Writing While Autistic #13: The Trouble with Paper Journals
Sticky Note:  All text in Writing While Autistic is my personal reflections and thoughts, which are based on my experience alone. Please take what you need from this and ignore the rest. 

I'm frequently hearing "I'm not autistic, but this is really useful to me." I'm really glad to hear that this generalizes to other neuroatypicalities. 

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I finished a paper journal last week. For many writers I know, finishing paper journals is no big deal - I know folks that go through many paper journals routinely.  

I have never finished a paper journal before. In my life. This was the first.

It took me 13 months to finish this journal, and today, as I finished the last page, I get to congratulate myself on what is, for many people, a regular thing and which is, for me, an incredible accomplishment.

Journals are useful tools for so many things. People use journals to plan and carry out creative writing, to engage in self-discovery and healing, keep track of to-do items and scheduling, improve daily functioning, art/creativity, music composition, whateer. And yet, for many people, paper journals do not feel accessible.

I talk to many neuroatypical people (not just autistic; neuroatypical) people about finding paper journals hard and generally inaccessible. I often hear "Oh, I thought I was alone in this! I did not realize that other people struggle with this!" I do not have hard and fast data, but I do wonder how this connects to our various neuroatypicalities.

I am especially interested in the sensory components of journal inaccessibility. Many of us feel the need for visual perfection or order. "Perfection" is such a loaded word, but I think many of us feel the need for something to feel visually right  - many of us like things to be visually presented in patterns, some of us like things to line up, etc.

I think that for many of us, paper journals are easily spoiled by a minor visual imperfection such as a smudge, a minor correction, a badly drawn line, a sticker glued askew - whatever this is, it can feel viscerally disturbing. For many of us, visual order is important and when it is disrupted, it feels disturbing.

I often see this discussed in terms of OCD, anxiety, or "perfectionism." I feel that this is not about, or not just about, "perfectionism" (another loaded word) or necessarily about OCD/control. I believe there is a sensory component to this which is a part of a larger group of sensory issues that aggravate us on a visceral, embodied level. 

Journal pages which do not look right can cause sensory discomfort similar to such familiar issues as sensitivity to blinking lights, needing foods to be arranged a certain way, sensitivity to textures or sounds. "Mistakes" on paper can feel viscerally painful.

A flaw on a physical page is difficult and often impossible to eradicate, and it can feel disturbing to have it there. For me, this is the #1 issue of journal abandonment. I can fix things on the screen, but I cannot fix them on a physical page. If I had to write my stories and poems longhand, I would not have written anything.

I tried to figure this out by quickly listing words that I associate with "good spreads" - neat and good-looking pages that have a positive feeling for me. Here are the words I listed:

feels good, neat, orderly, calm, quiet, put together, pretty, useful

The pages which did not live up to "good spread" status were associated with words:

spoiled, destroy, painful, overwhelming, ruined, shrill, mistakes, agitated, mess

Some of these words have to do with sensory input and its outcomes: quiet vs shrill, calm vs agitated, overwhelming. Some of the words had to do with how the pages made me feel: feels good vs painful. Some had to do with perfectionism (neat, orderly, put together vs messy, mistakes, spoiled). Making the list made me originally wonder whether perfectionism has sensory aspects, especially for neuroatypical people who have other sensory needs.

I want to stop and think a bit about the words "useful" vs "destroy." From various conversations, I know I am not the only person who abandoned or destroyed work on paper because it was too overwhelming. Yet we want our journals to be useful - we want to get the often-discussed benefits from journaling. We want to use journals for creative writing and to improve executive functioning.

So... I don't have any actual  answers, but I am going to think aloud about what happened to help me finish this one journal.

General things

Adapted bullet journaling method - I found the original Bullet Journal videos very calming, but I could not fully follow the original system. I adopted the dot grid and some of the listing notation, as well as the idea of "collections."

Formatting: subtle dot grid on nice paper meant that I could produce writing in a relatively straight line and also add doodles.

Not varying my tools: I use a brush pen for titles, Black Pilot V5 for writing text, and three colors of color pencils for marking finished items and for doodling. The visual continuity helps me immensely.

The things above are kind of standard, and in particular I guess most people who journal discuss what kind of notebook/pens/pencils to get, which headers to use, etc. And these are important, as well as the bujo approach, but I used them before in unfinished journals. 

What worked differently this time:

Permission. On first page, I wrote: "And, you know what, it's ok not to finish this notebook." (I have been beating myself up for not finishing notebooks ever; felt that it was a waste of time and money). This phrase helped me immensely.

Stickers and doodles. I got bird and animal stickers that I really like and I started adding them to pages. This made the pages cheerful. I also added bird and animal doodles to cheer up the pages. It helped view spreads as overall pretty and more organic somehow even if they had mistakes.

Thinking of journals not in terms of "all the journal" but in terms of SPREADS: two pages at a time. If I spoil a spread, and I have a bunch of space yet left, I fill it with a big doodle or a sticker and move to the next spread.

This resulted in really sparse pages in the beginning of the journal. Some spreads were only half finished when I needed to move on. With time, however, the power of accrual kicked in (more on this in a separate post), and I accrued good spreads along with not so great ones, and the journal started feeling lived-in. My pages became denser.

Permission to use REALLY BIG WORDS. Flying back from Worldcon, my brush pen exploded in flight (this is a thing bc air pressure, I should have thought about it) and I ruined two spreads, bc the ink seeped through onto the next page. I dried the pages and turned them into a Rorschach-like things, journaling in VERY BIG LETTERS about how badly I wanted to abandon the journal. That helped me deal - but I would not have been able to continue if the journal was new. And that is important to acknowledge: beginnings are hard.

Coloring squares. I found out that coloring squares on my to-do lists (instead of checking them off) was very calming, looked nice, and provided visual continuity. I started coloring squares a lot and I am going to continue to color squares.

Repetitiveness. I want my spreads to look nice, but I also found out that repetitiveness is key. I Visual continuity is comforting, so the more repetitive my format is, the more comfortable I feel with it. Somewhere mid-journal I figured out how my headlines should look, I liked using stickers from the same sticker book, I figured out that I liked coloring squares, etc, etc. - so there were different elements but they repeated again and again, providing both variety and continuity.

The more spreads I accrued, the more comfortable I was with the mess in the journal. It added up to an organic whole rather to a single spoiled page.

I started a new journal last week and... well, I smudged a few words on the second page bc I guess I did not perfectly dry my hands after washing them? It is minor, but am struggling. I have no idea whether I will be able to continue with this one - but if this was my old journal, chances are, I would not have been struggling this much, bc it already felt homey and lived in, and the new journal does not. We'll see what happens.

As to whether journaling and finishing tis journal was worth it for me: yes, absolutely yes. I am doing better at my to-do list, I planned many writing-related things in it and finished a number of writing projects using the journal, and I also figured out some therapy-related things. So yes, absolutely, it was worth it. I also feel I gained insight into a system that works for me (turns out that both visual continuity and variety are important to me, and having a consistent yet creative format helps live with mistakes). But this was hard, and the first time I finished a journal after literally decades of trying. It's still hard to believe that journals can be accessible.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences related to journaling!