What’s Your Answer to the Bead Journal Question?

Look up ‘bead journal’ online and you will find images of journals adorned with seed beads. Or references to a yearly bead journal project where, apparently, you keep track of what you make with seed beads.

Neither of these interest me. Rather, I have benefitted, as I hope you might, from learning of famed psychoanalyst Marion Milner’s use of beads.

Eternity’s Sunrise as Bead Journal

Entries I’ve made in journals while travelling are often daily versions of, “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Paris.” I’ve listed sights seen, meals eaten, money spent. There has been some descriptive detail, but not much. I hoped that my jot notes would serve as gateways to entire memories when I revisited the journal years later, and they have but not in a very satisfying way.

Marion Milner faced the same dilemma when she travelled, and felt the same sense of bored indifference when she revisited old journal entries. But, unlike me, Milner got creative. In her (mostly) travel journal, Eternity’s Sunrise, Milner wrote daily beads.

necklace of identical green plastic beads
This is NOT what we’re talking about!

Daily Beads

Imagine your daily thoughts, feelings and insights as beads on a necklace. But this isn’t a cheap costume jewelry necklace where each bead is the same as every other.

No, every bead in your necklace has been carefully chosen in response to Milner’s single bead journal question.

The Bead Journal Question

Each morning, Milner would reflect on experiences of the day before and would ask herself, What was the most important thing that happened yesterday?

Milner deemed an experience important if it:

  • shifted her in some way;
  • led to a physical response,
  • or brought about a warm feeling

She referred to each important thing as a bead, and wrote descriptively about each day’s bead in her journal.

cover of small journal
My northern California bead journal

My First Bead Journal Entry

In May of 2015, Gerri (mom) and I spent ten days in northern California celebrating my retirement. I was exhausted, had just finished reading Eternity’s Sunrise, and was travelling with a very small carry-on bag. It was the perfect confluence of circumstances for trying out bead journalling in this tiny 4″ x 6″ journal.

Here’s the bead journal entry I wrote at the end of our first day:

Walking along Beach Street, stopping in at galleries enroute to the shops in Ghiradelli Square, I expected to see some nice paintings. I didn’t expect magnificence–examples from the Barbizon School (France in the 1800s); LeRoy Neiman’s stunning work, especially the horse Khemosabi in gorgeous reds and oranges; Salvador Dali prints from the Divine Comedy.

But my favourite, far and away, is the gallery that housed originals by Dr. Seuss/Theodor Geisel. Just inside the gallery there is an enormous, larger-than-life sculpture of the cat from The Cat in the Hat. The cat is mid-stride with an umbrella in his hand and a twinkle in his eye. And then, on the walls, paintings from Green Eggs and Ham, Horton Hears a Who and others.

The paintings took my breath away, partly because I didn’t expect to see them in an area of San Francisco best known for cheap, garish t-shirts and plastic models of cable cars. Mostly because the colours were so rich, the paintings so full of life.

What imagination Dr. Seuss had, and how essential that imagination has been to my life. I’ve always known that I loved his stories. But I didn’t realize until today that those stories have shaped me. I didn’t just grow up with Dr. Seuss books, I grew around them like the flesh of an apple forming around its seeds.

I also loved the couple of draft pieces that were there–scenes from The Cat in the Hat sketched on newsprint with marks in the margins and arrows pointing to a small section, giving directions to the printer like ‘100 red’ by the stripes in the cat’s hat.

Those printers’ marks take Giesel’s imagination and makes it, not less significant, but more possible. The creative action of a mere mortal. Suddenly I can be part of his club, certainly not because I have anything like his talent but because his work is a human being’s act of creation and we all can do that. I have done that.

What I Learned from my Bead Journal

I didn’t miss a single day of writing in my bead journal. That in itself was unusual.

Journal writing is a voyage to the interior.

Christina Baldwin

I like new days to be blank slates so prefer to write at the end of each day. My question became, What’s the most important thing that happened today?

More significantly, I revised Milner’s question to read, What’s the most important thing that happened to me today? Given how Milner defined importance, she certainly intended a personal response but her wording always made me feel guilty of navel gazing. I kept thinking that the most important thing of the day should surely be some item of international news, not my warm feeling about The Cat in the Hat.

Sometimes it was surprisingly difficult to identify my most important thing. I often had to remind myself to pay attention; to notice what was really affecting me, rather than what I thought should be affecting me.

