Journaling Idea #24: Begin with a Song

I often catch myself unexpectedly humming and wonder why I thought of that song. Follow your subconscious, and write.

Boombox photo from Wikimedia Commons

Option 1: Playlist Your Day

If you enjoy journaling as a way of reflecting on your day, then consider creating a playlist of songs that would work as a soundtrack for your day. Include a title for at least four parts of the day:

  • Morning
  • Afternoon
  • Evening
  • Night

Option 2: Your Story Behind the Song

You can write about a song that comes to mind, or you can use the following steps:

Make a Google search for a certain year and genre. I searched the best country songs of 1995.

Pick out a song you remember identifying with more than once. I chose Bryan White’s “Someone Else’s Star.”

Find a recording of the song and listen to it.

Describe where the song takes you. “Someone Else’s Star” takes me to my dorm room. I’m lying on my bed all alone, listening to the radio as I look at the window. I was twenty-six and single.

What was your favorite line or lines? Why?

The chorus spoke to me as I tried to rationalize why I was stuck alone.

I guess I must be wishin’ on someone else’s star
It seems like someone else keeps gettin’ what I’m wishin’ for
Why can’t I be as lucky as those other people are?
Oh, I guess I must be wishin’… on someone else’s star

How do you feel about the song today?

As a man who has found his love, I don’t identify with this song anymore. It fit me as a single graduate student. I felt incomplete. My wife makes me feel whole.

Option 3: Playfully Parody

As a teen in the 1980s, I loved Weird Al Yankovic.

If you get an alternative thought to a song you hear, follow that angle and write a parody.

Option 4: Lyrics for a Tune Without Words

Listening to instrumental music that has no lyrics, or whose lyrics you do not know, can provide you with the opportunity to compose words for the tune yourself, or the piece may inspire you to imagine a narrative.

Option 5: Write Your Own Song

Reflect on your day, and sing what you feel. Write down the words that come to mind. Start with the classic verse,-chorus-verse-chorus pattern.


Journaling Idea #23: A Commonplace Book

Years ago, after reading Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone,” I started my own commonplace book.

Different than a diary or a journal, the commonplace book focuses on material gathered from others.  Its power for creativity lies in the opportunity it provides its maker to see the similarity and differences of what others have said about a given topic, to note the range and gaps. Commonplace books also serve as a writer’s personal pantry of quotations to add to their own creations.

from David Stone’s Inlandia Literary Journeys: Consider ‘commonplace book’ as alternative to a journal February 17, 2018

Read my whole column on commonplace books as it appeared in The Press Enterprise newspaper.

Journaling Idea #22: Count Your Day

By replica by François D’Albert Durade (1804-1886) – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1405, Public Domain

Count That Day Lost

If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard,
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went --
Then you may count that day well spent.

But if, through all the livelong day,
You've cheered no heart, by yea or nay --
If, through it all
You've nothing done that you can trace
That brought the sunshine to one face--
No act most small
That helped some soul and nothing cost --
Then count that day as worse than lost.

Many have been inspired to reflect on their day by the words of the Victorian novelist and poet Mary Ann Evans (22 November 1819-22 December 1880), who published under the pen name George Eliot.

My wife’s high school English teacher Ora Mae Kirk regularly exhorted her students with a variation of Eliot’s words. She proclaimed, “Count that day lost in which you learn no knew thing.”

Considering the success of your day can be meaningful reflective activity for all of us. You may make this judgment a part of your daily writing. You may include it as a part of a traditional diary approach to journal writing, or you may choose to keep a mini journal where all you record are your wins and losses.

You can adopt the criteria of George Eliot, Ora Mae Kirk, another moralist, or one of your own making.

You might find inspiration for your own criteria for a well-spent day in one of Ananya Bhatt’s “50 A Day Well Spent Quotes for Friends and Family.”

Whatever your criteria, you might want to write it out inside the cover of your journal.

I say, “Count each day where you write from both your head and your heart a day well spent.”

