Visual journals are created in a secret language of symbols. Intentional or not, they are private maps only their makers can follow. No one else can look at a page and understand the specific meaning of a punching bag or a set of arrows. And no one else can remember the moment of its making. Joni Mitchell blaring on the stereo. Sage wafting in a hidden garden. The discomforting echo of last night's argument.
That said, visual journals may provide stronger records of the cultural milieu in which they were created than their purely written counterparts. Rather than describing the stuff of the day, they are often made from it. Anyone who has used primary source materials for research knows this. The difference between reading about someone's life and opening old, yellowed letters is startling. When pressed flowers and handwritten recipes escape from a tattered envelope, one can almost see hollyhocks growing in the garden and smell bread baking in the oven. Worn newspaper articles give a stronger sense of the day's values than any historian-digested primer can.
But all of these things are found in scrapbooks, letters, and even calendars. So, what is a journal? Several people related that their journals had been supplanted by email. One man who keeps dream journals on individual sheets of paper, some of them poster-size, argued convincingly that his work constitutes a journal, as did another who keeps computer spreadsheets of his daily activities. When asked for definitions, people's responses were varied and metaphoric: A habit. A map of consciousness. Internal maps. A security blanket. Memory banks. A one-stop shop. One man who keeps a variety of journals—large ones for recording things of interest from the newspaper, tiny ones that operate as to-do lists, medium ones kept by the telephone for doodling—asked, "Doesn't everyone keep a journal?" Meaning, whether we call it a journal or not, don't we all keep something that serves its purpose?
If we work with the broadest possible definition of a journal—a place where we record personal reflections, observations of our world, playful meanderings, and plans—then datebooks, notebooks, sketchbooks, wall calendars, letters, and address books can all serve as journals. As Alexandra Johnson writes in Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal, "A journal is as much an intention to record and save as it is a physical form."
Journal is the widest term, encompassing diary, sketchbook, and notebook. In his exploration of written journals, A Book of One's Own, Thomas Mallon writes of the difference between journal and diary: "The two terms are in fact hopelessly muddled. They are both rooted in the idea of dailiness, but perhaps because of journal's links to the newspaper trade and diary's to dear,
the latter seems more intimate than the former." He goes on to cite Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, which defines diary as "an account of the transactions, accidents and observations of every day; a journal."
Author and cartoonist Lynda Barry refers to the writing and illustration she does on loose, yellow legal pages as a journal, though she still pines for the diaries she saw as a kid at Woolworth's. She hopes she might yet co plete one of the three-sentence-a-day diaries and has two in her col that she cannot bear to write in. "I don't think I've ever seen anything tha looked as good to me as those tiny keys hanging on a string from th she says. "I still get giddy when I see diaries. There is something about them. Diaries assume there will be a future."
Because of its largeness of purpose, a journal can include anything and the kitchen sink. Serving as a collection point for life's contradictions, moments of intense feeling, and factoids that compel but seem without obvious use is one of the journal's greatest virtues. In The Writer's Journal: 40 Contemporary Writers and Their Journals by Sheila Bender, Naomi Shihab Nye remarks, "I've heard someone say that notebooks are the kitchen drawers into which we place all the little scraps of things—bits of string, ragged
Thoug exploration, they also serve as confidante and emotional punching bag.
Thoug he suggestion of a professor. books still further his creative recipes, nails and screws, half-used birthday candles, coupons. Where is it? Oh, it must be in there. Where else could it be?" Or as illustrator John Clapp says of his journals, they "are a collection of things I'm curious about, like the Smithsonian: 'the attic of mankind.'"
exploration, they also serve as confidante and emotional punching bag.
In this way, journals serve as file folders for future works. Although Joan
Didion disregarded the notion of using the journal as a savings account on which one can draw later with interest, it is clear that many artists do use their journals in this manner. Photographer Robert ParkeHarrison relies on his journal during every step of the creative process and values it above most of his professional tools because it contains so may unused ideas.
