Are Journals Dead? The Forgotten Pen In the Digital World

by Brenna Holeman
Bratislava, Slovakia
When I was fresh out of university, I set forth on my first solo adventure – I travelled to Europe for four months, starting in Amsterdam and looping around the continent until finishing in London. I went through multiple countries and multiple pages of a treasured journal, one that sees me through romances and failures and self-discovery (and a lot of beer). I had always written a lot in my life – I have at least 20 journals and scrapbooks dating back to when I was five years old.
Back then, in 2006, my hand luggage consisted of little more than the travel necessities (wallet and passport), one tiny digital camera, one book, and my journal and pens. Last year, through Central and South America, my hand luggage contained three cameras, one laptop, one hard drive, one smart phone, one Kindle, oh yeah, and my journal and pens. Guess which one got the least amount of use?
I used to write voraciously in journals, big scrapbooks full of collages and soaring life goals or tiny Moleskines filled with to-do lists and proclamations of where I’d be in three years (both were usually abandoned or amended before I could cross them all off). Over the years, however, I’ve written on paper less and less, much to my disappointment. As I wrote in a recent post, one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t keep more detailed journals throughout Asia and South America – they were often just random quotes, quick notes, or the occasional cartoon.
I didn’t say they were GOOD cartoons. Little Corn, Nicaragua
So what happened? Well, this blog happened. And Facebook. And Twitter. And Instagram (yes, those were shameless plugs). I’m a fairly active traveller, in that I like to get out and explore, or, if I have downtime, I like to hang out at a bar or hostel lounge and talk to other people. When I travel, I devote very little time to going online, which is one of the reasons I’ve accepted I will never be a hugely successful blogger. In the past few years, however, if I do have some time to myself, I spend it by updating this blog, editing photos, writing emails, etc. I am then left with very little time to spend with my journal.
There’s my journal shoved in the corner. Bangkok, Thailand
Digital media and social networks are amazing – we can easily go back through our blogs or other networks to read what we were doing at any given time throughout our travels and our lives. What they don’t tell, however, are all the little details. I can’t even imagine how many times something momentous or hilarious or scary has happened, only for me to say, “I’ll write about that later.” I probably wrote about it 25% of the time. When I was younger, and without a laptop to cart around, I’d write in my journal almost every night. I’d write down every single name of every single traveller I met or chatted to – now I just add the occasional person to Facebook and tend to forget the names of others.
Osaka, Japan
I am so thankful for this blog, don’t get me wrong, but I write knowing that it will be shared with a public audience. I don’t write about every meal I eat, or every bus I take, or every person I kiss. I pick and choose what I feel like sharing. My journals from the past are mundane at times, but tell a detailed and chronologically-accurate story. I used to love spending an hour a day writing it all down. Now, if I’m rushed for time, I just send an arbitrary tweet: “I’m in Arequipa and it’s so beautiful!” I have a lot of Word documents of stories I’ll never post here, but they’re still not the same – they’re carefully crafted pieces, ones I edited, sometimes erasing entire paragraphs. They don’t have the honesty and permanency of a paper journal.
Spot the F-word. Prague, Czech Republic
This is not to say that I don’t journal at all – I just spend far more time on my laptop than with a pen on a page now. I also spent a lot less time solo last year; I do the most writing when I’m alone, naturally. It kills me that I may have forgotten some experiences or details while travelling because I’ve spent too much time online as opposed to writing down the day’s events. I also take a lot more photos these days, so I have that as a record, but there’s nothing like your own words to recall a day, whether you climbed Machu Picchu or spent it on a boring bus. There’s an adventure to be had everywhere, after all.
Kerri and her journal. Seoul, South Korea
Excerpt from the very first page of my journal, May 11th, 2006:
I am sitting in Damsquare in Amsterdam, across from the Royal Palace and Nieuwe Kerk, and just a stone’s throw from the Red Light District. The square, up until a few minutes ago, was filled mainly with pigeons, though now it’s filled with kids. I don’t hear anyone speaking English, but the palace bells are ringing to signify 12:30pm. So…how did I get here? It honestly feels like just yesterday I was booking the ticket, when that was actually more like three months ago. I just honestly cannot comprehend that I am in Europe right now…and I’m still terrified. I don’t know what I’m doing. Am I doing this? Is this real? Am I crazy?
Delicious breakfast – and a journal. Budapest, Hungary
I have 300 handwritten pages of my 22-year old thoughts as a solo traveller, and that journal is more valuable to me than nearly anything else in my life. While I cherish my blog and all of the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve dedicated to it, there’s something magical about the words we keep for ourselves, the words we scribble down in crowded coffeeshops, the words that write the little stories of the days that make up our journeys, the words that compose our lives.
Do you keep a journal? Has the Internet changed the way you document your travels?