Journaling Idea #21: An Anecdote Journal

A photo of the rest area at Oakland Woods on I-90 in the U. S. taken by daveynin

Seven years ago I wrote about anecdotes for an Inlandia Literary Journeys column titled “Anecdotes Are the Antidote” that was published in the Press Enterprise newspaper on October 18, 2015.

I advocated in my column that our personal anecdotes deserved a place on our coffee tables along with our photos. I’d still make that argument, but I no longer recommend writing them on index cards and keeping them in a box. Experience has taught me that a journal is a safer place.

Years ago a student caught my attention as he went to leave the classroom.

            “Can I go to the bathroom?” he asked.

            “I don’t know.  Can you go to the bathroom?” I replied with my typical smart-aleck teacher response.

            “Yeah, I can,” he said matter-of-factly and left the room.

This anecdote illustrates the basic three part-structure of most anecdotes. Anecdotes are simple narratives with a beginning, middle, and end.

The beginning sets up the story. It provides context. The writer often answers three questions: When? Where? Who?

In the middle, the writer creates conflict by presenting a complication. The reader learns the answer to the fourth question: What? They learn what first happened, and they begin to wonder what will happen next.

The end provides the twist and tells us the answer to the fifth question: How? How did things turn out?

Anecdotes don’t always answer our typical sixth question: Why?

Not all anecdotes are humorous, but many are. They follow the classic pattern of humor: preparation, anticipation, punch line.

So whether you pick out an event from each day and record it in your journal as an anecdote, or your choose to write on the days when something strikes your proverbial funny bone, I hope you’ll sharpen your narrative skills through anecdotes.

If you come up with some funny anecdotes, you might be able to earn some money. Reader Digest is always looking for jokes and funny story. Look here for details about submitting.

Journaling Idea #19: Divide the Year by Your Age

I’ll be 54 in 2023 since I was born in 1969. When I divide the number of days in a year by my age (365÷54), I get 6.759, which means I could write about each year of my life for about a week. My son who is turning 18 would end up with about three weeks for each year of his life. By now, I think you get the idea.

Your entries could be fictional or nonfictional.

I enjoyed reading the Nobel Prize winning writer Gϋnter GrassMy Century, an overview of the twentieth century created in a modernist style with varying narrators and styles. A story is told for each year of the century.

Photo of Günter Grass from Wikimedia

I propose one could write a similar view of the years of one’s own life. I’d start with 1969.

For the first day you write about each year, I’m suggesting you make the entry an overview of what you can remember about that year, what you can remember being told about that year by older members of your family, and with any remaining space recall or gather information about that year. Consider looking at a Wikipedia entry for that year, or searching the Internet for trends in fashion, food, or vehicles. Look up what movies, television shows, books, and games were popular that year. Find out what was happening in sports.

For the remaining days you write about each year, which would be five or six days for me, recall stories you remember from that year about yourself or other members of your family.

If you don’t recall enough about your personal life, consider filling each day with nonfictional articles about what ever interests you from that day, or write a fictional story about a character set during that year.

Your journal will create a unique portrait of the time period you have lived so far.

Journaling Idea #17: A Comic Journal

Photo with Comic Mono filter by Erin Stone: Super Stan Man

I took a course in the graphic novel years ago. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art was our primary text for the course. It’s a great place to start if you do not have a background in comics, also called visual literature.

When I thought about the idea of keeping a comic journal, I searched the Internet to see if I could buy one for a reasonable price or if I should just begin with a blank journal that I already had around the house.

I bought this book at my local Target because I didn’t want to wait for one of the many other options for comic journals I found on Amazon to arrive to my house.

I viewed Palle Schmidt youtube video on How to write and draw comics! Episode 3. I don’t think I’m personally interested in his book The Devil’s Concubine, but I think he gives some solid tips on making comics.