The journal is like the residue that goes into the making of a final thing," he comments. In the earliest stages of brainstorming, he tapes in photocopies an magazine advertisements and writes in lines of poetry and descriptions of film scenes. These items that resonate for him may never go further than the journal, while others become the foundation for his photographic narratives.
Scientist Erwin Boer fills a few notebooks a year (notebook, lab book, and field book are the terms of choice in the scientific community, though none of the scientists I interviewed balked at the term journal). Like ParkeHarrison, they are very dear to him as repositories of ideas. He does not return to them as often as the photographer, however, conceding that while the journals contain many publishable ideas, he rarely pursues them because after he has played with a thought it no longer holds fascination for him.
Which touches on another use of the journal: they are a place to play, safe haven away from our embedded editor. We vent and brainstorm and try on different guises in our journals. They are seldom read by others—unless we invite someone in or our trust is broken. In them, we are released from the obligation to create polished work or to play nice. Architect Anderson e PC
Kenny says that when he first began to keep a journal he foun "I was free between the pages."
Not surprisingly, several contributors talked abou meditative process. Kenny says, "I work in my journal it liberating t their journals as a ery day. If I don't, I
feel a void. It's like a prayer or meditation." Renato Umali finds the process of reviewing his day via his journal meditative and grounding, a connection to self that he might otherwise lose. Several contributors are students of Buddhism who commented on the similar attention to detail necessitated both by meditation and journal keeping. As Hinchman has written, "Buddhists and practitioners of yoga have made it their goal to get past the needlings of nervous energy to a deeper layer of stillness."
A journal can play the role of teacher when one allows it to, whether in slowing us down or in re-training our eye. It assists us in seeing the unexpected, to revel in incongruities. Illustrator Maira Kalman refers to this as "the serendipity of life." She always has a journal in hand to help her remember what she sees that might seem too fleeting to recall otherwise—the pigeon-toed girl in the purple pants clutching a pink notebook. Or, as she says, "what you're not supposed to be looking at," like the guard at the museum rather than the Rembrandt on the wall. Likewise, quilt maker Denyse Schmidt finds inspiration in unlikely places: the shapes on the backs of tractor trailers, the colors of ice cream.
Not surprisingly, journal keepers tend to have specific material requirements about their supplies. Lined paper versus unlined. The thickness of the paper. Softbound or hardbound. All can make or break the experience. Several contributors were not choosy, but they were the exceptions. Geologist Rick Hoblitt, for instance, has relied on brown Department of the Interior DI-6 field notebooks throughout his career. For someone associated with quirkiness,
During an eight-hour layover in San Francisco, director Mike Figgis noticed these nuns and quickly sketched them. Like many contributors, he says he does some of his best thinking in airports singer-songwriter David Byrne displays absolutely no finicky behavior when it comes to his journals. He uses datebooks, legal pads, or random blank books picked up on the road.
Others are more purposeful in their use of simple materials. Like writing guru Natalie Goldberg, who recommends plain-Jane spiral notebooks for their lack of import, Lynda Barry favors legal pads because they remind her that she's just messing around. "Some diaries seem too good to use," she says. "That's something that's always been a conflict for me. They seem so perfect until I write on the first page. Then somehow they seem ruined."
More often, avid journalers are on the brink of being book fetishists, col-
During an eight-hour layover in San Francisco, director Mike Figgis noticed these nuns and quickly sketched them. Like many contributors, he says he does some of his best thinking in airports lecting journals on trips and receiving them as gifts. They can recite names of companies that produce blank books the way some people know wines or shoe labels (care for a Daler-Rowney?) and are on more than nodding terms with a wide array of pens and art supplies; even the non-visual artists can be particular about their pens. They become excited and nostalgic when remembering stationery stores from past trips. Do you know the store on the southwest corner of the mall in D.C. that sells European notebooks? I go to a paperie in Paris off the rue de Rivoli and stock up. One serial journal keeper I
spoke with panicked when the small-size notebooks he had been using were no longer available. He called the company and purchased the rest of their stock—all three hundred books—enough for the rest of his life.