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Megan July 16, 2013 - 2:07 pm

ive been a writer since the time i was very, very little. i bring a journal everywhere. but…just like you, i kind of put writing in it off and then never really get around to it 🙁 ive become lazy with writing over the years and will simply choose to blog, play on facebook/instagram, or something else before taking the time to write down thoughts on paper. and, as i slowly lose my english skills living in norway, i reallllly need to get back to writing more than ever!

This Battered Suitcase July 16, 2013 - 6:59 pm

I agree with you – I’ve become lazy about it, choosing to write something in my blog as opposed to my journal. I need to devote time every day to it like I used to!

Alyssa James July 16, 2013 - 4:21 pm

I’m also one of those people who has journals from when I was old enough to write. As I got older, I started storing them on my laptop, but it just isn’t the same as the journal written with the purple gel-pen I used at 8 years old to talk about my crush, or the tear-stained pages from spending 6 weeks in Montreal away from home when I was 15, or the tickets from rugby games pasted next to entries from the UK…

Journals are just so RAW. There is something about having that physical thing that was there with you that a blog and photo doesn’t convey. I wrote about it in one my posts about letters.

I kept a journal while I was in Martinique, and I’m really happy that I did. Get journalling again!

Yours in Travel,


This Battered Suitcase July 16, 2013 - 7:01 pm

I am so thankful that I kept all of those things – every letter or note anyone has given me, every journal or scrapbook ever, no matter how silly or immature it seems. I totally agree that journals are raw, and possess qualities that no blog or word document can really convey.

I definitely need to start journalling again, at least with the same passion that I used to. I miss it!

Christine July 16, 2013 - 8:33 pm

Oh yes, I started writing on a journal when I was 11 or 12. I had one with a lock and key. I wrote until high school then I started blogging. I kept a personal blog on and off and then it just became private and I write infrequently. Sometimes I miss writing with a pen but most of the times I’m too lazy to do so and find it easier to type.

My old journals are a good reminder of my childhood/teenage life full of pictures, crushes, boredom, and dreams.

This Battered Suitcase July 16, 2013 - 9:09 pm

Don’t you love looking back through those journals? I can’t believe how melodramatic I was…actually I can, considering all of my recent journals are just as melodramatic, ha ha.

Rachel July 16, 2013 - 9:03 pm

Love this post. I used to write in a journal throughout high school and college, but now everything is done on my computer (mainly my blog). I need to find a journal so I can write about more personal things.

This Battered Suitcase July 16, 2013 - 9:10 pm

That’s what I love about journalling – it’s so personal. I don’t really hold back on my blog, but I should write more just for myself.

Reply July 17, 2013 - 3:26 am

I have been journalling since I started travelling 3 years ago and I have packed 4 notebooks full! It is one of my favorite things to do when moving between places either on a bus/plane/train. Like you, I have gotten worse as I’ve been in one place working for several months. Now its all sort of out of order and full of names of restaurants and bars instead of experiences. But I try never to forget to jot at least a few things down!

This Battered Suitcase July 17, 2013 - 4:00 am

Wow, that’s impressive. I have a ton of half-finished journals, but I definitely always try to write down the essentials. I always used to spend a few hours a day in a cafe writing; I miss that.

Jill July 17, 2013 - 3:46 am

I definitely used to write every detail of every day traveling down in my journal. I would get annoyed at myself if I forgot the name of a restaurant or place before I could write it down. Unfortunately, my last travel journal is from 2008… and I don’t even know where it is. Now I think of my blog as my journal… but you’re right, it is far less detailed. It’s just the basics and often I’m writing about a place months after visiting. My future biographer will be so annoyed with me. 😉

This Battered Suitcase July 17, 2013 - 4:02 am

As I’m writing about my travels in my upcoming Master’s degree, I’m terrified that I will have forgotten all the important stuff…

Briana C. July 17, 2013 - 12:28 pm

On my most recent trip to Thailand and Cambodia I kept a journal. I also pasted in bits and bobs such as pamphlets and business cards. I hope to continue keeping journals on my travels. It takes time, but it is completely worth it in the end! Even though it has only been two weeks since I was there, I love looking through it! It instantly transports me back to the chaotic streets of Bangkok. I think it will be a great treasure in coming years.