I decided I want to draw myself fairly realistically. I remembered the comic filter on my phone (on my phone it is an option as a filter in the text message app) and took a few photos to get me started. My daughter teasingly calls me StanMan because Stanley is my middle name. I decided I would title my journal The Adventures of StanMan. I took some photos with my the filter on my phone and then attempted my own drawings in my journal.

A photo I took with the Comic Mono filter of the template page I decided to use to start.
This is the first three panels I’ve drawn. So far, I didn’t find a need for captions or speech balloons. I’ll use some of those soon enough.
This is a panel my daughter Erin drew for me as a start to her comic journal. She enjoys drawing comics.

I’ve got a ways to go with my comic drawing skills. (Just look at my first attempt at drawing my face!) However, I think I will keep drawing entries in my new journal and improve my skills.

Once again, your journal is your journal. You decide what you put in it and how often. You may want to stick with one approach to journaling that you do every day, or you may chose to work in different journals on different days. Maybe an eclectic journal is what you want. We’ll explore that idea on another day.

Journaling Idea #16: Make it Molecular

Photo by Erin Stone

You could choose to write about molecules, but that’s not what I’m suggesting here. I’m recommending you write in very small particles. Try writing an atom poem. I learned of this short form variation of a haiku from a post on Ben Alexander’s “The Skeptic’s Kaddish,” a blog I enjoy following. Alexander cites the Poets Collective website for the source of the instructions for the form:

  • Provide a title.
  • Write in a series of three-line stanzas.
  • Use five letters in the first line of each stanza
  • Use seven letters in the second line of each stanza.
  • Use five letters in the third line of each stanza.
  • Do NOT capitalize any letters.
  • Do NOT use punctuation.
  • Use as many stanzas as needed.

Below is my first attempt at an atom poem:

Photo by Erin Stone

When it Snows in San Bernardino




on top




peaks of


You can create a whole journal devoted to atomic poems, or make a journal devoted to short form poetry where you try out a different form each day, week, or month. You could create an eclectic journal where you respond to different prompts/ideas on each page. You’re in charge of your writing. Your journal is yours.

Journaling Idea #15: Introductions

Put your imagination to work each entry and create the first meeting of two fictional characters or recall the first time you met someone in real life. First impressions say a lot.

I don’t have to imagine the first time I met my wife. I stepped into my graduate classmate’s apartment and turned my head to follow the sound of laughter. Sitting in Todd’s curvy Ikea chair just to the right of the door was a curly blond with mischievous blue eyes that glinted in the light from floor lamp as we were introduced. I was struck by her confidence. Besides being tall like her brother that I already knew, she looked nothing like him with his angular frame, olive complexion and dark hair. She was full-figured, and lightly tanned with naturally rosy cheeks. I was immediately taken with her, but it was her witty sense of humor that made me wonder why it had taken us so long to meet.

Romantic meetings may have obvious appeal, but first encounters with all types of people can add interest to any narrative.

“The Lion and the Mouse,” bronze statue by Tom Otterness
(Photo by Qwertzu 111111)

Consider character options by their narrative role:

  • protagonist
  • antagonist
  • deuteragonists
  • love interests
  • foils
  • tertiary characters

Think about types of relationships:

  • family
    • parent-child
    • siblings
    • cousins
    • aunts/uncles and niece/nephews
    • grandparents and grandchildren
  • work
    • boss and employee
    • coworkers
    • seller/service provider and a client
    • educator/healthcare provider and support staff
  • friendships
  • acquaintances
  • situational
  • educational
    • classmates
    • teacher-student
    • cross grade

Think comic book:

  • hero
  • villian
  • mentor
  • comrade/sidekick
  • trickster
  • victim
  • fool

Whatever the pair you put together, remember the basic ways a writer reveals character:

  • Direct characterization
    • the narrator states the character’s trait(s)
  • Indirect characterization
    • character’s speech
    • character’s actions
    • character’s appearance
    • character’s thoughtshts
    • how other characters respond to them in speech/action

Reviewing the pages of your introductions journal may feel like your watching speed dating, improv, or a job interview. You’ll likely want to turn the page on some of the characters, but others you will want to get to know better. Give those their own document, but keep making more introductions.

