using it for things like remembering to fix the toilet or change that light bulb you have to stand on the top rung of the ladder to reach. So when we want to keep track of what we’ve already done, it’s safest to rely on a record that can be kept outside of our brains. If you’re a big reader, keep a log of what you’ve read, who wrote it, how many pages it has, or even who recommended it to you and how well you liked it. The sense of accomplishment alone is worth filling those pages with title after title. The same general system can be applied to films (date, theater, short review), cigars (brand, fellow smokers, quality, location), beer (type, brand, bar, quality), restaurants (city, dish ordered, service, quality), or just about anything you’re passionate about. Concerts, campsites, insurance physicals: the sky’s the limit.

Project Manager

If, unlike me, you’re the handy type who enjoys dreaming up and executing a good home renovation project or just doing some woodworking on the side, a journal is perfect for sketching and planning  – especially those with squared pages; they allow for precise measurement and visualization, and even if you only write in yours, it makes everything look much neater. Once you’ve finished, your plans, measurements, and notes are all still there for future reference, in one place. That way, when somebody says, “I like that entertainment center” (or, more realistically, “I like that birdhouse”), you can hand over the notebook and inspire them to do some work themselves.

Golfer’s Handbook

This is highly specific, but if you play a lot of golf, I promise you it’s worth it. Keep a journal in your bag, and when you play a new course (or any course you haven’t added to your handbook), jot a few notes about the holes as you play them. Does #6 play ten yards longer than it says on the scorecard? What’s the play from that fairway bunker on #11? Do putts break towards the water or away on the 14th green? A huge part of success on the golf course is familiarity with the course and just knowing what shots to play in what situation. Keeping a journal that details what works, what doesn’t, and how to best manage the courses you play routinely can only make your game better. Make sure that you leave space for each hole, though (a page in a small journal, 1/2 a page in a larger notebook), so you can add to your profiles of each hole when you return to the course.


As I said before, Moleskines are durable and even cheap pens look alright on their paper. If you plan on carrying yours with everywhere, I’d recommend the soft-bound versions, which aren’t as bulky and can be more easily stored in a back pocket. Anything will do though, and Wal-Mart, Target, and most bookstores usually have a decent selection to choose from, so plunk down a few bucks and unburden your mind.

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Categories: Skin A Cat

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