Hinchman and painter Mike Roberts make their own books—no need to worry about their going out of style. Director Mike Figgis was rhapsodic about the perfect Italian journal he had recently purchased. Many people mentioned having Italian journals in their collections, but most were hesit to use them: "Too confining." "Too beautiful."
Journal keepers are notably attached to the tactile quality of books as opposed to computers. "Show me a Palm [Pilot] you can glue stuff into," photographer Lyle Owerko says of his choice to keep a book rather than an electronic organizer. Though digital journals, especially blogs, are the fastest growing form of journal keeping, many visual thinkers prefer to work by hand. A pen and its slower pace ground them in the process more than the machinations of a computer. Among the artist contributors here, most believe important lessons can be learned from drawing. As Andrew Swift, a medical illustrator, explains of his field, "You can easily make atmospheric perspective on a computer, such as in illustrating a cell, but you wouldn't know to do that unless you'd solved that problem in traditional drawing first."
The journal helps us see. The act of putting something down in a book— journals sitting and drawing, finding the right words of description, mixing the truest contributo colors—forces us to look so much more closely at a subject. Science illustrator Jenny Keller waits patiently at the window of an aquarium tank with a Pantone color book in hand to get just the right hue. Volancanologist Hoblitt makes cursory notes throughout the day when on assignment, then burns the midnight oil getting down the details as accurately as possible.
Unlike Keller, who is working for clients, or Hoblitt, whose science is relie upon by many others, most of us have only ourselves knocking on the door looking for material. Still, we'd rather retain vibrant, lush memories than wa tered-down, cliched ones. During her year-and-a-half-long bicycle trip around the world, Sophie Binder finished seven journals. The process slowed her already unhurried pace, forcing her to dig deep into a place and absorb the lines of its buildings, the color of the clothing, the scent on the wind. Even traveling through her hometown in southwestern France she saw thing she'd never noticed before: "You sit in one spot and you're paying attention to many things you wouldn't have seen otherwise."
Thoreau is often considered the patron saint of the written journal Walden, based on the journal he kept during his famous sojourn near a lak the Massachusetts woods, is a celebration of close observation and a model for generations of followers, from conservationist Aldo Leopold to essayistpoet Annie Dillard. Every writer who has followed in Thoreau's footsteps has done so with eyes wide open, intent on seeing things previously unnoticed. "How much virtue there is in simply seeing!" intones Thoreau, a line if ever there was one to tape on the inside cover of a journal.
Dating back to their earliest iterations, journals have been steeped in
observation, giving them a visual nature even when they do not contain drawings. One of the earliest journals, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, by a member of the Japanese court in the Heian Period at the end of the tenth century, is resplendent with impressionistic threads, such as "...clad in Court cloaks that look lighter than a cicada's wings." Though her book was not unusual at the time (Thomas Mallon writes, "Japanese women were confiding their emotions to 'pillow books,' kept in a slipcase and away from a husband eyes, for centuries before there was anything like a tradition of diary-keep ing in the West.") Shonagon's eye was notably sharp. Her journal was dri by a purposeful system, of which she explains: "I set about filling the not books with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, o including the most trivial material. On the whole I concentrated on things people that I found charming and splendid; my notes are also full of poetry and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects."
Her purpose and method were not so dissimilar from that described by
Leonardo da Vinci in one of his notebooks order, made up of many sheets which I have copied here, hoping afterwards to arrange them in order in their proper places according to the subjects of ften
ften which they treat; and I believe that before I am at the end of this I shall have to repeat the same thing several times; and therefore, O reader, blame me not, because the subjects are many, and the memory cannot retain them an say 'this I will not write because I have already written it.'"