Journal Idea #14: It’s All in the Form of a Sentence

Illustration: Chiswick Chap

“Not every pretty thing should be touched,” my son read aloud with joy from Anthony Ryan’s The Martyr. The insight of the novel’s protagonist and former outlaw Allwyn Scribe spoke to my son not only because of the ringing truth of its content, but also because of its form.

Look a the placement of the negative adverb at the beginning of the sentence. What a difference it makes to remove it: every pretty thing should be touched.

Consider the turn of the sentence’s final word–touched.

Play with the content: Not very man should be married.

A single sentence can provide so much fun.

Consider keeping a journal where you play with the forms of a sentence.

Your entries could include one or more of the following:

  • Quote a memorably constructed sentence.
  • Imitate a sentence you admire.
  • Define a grammatical construction.
  • Define a rhetorical device.
  • Construct a sentence from a grammatical or rhetorical definition.
  • Play with the construction of a single sentence, trying out diferrent options.
  • Review the function of different punctuation marks.
  • Play with the punctuation of a sentence whose words remain in the same order.
  • Practice combing clauses in different patterns.
  • Savor a sentence by reading it aloud repeatedly with different intonations.
  • Analyze a sentence’s construction.
  • Attempt your own endeavors at techniques described in a book about sentences.

I thoroughly enjoyed Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. I got it for Christmas in 2011 when it was new. If you start looking at the options for books about sentences, you might be surprised at how many exist.

Cicero’s De Inventione

Journaling Idea #13: A Process Journal

Photo by David Stone of a bulletin board in his classroom depicting Donald Murray’s stages of the writing process as described in Murray’s book Write to Learn

Whatever you make, there is a process, a series of actions, that creates your product. I find value in consciously considering the process I follow for creating everything I make.

Graham Wallas designated five stages in the creative process in his 1921 book The Art of Thought:

  • Preparation
  • Incubation
  • Illumination
  • Evaluation
  • Verification

You can find a description for each of these stages on Pearce Center for Professional Communication hosted by Clemson University.

If the idea of a creative process is new to you, then take time to reflect on what you make and how you do it. How do I start? Is that how I really start? Is there anything before that? What’s the second thing I do? Write out a description of how you made your last creation? Do you see distinct phases? What would you call them? Are they similar or different than the stages of Graham Wallace?

Consider what new insights you might gain from documenting your creative process and reflecting on it.

Teaching writing as a process became the dominant approach to teaching writing in the United States during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Most frequently I see the writing process labeled in the writing textbooks with five stages:

  • Prewriting
  • Drafting
  • Revising
  • Editing
  • Presenting/Publishing

I have found value in creating discomfort in my students by presenting them with more than one model for the writing process. I want them to experience cognitive dissonance. Looking at the same process from a different perspective with a different set of labels deepens and broadens their understanding. I use Donald Murray’s labels to help them reconsider the writing process:

  • Conceiving
  • Collecting
  • Focus
  • Select
  • Order
  • Develop
  • Clarify

(The labels above are a mix of those found in Murray’s book Write to Learn and those accredited to Murray by Roy Peter Clark in an article on the Poytner website.) I have my students place their work in a classification folder with six flaps. Before they turn in their “final” draft, I have them write a reflection on the process of writing their paper. I ask them to consider the following questions:

What worked well for you? 

What gave you difficulty? 

What will you repeat the next time you have a similar writing task?

What will you do differently next time?

Which models/samples of similar writing influenced you?

Is there an aspect of the process where you think you need to sharpen your skills or gain more knowledge?

Of which aspect of this piece are you most proud?

I hope you will begin to keep your own process journal, if you haven’t already, where you record and reflect on how you make whatever it is that you value and create. Consider creating a model for your process and share it with other creators.