My non-journal

My non-journal

Gwynn Scheltema

I’ve just returned from a couple weeks’ vacation in the sun: idyllic ocean vistas, new taste experiences, and cultural delights. Lots to write about in my daily travel journal…except…when I travel, I don’t write a daily journal; I keep a non-journal.

My Non-journal

My non-journal began when I was on an extended trip back to my childhood home in Zimbabwe to look after an ill relative. What should have been a golden opportunity to stir up old memories and write screeds and screeds of material turned out to be a dry well. I had all the physical sensory impetus around me, but emotionally and mentally I was in a very different place, and just couldn’t write a word.

With that came the guilt: “I should be making the most of this golden opportunity”; “If I just start to write- write anything- I should be able to get going, so why can’t I?”; “Is this self-sabotage?”

In the end, I stopped fighting the ideal and just did what I could: lists, photos and language.


I began to make lists: a list of local flower names, a list of bird sounds; a list of signs of decay in the house where I was staying……

Making lists freed me up emotionally and mentally, because I didn’t have to craft sentences, and I didn’t have to call on memory or emotion. I gave each list its own page and added to it whenever I could. Even travelling back on the plane, I could add to any of the lists.

Now, years later I look at those lists and realize what a goldmine they are. I have details that I likely wouldn’t have recorded had I been writing a prose piece:

  • half a phone book from ten years ago
  • a dried-up bottle of cochineal
  • iron burn marks on the sheets


Sure, we all take photos, but we live in a social media age that programs us to take pictures of perfection: beauty, excitement and such—all things we would share with others. Or personal moments with people. Or the food we eat. All that is fine, but in my photo non-journal I also take photos of things for my future writing.

I don’t advocate experiencing life through a lens, so I’m not suggesting that you stop just looking and recording in your memory, merely that when you do stop to take photos, you take a full range of the experiences, not just the “nice bits” or the “Facebook worthy bits”.

I take pictures of the dirty back street one block back from the tourist route, close ups of the kind of garbage lying in that street. I take photos of the menu as well as the food. I take close-ups of flowers and leaves of trees. I take photos of oddities, both pleasant and disturbing, like the old lady asleep, wrapped up in a moth-eaten crocheted blanket on a sunny yellow porch on a thirty-degree day.


One of the best ways to make a character or place seem real in writing is to include local idiom and language. Being unfamiliar, I find cultural phrases are easily forgotten, so in my non-journal I keep pages for jotting down things people say and explanations of what they mean if necessary.

  • dumb as a cow’s arse
  • she flapped her lips
  • give it to Old Pisquick over there
Southern ground hornbill walking in the high grass in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

I also record foreign language words and phrases that locals pepper their conversation with.

  • names of things – utshani = grass
  • exclamations of surprise—ini indaba? = what’s the matter?
  • orders—faga punzi = put it down

Hidden Gold

Initially, I didn’t have great expectations from the jottings in my non-journal. I think I did it more to assuage the guilt of not writing. But I was wrong.

Those “meaningless” jottings have a peculiar effect when I reread them. Even the smallest snippet has the power to take me back to the time I wrote it. If I open my mind, whole scenes and sequences come back to me. I can use my lists or photos as prompts to write.

And it goes beyond that. For instance, that item in the list above “a dried-up bottle of cochineal” doesn’t just take me to the house where I observed it, but also back to memories of days doing ballet and using cochineal to dye our pointe shoe ribbons pink.

Each non-journal entry is a quiet tendril, moving slowly through my mind encircling memories for me to use now that I am home from my travels.

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14 thoughts on “My non-journal

  1. Gywnn, I, too, advocate non-journalling so as not to miss real-time experiences. I jot down things that stuck with me as day’s end and find even several months later the events come easily back to mind just by reviewing the notes.

    I also make a habit while away to sit quietly with my eyes closed for 5 or 20 minutes and capture the smells and sounds and commit them to memory. Works every time.

    1. Love the the eyes-closed idea. I had forgotten how different a rain storm sounded in Africa and just videoed it on my phone to capture the sound.

  2. Thanks Gwen. This is so timely for me. I’m currently on a Rotary project in Cambodia and too over whelmed to journal.

  3. Love this idea, Gwynn. The last time we lived in Belize, I did little journal entries from time to time but always felt I missed important things. Now that we are back I can use your idea to record the ‘bits’ I want to remember–especially the Creole language. Thanks for this.

    1. There never seems enough time to do it all, and I love that non-journalling has no pressure to be creative. And yet, it can lead to so many creative things later.

  4. Brilliant indeed! I’ve been plagued by lingering, frustrating, sometimes painful, and mostly exhausting health dental issues for months. Writing of any length is beyond me, but lists – those I could do! Many thanks, Gwynn.

    1. Sorry about the health issues, but if lists help, I’m glad. Try and be creative with your lists: “Objects I’ve never seen before” or “Things I notice about the skies”. You never know where it will take you.

  5. I always prepare a travel journal ahead of a trip. It used to a notebook but now it’s more a digital version where I can add photos to illustrate each day or experience. I spend a lot of time setting it up but have never got further than recording day three. Making lists sound like a practical alternative. Thanks for the idea Gwynn.

    1. Digital version is good. At first I was afraid of loosing the “emotions I felt”, so that became one of the lists.

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