Journal keepers with artistic and scientific bents acclaim da Vinci, much
Around 1517, in his role as "first painter, engineer, and architect" to the King of France, Leonardo da Vinci made these sketches for a completely new city, Romorantin, to house the royal court.
more so than Thoreau, for how widely he cast his sight and how magnificently he rendered what he saw, both real and imagined. Nothing was too small or too puzzling for his curiosity. He left behind thousands of sketches, many of them collected into codices by either da Vinci himself or his inheritors. Their subjects mirror his interest in anatomy, the nature of water, urban planning, flying machines, and the properties of color and light, to name a few.
Da Vinci valued sight above all other means of perception. "The eye, which is said to be the window of the soul, is the main organ whereby man's understanding can have the most complete and magnificent view of the infinite works of nature." Ironically, da Vinci partly grounded his science and art in firsthand observation, as opposed to the day's reliance on books by learned experts, because he could not read Latin proficiently.
His practice of empirical observation, so apparent in his journals, revolu-
tionized many areas of study. Centuries later, Thomas Jefferson was certainly under its sway when he wrote to Lewis and Clark as they organized their momentous journey: "Your observations are to be taken with great pains and accuracy to be entered distinctly, and intelligibly for others as well as yourself, to comprehend all the elements necessary, with the aid of the usual tables to fix the latitude and longitude of the places at which they were taken.. Several copies of these as well as of your other notes, should be made at leisure times and put into the care of the most trustworthy of your attendants, to guard by multiplying them against the accidental losses to which they will
Around 1517, in his role as "first painter, engineer, and architect" to the King of France, Leonardo da Vinci made these sketches for a completely new city, Romorantin, to house the royal court.
be exposed. A further guard would be that one of these copies be written on the paper of the birch, as less liable to injury from damp than common paper." Heeding Jefferson's instructions, Lewis and Clark's journals survive to this day, including notes from both men and five other members of their party. Lewis, who was prone to moodiness and melancholia, made particularly keen observations about flora and fauna. Clark's notes, which suffer from poor spelling and grammar, contain more sketches. The result of variously tempered and differently skilled authors keeping a lengthy record of one trip has allowed for a more composite picture of what was encountered on the historic exploration.
Exploration and its modern cousin, travel, have made for some <
of the greatest journals. Frank Hurley, for example, kept a journal of the harrowing 1914 Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition led by Ernest Shackleton. Hired as a filmmaker-photographer, Hurley brought photographic plates and film canisters, the bulk of which had to be abandoned when the team's ship sank in frigid waters and supplies were pared to absolute essentials. His journal, then, provided an important window into the ill-fated trip.
The appeal many journals have for outside readers lies in voyeurism. A journal that lacks this eavesdropping characteristic can be disappointing. I remember finding a copy of a great-great grandfather's diary and being terribly let down when it recorded little more than the weather and the health of the cows on his farm. Unless one is interested in the style of a specific artist, sketchbooks often lack the personal element. Two notable exceptions, both cited frequently by artist journal keepers, are Delacroix's of his trip to Morocco and Frida Kahlo's visual diary. The former, resplendent with color, reminds modern readers of how sensually evocative travel was prior to frequent flyer miles and CNN. The artist returned to it for years, its themes and palate reoccurring in his canvases. Kahlo's journal, dense with psychological imagery, offers clues into the painter's highly autobiographical work. Maintained during the final decade of her life, it served as both artistic playground and personal sounding board.
While such historical examples are some of the inspirations cited by contributors to this book, others are more personal or less well known. The surrealists' game of the exquisite corpse and its emphasis on the subconscious were mentioned by several contributors, as was the work of designer Edward Tufte, artists Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer, and composer John Cage—the latter not for any journals of his own but for his philosophy that art is more about perception and the way one interacts with the world than about what one makes.
Professors, colleagues, and family members were also frequently mentioned as models for journal keeping. The most important inspiration to Robert ParkeHarrison was his grandfather, a landscape painter in the Ozarks, who left behind journals that ParkeHarrison copied as a teenager. "I was so impressed by the constant observational notes he kept, the charting of his vision throughout his creative life," ParkeHarrison recalls. "I am drawn to
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