For example, one day we went on a guided tour of Carmel with a professional storyteller. I’m fascinated by people who are great storytellers and was sure I’d write about Monica, or at least about some of the interesting architectural art we saw on the tour. Instead, my bead was about a public washroom that Clint Eastwood had built when he was Carmel’s mayor. Yes, really.

A Bead Journal Isn’t Just for Travel

Looking back, my California bead journal is a favourite of my many journals. It’s not just because we had such a good time, although there is that, but also because, like Milner, rereading my beads helps me to know myself. In selecting and writing about the most important thing that happened to me each day, I find clues as to what makes me happy, grateful, enthusiastic or, occasionally, anxious, worried, or fearful.

The journal I’m keeping for the month of November is meant to be a microcosm of my first month living RAW NEWS. I’m journaling incessantly, as evidenced by the 61 handwritten pages I’ve piled up in just the first 14 days. At the end of the month, I’ll write a post summarizing my RAW NEWS reflections and talking a bit about what I’ve learned about nonstop journalling.

December’s journal will be a bead journal. Each evening I will answer Milner’s question, What is the most important thing that happened to me today? I’m looking forward to seeing how the two months of reflections are similar and how they are different.







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  1. I love it! “In selecting and writing about the most important thing that happened to me each day, I find clues as to what makes me happy, grateful, enthusiastic” – what a great way to help identify a glimmer of passion or purpose. I’m definitely going to try this over next few weeks in my morning journalling – What was the most important thing that happened yesterday and how did it make me feel – better than a litany of activities accomplished. I might even go back to my journal this morning and try it out. Thanks for sharing. (and it sounds like RAW NEWS is going good! Yeah!)

    1. Awesome, Pat! I’m so delighted that you found the post useful and that you’re going to give bead journaling a try. I’m thinking that my December focus on bead journaling will provide, as you say, that “glimmer of passion or purpose.” Because you are absolutely right – RAW NEWS is going really well and I’m super happy to be finally taking some positive steps in the right direction. At the same time, in my journaling about it, I think I’m getting too caught up in the “litany of activities accomplished.” Bead journaling will, I’m confident, help me to go deeper in understanding what’s working for me and what I want to discard.
      Look at that, Pat. Your comment furthered my thinking about my own process. I really appreciate that… and you!

  2. Wow, Karen, bead journaling sounds like a wonderful idea. In my journals, there is a lot of documentation of activity done that day and questions in my mind that I haven’t figured out the answer to yet. This last I blame my therapist, Jody, for…he told me to look at journals as “dump books” where I could dump everything swirling around in my brain and this would allow me to a) finally get some sleep knowing it was all there in the book to pick up the next day and b) allow me to see patterns and recurring thoughts which would give me insight.

    I might give bead journalling a try – what a great way to crystallize a day’s memory down to the most important thing that happened to me using Marion Milner’s criteria. I believe it is those experiences which genuinely change us and trigger our fondest memories anyway.

    1. Hi Susan,
      I think there are such useful purposes to the different forms of journaling. The one your therapist had you try seems perfect – a morning pages kind of approach – for the purposes you mentioned.
      I found bead journaling quite challenging to do, but am keen to give it another and more sustained try. Your word ‘crystallize’ is a perfect description of its purpose.
      If you give it a try, I’d love to hear about your experience.

    1. You’ve hit the nail on the head, Anabel. I too worry about being able to do bead journaling every single day in December. I’m hoping that, having taken an entirely different approach in November, it will feel refreshingly focused. We shall see.

  3. Hi, I enjoyed this and I also enjoyed thinking about the idea of a bead journal. It certainly makes you think at a deeper level than just making a list of things you did from day to day. (I was doing just this lately to keep track of what happened each day.) I like the questions provided and I am also thinking of adding “What did I do to make the day better?” At any rate I will give it a try.

    1. Terrific, Fran! I will be really interested in hearing what you think of the process. Your second question is courageous. I don’t want to put the pressure on myself to make the day better, at least not right now, but I applaud you for taking that approach.

  4. Hi, Karen – I hadn’t heard about bead journaling before and found this very interesting. I loved your example from Dr. Suess (I’m a huge fan). I’m sadly not much of a journal writer but this type of journaling makes great sense to me. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Hi Donna – You’re an avid blogger, so it doesn’t surprise me that you’re not much of a journal writer. I think there’s a great deal of overlap between the two, or at least the potential for a lot of overlap, and it just makes sense that our unique personalities would favour one over the other.
      I remember your enthusiasm for Dr. Seuss. You would have adored the displays in that gallery.

