Journal Writing & Memoir: Using Your Journals For Research

I have over 30 journals chronicling my life from when I was seven years old to the present. Some are completely full. Some have only a handful of pages written upon. Some contain drawings, sketches, bits of a dried flower or two, a hand scrawled love note here and there, tear stains, angry pressured rants where the lines from the pen have dented the next few pages. There are prayers, conversations with God, joy and pain, despair and grace. They are my life in written word.

I laugh as I read the earliest ones with my one or two-line entries, “I love Geoff! He’s so hot.” Or “I hate school. I had a math test today.” Nothing inspiring, but it tells the story of my heart at the time. My heart aches as I read the later ones telling of my depression, anger at God, the bitter pain of divorce, the riotous conflict of an affair, the misery of miscarriage. I smile at the tender moments, the funny sarcasm recalling a night of passionate sex, a pointed commentary on my life.

Without those journals, I wouldn’t remember the majority of small and big instances that formed who I am today. The journals allowed me to express myself freely, without critics (except myself), and the freedom to run the gamut of emotions. Now, they offer the fodder for stories, memoirs, writing, articles, books. They provide the life lessons I pass down to other generations.

If you’re a memoir writer, your journals are goldmines in which the precious details of memory lie buried and waiting for excavation. If you’re lucky, and you’ve been a journal writer for some time, your past journal entries outline major events with concrete, sensory details, bits of setting and dialogue, and your emotional responses. But even if you didn’t write fill in all those details, your journal entries contain the kernels of your memories, and they will energize the memoir-writing process.  It is by combining what you’ve written with what you remember that you arrive at a deeper, richer story. It is by listening to what your story wants to tell you, that you are doing the real work of writing memoir.

Journal writing is not the same as writing a memoir. However, journal writing (yours or others’) can be a wonderful research tool. When you become aware of the value of your journals, you begin to write in them differently, recording more of your life.

How to use your journal for research:

Amber Lea Starfire, author of Writing Through Life blog, offers some great tips on how to use your journal for research:

Writing for the future — Amber wrote a list of Things You’ll Want to Include in your journal in a blog post over at, including a record of daily activities, thoughts and feelings about relationships and family events, local and national news (our lives are lived in the context of our social and political cultures), and internal influences (things that are changing the way you think or behave). Other ideas contributed by readers included TV shows, news about close friends, coincidences, and places they traveled. One person said that she created timelines of events for each month and year, categorized by areas of her life, such as “social,” “work,” and “spiritual,” so that she could track trends and progress.

If you review your past journal entries with an eye to writing about your life at that time, you’ll most likely wish that you’d included more information about some of the above items. And though it’s true that your time is limited and you can’t include everything in every entry, some of these things can be jotted in abbreviated form. Just enough to help you when mining your journal for stories later on in life.

Mining past entries — When using past journal entries as resources for memoir writing, look for the following kinds of information:

  • Information that informs scene: descriptions of your surroundings, the weather, who was there with you, action, and dialog, and evocative prose.
  • Information that informs reflection: how you felt about the events at the time, questions you may have had, hopes and fears expressed. What you knew then about what happened.
  • Information that informs context: surrounding journal entries (the before and after an event), political and social events, general emotional state.

On Friday, I’ll talk about 10o benefits of journaling. On Monday, I’ll share 7 steps of how to uncover the heart of your memoir from your journals.

Do you journal? Why or why not? What do you write in it? Is it a place to download your memories, or try out writing ideas? Do you draw, doodle, or vent? Is it a legacy keeper or a way to gather ideas for your memoir? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


9 thoughts on “Journal Writing & Memoir: Using Your Journals For Research

  1. I kept journals when I was younger, and I can remember some of the entries, which included lots of drawings of horses. (I used to ride.) But there came a point in my 20s when I thought they were foolish. So I destroyed them. Now I wonder what I was thinking. But I’ve never picked it up again—why, I’m not sure. I suspect I fall back on the excuse of “not enough time.” Maybe someday? Although my characters don’t like to share “their” writing time, so we’ll see!


    1. I think there’s always time to journal. They don’t have to long missives that I’m prone to write. They can be short ditties, artwork, poetry, a digital recording, etc. Be creative…and keep pursuing it! It will only enhance your writing. 🙂


  2. Kat,
    This is a popular topic on #JournalChat Live, which I host every Thursday for all things journaling on Twitter. I appreciate your inclusion of Amber Starfire’s covering of memoir with journal writing. One of the points you made that I appreciate is the amount of details we include in our journal entries, and how when we choose to really create a ‘scene’ so to speak, we can have much more to work with when we go to write memoir. It really can be all in the details!

    I have chosen your post, Journal Writing and Memoir: Using Your Journals for Research, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 8/31/12 for all things journaling on Twitter;
    I will post a link on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, my blog and website Refresh with Dawn Herring, and in Refresh Journal, my weekly e-journal:

    #JournalChat Live is every Thursday, 5 EST/2 PST, for all things journaling on Twitter; our topic is new every week. You’re welcome to join us!

    Thanks again for this informative post on what you recommend in those journal entries for memoir purposes.

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    Host of #JournalChat Live and Links Edition on Twitter
    Author of The Birthday Wall: Create a Collage to Celebrate Your Child


  3. Great post! Found you via The #memoir Daily. Following now, and I’ve shared this on Twitter, my FB page, and LinkedIn. Will also be sharing at SheWrites. I’ve never kept a diary or journals unfortunately. As a child and young girl, I knew better. If my mom had found them, the emotional and verbal abuse would have only become worse and at the time, I didn’t think I could take more. I’m fortunate at age 66 to still have a pretty vivid memory of my childhood. Recently I started a blog,, where I’ve been giving a voice to the child who couldn’t speak during those turbulent times. I’m finding that draws out memories I didn’t realize were hidden away. I’ll be looking forward to more good things from your blog. 🙂


    1. Thank you for such kind words and for sharing it! That means a lot to me. You’re quite lucky to have such a strong memory (or not, depending on how you look at it). I understand about not wanting others to find your journals. It happened to me once and the result was devastating on so many levels. I was heartbroken because they were used against me. It’s a huge step of faith to be willing to commit to paper (or digital) your innermost thoughts. I’m looking forward to reading your blog!

      As a side note, you should check out my friend’s blog: You remind me of her. 🙂


  4. Kat! It’s so lovely in this day & age, to encounter someone who has a passion for journaling as I do. For nearly 30 years, I had been journaling–unfortunately, ALL of those books/journals have been permanently lost to me. I am starting afresh plus I’m doing something else that I’ve long postponed, that is to write fiction.


    1. I love journaling and have been doing it for over 20 years! It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. 🙂 It has always been a passion of mine. It’s the best way for me to sort through my day, my feelings, my thoughts, and more.

      I’m so incredibly sorry to hear that you old journals are gone. I can understand the sadness as that happened to some of my paintings that I did.

      Best wishes to you starting fresh and your journey into writing fiction!


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