A Bullet Journal Journey to Page-Chomping Freedom

The first draft of this essay, with bronze bunny sculpture by Amber Jean

When I was a kid, probably about eight years old, I got my first hardcover journal. I think it was for my birthday, though it could have come in an Easter basket. We were a gift-giving family, so sometimes after decades have passed, I don’t remember precisely what holiday was the occasion for a gift. But I do remember that the notebook was the same size as the one I’m writing in right now, because it’s both big enough and portable enough. It’s also a pretty standard size for journals.

I still have it; it’s in a trunk in my closet. It’s easy to remember when you can just go look at a thing. It has an illustration on the front of a generic Teddy bear-type wearing overalls. It wasn’t Corduroy, the storybook bear I loved for his love of pockets, but he was close enough. Outside this bear’s rectangular frame is a pattern of little pink flowers. As a kid, I loved it.

I started in immediately, in ink of many colors. I wrote one- and two-paragraph short stories. I would now try to elevate these by calling them flash fiction. I wrote rhyming couplets and odes to every animal that passed through our yard. I wrote haiku about every object my gaze fell across, including two-liter pop bottles. Over the next few days, I wrote like a tiny little motherfucker. I had pages to fill in a hardcover notebook.

You Don’t Have to Fill It, But You Can

Then my mom, a big supporter of my writing habit then and now, and the purchaser of the bear notebook, told me to slow down. I didn’t have to fill it so fast. I could ponder. Savor. Commit only the best, most meaningful thoughts to the bound pages. I think it was the haiku about pop bottles that made her think maybe I wasn’t being judicious in my use of the journal.

Of course, she didn’t say anything like that at all. She probably tossed off some very Mom phrase, like, “Don’t use it up all at once.” She meant don’t be wasteful. I grade-school brain heard that what I wrote had to count — every word.

Break the Curse of the Unused Notebooks

So for most of my life I have balanced two truths: I love notebooks. I never use the notebooks I have. If a project won’t fill it, neatly and completely and brilliantly, then why sully its pages with shitty attempts and half-formed ideas? A hardbound notebook should be like a handwritten novel, start to finish, precious and correct. No false starts, no half-formed ideas, no haiku about Orange Crush because it happens to be what’s in front of you when you have a pen and a notebook in your hands while you sit on the floor of the kitchen for some weird kid reason.

I did not realize the depth of my belief in the unified theory of journals until I started a Bullet Journal in October 2016. Desperate for a new way to capture everything from ideas to schedules to notes at trade shows, I did what I had never done before. In the middle of a Moleskine I was using as a half-assed journal, I changed the format. I started bullet journaling instead. I watched creator Ryder Carroll’s video and read the tutorials for how to start a Bullet Journal. I dove in very messily, ready to abandon the system at the first whiff of bullshit.

I have not missed a week in a year and a half. I have blown through, used up, raced through, and filled up two journals, and I’m seventy-five pages into my third. One I bought new for this purpose. One I bought as a vacation souvenir but then didn’t use because it was too lovely. One had dots. Two had lines. One had a soft cover, and I learned that I prefer hard covers that lie flat, though I am not religious about this or any other bullet journal detail. I have filled them. Am filling them. Will fill them.

2017 Eclipse spread with a tiny attempt at visual interest.

All Work, No Play

My Bullet Journals are not pretty. No calendar stamps. Some halfhearted attempts at color and washi tape. No illustrated monthly introduction pages. Lots of to-do lists, goals, and simple calendars. Lots of project idea caches. Lots of quotes and thoughts from books I’m reading — a commonplace. Lots of notes for books and essays I’m incubating. Lots of notes for role playing games I’m running.

A draft of this very essay in longhand over several pages, as seen at the top of this post.

My mom — my biggest fan — meant nothing by her comment. In that way of grade-school minds, I heard mountains more, and that mountain followed me for thirty-five years. Bullet journals turned that fixation on only worthy words in only the most beautiful journals into the ridiculous molehill it should have been all along.

I change layouts constantly. I fill pages. I abandon pages. I never save blank pages for a rainy day. I live in Oregon, where it rains all the time. I tear right through these journals like a bear in a blueberry patch. (Another favorite childhood book: Blueberries for Sal.) I gobble up pages and let the ink run down my chin.

Tracking travel in my monthly calendar.

Pages are not precious. Ideas are too important to worry about their worth before they even get out of my head. I need to see them and turn them over like a hunk of rock. Worth polishing into a jewel? Today? Tomorrow? Worth chomping through the pages, one after another, to make this happen yet? Worth starting a collection to outline the steps to make this idea a reality? Worth putting it in the six-month planner? Worth sketching the idea for the website over a two-page spread?

Idea Incubator

The bullet journal is the incubator for all those messy thoughts and the lists that give them structure.

Using up a journal doesn’t mean I’m done. It means exactly the opposite: I’ve got more. Always more. So much more.

Want a bronze sculpture of your own? Visit Amber Jean’s website.

Want to know how to start a simple, messy Bullet Journal of your own? Visit the BuJo website.


2 responses to “A Bullet Journal Journey to Page-Chomping Freedom”

  1. Still your biggest fan, love your style of writing and share it with anyone who will stand still for 5 secs. I am sure I did say slow down you don’t have to fill it in a day in a much more elaborate turn of a phrase.

  2. Because you are my biggest fan, I fixed your typo. 🙂 – khg