"Once I begin the act of writing, it all falls away — the view from the window, the tools, the talismans, and I am unconscious of myself . . . one's carping inner critics are silenced for a time . . . there is always a surprise, a revelation. During the act of writing, I have told myself something that I didn't know I knew.
— Gail Godwin

"Journals. They beckon everywhere. Stacked in neat rows in drugstores, fanned in pale rainbow hues in display windows, pyramided in bins at Wal-Mart, stocked near cash registers in bookstores. On corners of almost every major city, specialty journal shops have popped up overnight, as quickly and inevitably as Starbucks. And at midnight in a speck of a prairie town, someone can order dozens from catalogs. A single click on the Internet connects another country — France for handmade diaries, Italy for paper the color of fresh cream. Staring at the electronic images, a browser tries imagining a journal's weight in their hand.

"But consider the most familiar, those from the local stationery store. Yesterday I went into mine and was instantly struck by the clean, dry smell of paper, the comforting sight of pens arrayed by colors. Stationery stores are the kingdom of childhood enjoyed in adulthood. The aisles brim with all that possibility, as if a 79ยข pen or a different type of notebook will do the trick this time. New pen, new paper, new self. Journals, once contained on a single shelf, now take over whole sections of stationery stores. I'm fascinated by the sheer range of them: blank or lined hardcover journals, their covers decorated with pale half-moons or tulips or ancient maps. Stacks of spiral notebooks marbleized like brain synapses. Others, so satisfying to the touch, are covered in canvas or burlap; a few are leather bound, discreet as expensive new shoes. From the practical to the private, they divide up a life — monthly, yearly, five-year diaries. Travel diaries. Nature journals. Children's first journals with covers the color of tangerines. Nearby, stacks of legal pads wait to be inserted into black vinyl covers.

"Ten million blank journals are sold annually in stationery stores alone. Two million in specialty stores. Thanks to secret passwords and specialized software, an estimated four million scribblers keep some form of journal on a computer. If the information age has spawned a hunger for connection (and privacy), so, too, a need for the quickest way to access interior life. Web sites pop up daily. Our accelerated global age has left little time to slow down and reflect. In Japan, for example, those too busy to keep journals phone in their entries. At the end of the month, a company sends a bound transcript.

"Familiar with the statistics, I also know how hard it is for many to keep journals. Yet when I ask people, as I often do, who they wish had kept a diary, a torrent of names is unleashed — my mother, my husband, my sister, the uncle whom I'm named after, the father I never knew. Why then the resistance to keeping them ourselves? Virginia Woolf put her finger on it best perhaps, when she asked her own diary: 'Whom do I tell when I tell a blank page?' Whom does one write for? Oneself, of course. 'True to oneself — which self?' asked Woolf's friend and archrival, Katherine Mansfield. (In her journal, she confessed that a single day's 'thousands of selves' made her feel like a hotel clerk busy handing keys to the psyche's 'willful guests.')

"Watching someone pause in a stationery store, journal in hand, I can almost hear the internal voices chattering away. The same annoying voices that distract the moment a journal's purchased or opened to the first page. Why should I feel I have anything interesting to say? Isn't this a blabbing, confessional culture? Why add to it? What makes me so sure I'll keep up a journal this time? What if someone else finds it?

"I'm always tempted to tap the hesitant on the shoulder. I'd say that I wish I'd kept journals more minutely. Better, longer records: the exact way sunlight fell in dusty slants on floors in childhood; the smell of lemon and bacon in the morning; the startling dare of a first kiss. (Like others, though, I often placed a journal back on the store shelf, sure I'd remember everything.) I'd warn how others I've met, their voices full of sudden urgency, say they never understood the importance of journals until theirs were lost or stolen. Or describe how, safe on a shelf, journals proved invaluable when starting longer projects, like a memoir or family chronicle. I'd cite a single entry from a diary someone lent me: On January 12, 1879, a woman whose family had crossed and recrossed the western frontier wrote, 'I would like to write a journal that my children could own and be benefitted by if I were taken away. If I were to leave them now, what would they ever know about me?' Thanks to that journal, five generations later a huge family is now linked.

"The seasoned journal keeper, of course, doesn't need to be persuaded. It's a habit as natural and expansive as breathing. 'Two and a half decades later,' says novelist Gail Godwin, 'my diary and I have an old marriage. The space between us is gone. I hardly see my diary anymore. And yet, there is a confident sense that we are working together.' "