  5. I think anyone who journals is admirable (and disciplined). A bead journal does make a lot of sense because rather than writing boring drivel you write the highlights of your day and can then go back and enjoy the accomplishment again at a later date. It almost sounds like something I could do – almost……

    1. Hi Anna,
      The great thing about journals is you don’t actually have to write in them every day so self-discipline isn’t an issue. I’m trying to write every day right now because of RAW NEWS, but I have lots of journals where I’ve gone weeks or even months between entries.
      So no pressure ever with journaling. If it’s something that interests you, you can go for it at any time and then never bother again if you don’t want to.

  6. This is such a good way of journalling, Karen. More insightful, helpful and surprising than what I have been doing for the last 28 years, every single day. Many times, I have told myself to focus more on my feelings, than just writing what I did during the day. I love writing, and, boring or not, end up spending 20 minutes every evening, jotting down my reflections and facts of the day. By focusing on the “important to me” part, my diary would offer way more insights for the future, wow moments about myself. And, it will be a more enjoyable read. Thing is that I don’t want to leave anything out, for some reason. I have to change that approach and create “more personal” diaries. It would be a better use of that time. Reading back what I wrote – in the diaries or other notes – I always enjoy the “feelings” and “thoughts” stories best. Let’s try it!! I’m sure every day there is something that touches my heart. I loved your Dr. Seuss bead!

    1. I’m so with you on this, Liesbet. I don’t usually journal as often or as diligently as you (every day for 28 years is mind-bogglingly impressive!!), but I also find that I tend to write down everything that is happening. Either that or I journal because I’m annoyed/upset about something so the journal becomes a negative rant.
      In December, when I start my daily bead journal, I’m already anticipating that I might miss writing down everything. I’m thinking that I’ll take 2 minutes to make a very quick jot note list of happenings during day. Then I’ll focus on the bead.
      I wish you all the best as you try bead journaling, Liesbet. I’d love to compare notes in a few weeks.

  7. I don’t journal daily, but I do keep a journal when I travel. My journals have a lot of notes about where we ate, etc. (which I have referred back to) but I do try to add more personal reflections too. I love the idea of making sure “what is the most important thing that happened to me each day” is included in each entry. Those events are where the memories are made.

    Dr. Seuss is a favorite here too. He had a home not too far away in La Jolla and his widow is still part of the community.

    1. Hi Janis,
      I thought you probably journaled when you travelled. Your travel-based blog posts are rich in detail. I was hoping that you weren’t storing all of that in your brain!
      Dr. Seuss was always larger than life, much like his cat in the hat at the gallery. It’s difficult for me to imagine him, and now his widow, living nearby. I have a better understanding of young children who, being convinced their teacher is a magical being, believe that she/he sleeps at the school.

    1. I find the same, Natalie. It’s much longer to write, but much more meaningful and interesting on a reread. I’m certainly seeing the contrast this month as I journal everything and anything. The writing is helpful for processing whatever’s happening, but the rereading is a snooze-fest!

  8. What a great idea, Karen. For several years, I’ve kept a “three good things” journal, where I list three good things that happened during the day–a gratitude journal of sorts. Just recently I started a line a day journal. I like the idea of incorporating the concept of a bead journal, asking myself the question “What was the most important thing that happened to me today?” and condensing the answer into one line. I write for work and for my blog and find I don’t have the energy or the desire to keep a detailed journal at this point in my life.

    1. Makes perfect sense to me, Christie. It’s clever to modify the bead journal idea so that it works for you. I’ll do a followup to the bead journal post in a few months and would love to hear how your one line bead is working out for you.
      Thanks for commenting.

  9. Karen, I like the idea of a bead Journal, and your Dr Seuss example was wonderful. I have attempted to keep travel journals before, and usually end up becoming overwhelmed by my self-imposed need to write down “everything” that happened. Focusing on one highlight per day would make it more manageable, I think. That said, knowing myself, I probably would agonize over the decision of what was the “most” important. So for me, I would probably have to reframe the question to: “What was one interesting highlight of the day?” That question leaves open the possibility that there were other equally important things that happened, but I have chosen to write about this one. (The super-ego is a rigid task master, so some trickery is necessary.)


    1. Whatever it takes, Jude. 🙂 It’s good you know yourself well enough to be able to figure out how to get past that super-ego. I do find, though, that Milner’s, and by extension my, self-imposed requirement to write about the most important thing forces a degree of decision making that is uniquely revealing of what really matters to me.
      If you decide to try your modification, I would be interested to know how it works for you.

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