#50 Skin a Cat: Keeping a Journal

Administrator’s Note: We here at TTAF are taking a break from blogging for the rest of the year. We feel that it is important that we take some time off to spend with friends and family, and also to relax a bit as the past year has been hectic for all four of us. We cannot thank you enough for reading, commenting on and sharing TTAF. We hope to use this time off to create more posts that we hope you will enjoy. While we are on hiatus we would still love to hear from you via the comments section and also by writing guest posts. We are looking for writers from all backgrounds, yes even women, to contribute to the site and if you are interested please send us an email. We are seeking to create a community experience with this blog and in order to do so we want to hear from you.

In the meantime we will be counting down the top fifty posts (out of 353) from this year. Once we are done with that we will get back to our regular blogging. As you read these posts feel free to share them on any number of social media sites with the buttons found below each post and above the comments section. Have a great holiday season.

-Matt, Drew, Josh, and Curtis-

For the original post click here.

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.

And just for kicks, in true Bracketology fashion, here are the last ten posts that did not make the top 50 cut:

51: Sunday Night Speech: Elie Wiesel “The Perils of Indifference”

52: Outdoor Blogs, Biolite Stoves, and Hiking Shoes

53: Two Charts You Need To Know

54: Sunday Night Speech: Bill Watterson (Creator of Calvin and Hobbes)

55: The TTAF Jurassic Park Roundtable

56: Weekly Awards

57: How I Became A Pacifist

58: A Name Worth Remembering: John Williams

59: On Having Enemies

60: 5 Shows That Shouldn’t Be On Your DVR

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2 Comments on “#50 Skin a Cat: Keeping a Journal”

  1. ceruleanstarshine
    December 12, 2012 at 8:51 am #

    I have…so many journals and blank books and notebooks with “just the right kind of lined paper” at my place, waiting for thoughts to fill them. I finally gave up, this year in January, on the idea of filling them with ideas and perfectly scripted passages of things important enough to be put down on their pages. I scribble notes, staple things in, and write out completely random information that is relevant to me, but would make no sense to anyone else. I also write out poem fragments, story ideas, thoughts.

    They are messier, but I am filling them, which makes me feel a lot more like a “writer” than I used to—and has the added side benefit of clearing my head. I have an anonymous blog where I write posts and keep track of things, but when I take the time to actually write it down I find it stays in my memory but it is at rest–no more nagging in the back of my mind, worrying I will forget something or lose the great idea. If it’s something stressful writing it down is incredibly cathartic.
    Having the right pen, for me, is crucial. And it varies depending on the paper in the notebook which probably sounds crazy!

    • joshacorman
      December 12, 2012 at 8:57 am #

      Not crazy at all, as far as the pen + paper combos go. The nicer the paper, the smaller the pen tip can be.

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