Add to that, I am terrified of forgetting things! So writing it all down gives me comfort that even if I forget, those memories are recorded and I can always go back and read them.

I also agree that blogs are great ways to record travels, but very different than journaling. My journal has my deepest thoughts and feelings. But, my blog is more for the things I want to share with others and it is of course far less detailed.

Oh, and I love your pictures of your journal around the world! Gorgeous!!!

Kerry July 17, 2013 - 12:55 pm

I totally relate to this – right down to doing a months-long Europe trip and spending an hour or more writing in a journal every day, to now going “Oh, I’ll totally write that up on my blog!” and never getting around to it. I’ve just picked up another paper journal two weeks ago – my first in a year or two – and I’ve been trying to get back in the habit – I’m already surprised by how many details I’m writing down that I wasn’t before.

This Battered Suitcase July 18, 2013 - 2:52 am

That’s great! I should follow your lead and start slowly. I have been trying to write something every day, even if it’s just something small…

Jessica Ann July 17, 2013 - 5:32 pm

I have actually been the opposite as of late. Where I would normally sit down at the end of the day to blog, I now carry a soft covered small journal with me to jot things down throughout the day. I write a lot in my head and getting it down before it was gone for good was always hours after the fact or on crinkled receipts with not much room for all my thoughts. For now it’s working pretty well but I’m not exactly on the road yet so perhaps that will change when I set out for my road trip in September.

Great post! love your writing even if it’s not on paper ; )

This Battered Suitcase July 18, 2013 - 2:53 am

Well, this just makes me jealous! I’m always writing in my head and I really should attempt to jot more of it down. The problem is, I often write in my head when I’m in a situation where I can’t actually write on paper: in the shower, in the car, etc.

Thanks a lot for your comment!

Rika July 18, 2013 - 12:51 am

I keep a really detailed journal while traveling, and a less detailed one and blog posts the rest of the time. While I’m all about keepin it real online, I’m not all about putting every ounce of myself on the internet. I was just looking at my journal from traveling through Japan in 2009, on a self-imposed 6 month Facebook deactivation, and I wrote down EVERYTHING! It’s so nice to read through now though, I feel like I’m right back there.

This Battered Suitcase July 18, 2013 - 2:54 am

Isn’t that so lovely about a journal? I would like to do another self-imposed internet ban one of these days, I did it for a month back in 2010 and it was fantastic.

Kirsten November 10, 2013 - 2:39 pm

Loved this – I’ve started to make more of an effort and take a little notebook around to write in on my travels because I so regret not doing that enough when I was in Australia. It was lovely this summer on a road trip through some of USA and Canada to allocate writing time while my boyfriend drove (I don’t trust myself on the other side of the road…). Reminded me how much I love having my own personal track of my trips, parts that I might have forgotten otherwise!

Brenna Holeman November 10, 2013 - 9:22 pm

Yes! I always travel with a notebook. Even though I mostly write online now, there’s something so special about taking pen to paper.

expatkerri December 12, 2013 - 8:34 pm

Ahh I have had the same thought many times! I also lament that you and I didn’t spend more time journalling when we were in S.America last year… but I think it is a very common act to do when travelling solo, and it’s harder to find the reflective time when you have someone else to talk to during meals 😉

I still carry a journal with me around Toronto nowadays, but I don’t write in it as often as I make notes on my phone.

Also, as a side note, have you noticed that penmanship is changing too? Sometimes I see my friends’ handwriting and it looks like that of a ten-year-old. Also, does our generation even use cursive? Do people still know what that is?? Hehehe… end rant. Lovely insightful post as always, Brenna.

Brenna Holeman December 13, 2013 - 2:50 am

I lament that as well – I think we were just having too much damn fun together. The things that we did manage to write are absolute gold, however… remember the dreamboat list??

I don’t write in a journal at all these days, only notebooks with lots of notes on blogging, school, work, etc. I really miss it, but I’m just too busy at the moment. I’d love to get back into doing collages and scrapbooking like we did in South Korea/Japan.

And yes, I totally notice that! I still handwrite everything but I’ve heard they don’t even teach that in schools anymore…? Some of my friends’ writing is absolutely atrocious… on another side note, I think we should start sending letters to each other again!

Why You Should Put Down Your Phone - This Battered Suitcase September 12, 2014 - 1:46 am

[…] wrote about this last year, too – how I regretted the amount of time I spent on a laptop compared to how much time I used to spend wit…. Some days it feels that my entire life is consumed by technology, but I’m the one who is […]


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