If you’re a questing sort of person, you probably know – and may have experienced – that writing in a journal is an amazing tool. All sorts of studies have proven that journal writing is good for your emotional growth, even your physical health. And it’s a great companion on your spiritual perambulations; I know this for a fact, having wrestled with God a couple of years ago in my journal. (We both ended up bruised, but better friends.)
But as someone who has kept a journal for more than 40 years and has taught journal writing to hundreds of students over the past 20 years, I know that journal writing can get stale. So here are seven suggestions for breaking through to more vital, creative journal writing that I hope will shake you up, if only a little, or inspire you to get started if you’re not a journal keeper already.
What you should know about having a journal
Don’t write only when you’re miserable. Most people turn to their journal when they’re hurting—when they’re grappling with anger, sadness, frustration, jealousy. They dump their difficulties in the journal and often feel better, if only temporarily. But writing is an act of commitment of time, energy, and attention. If you commit to yourself only when you’re miserable, you’re telling yourself that you’re worthy of attention only when things are lousy. So write in your journal in all sorts of moods: when you’re joyful or satisfied, of course, but also when things are basically okay, which is how most of us spend the bulk of our days. Validate your entire range of emotions in your journal by recording them. If you ever go back and reread your journal, you’ll have a more realistic picture of your life at that time.
Think “scrapbook.” Some people claim they’ve never kept a journal, but every time they eat in a Chinese restaurant they tape the cookie’s fortune in a book and write their reactions to its message – and that, I say, is a journal. Other people who say they’re not journal keepers write a list of personal goals on the first day of each month and keep the lists in a big box – this, I believe, is a journal. There’s no journal-writing guru who decided that “real” journals consist solely of the writer’s own thoughts, written daily, noted in full sentences and well-groomed paragraphs. My own most recent journal includes a letter from my niece, a hunk of seashore grass, comic strips, Celestial Seasonings teabags’ words of wisdom, and much more, all of which I tape in my book and then, most times, reply to with words. One former student tapes into his journal magazine articles that get him pumped up about starting his own business. Another, on every birthday, clips her horoscope from the newspaper and slaps it into her journal. Fabulous! Anything that speaks to you – or about you – is appropriate.
Record reactions to what you write. Let’s say you’re writing an entry about your sister, and you note that her new haircut looks like a small, misshapen animal lay down and died on top of her head. You might think as you write it, “She’s such a great person, and here I am, being petty. Why do I always focus on negative stuff?” Your reaction, frankly, may be more interesting, and even more meaningful in its honesty and spontaneity, than the original comment was. So write down your thoughts or emotions next to the comments that triggered them, maybe in a different color ink, or a different typeface. This type of journal is rich, multitextured, and revealing.
Write all about yourself – or not at all. Or both. For many people, a journal is the only place where they can focus entirely on themselves, away from life’s distractions, and that’s fine. It’s appropriate to be self-centered in your journal, especially if that grounds you and frees you to spend the rest of your time in your involved-with-others roles – wife, mother, girlfriend, daughter, sibling, colleague, what have you. But some people, especially those in counseling or therapy, have other regular space in their life for self-focus and get tired of processing their thoughts and feelings. Their inclination is to muse about the world outside their own skin, and this is no less valid than a purely introspective journal. For most people, however, journal entries are a shifting mix of self-centered and outward-focused writing. Whatever ratio feels right to you at any given time is the right ratio.
Don’t cross out or erase. When it’s working well, your journal can be the most accepting space in your life, the place where you can be most yourself, sort of like your car – well, my car – when you’re driving and singing along with the Beatles. So if you cross out or erase your authentic words, you’re in effect negating yourself. Don’t do it. If you decide you don’t like what you wrote, leave it as is, and just add the words you think you want. In the surely eternal words of Lennon/McCartney, let it be.
By the same token, think twice before throwing out an entire journal. It’s tempting to want to discard words that record a difficult time or, when reread, seem childish or boring, but most people I know who pitched whole books regret it. (I know I do. I have all my journals since high school, and I’ll always bemoan having discarded those chronicling ages 8 to 14.) If anything, keeping old journals is an exercise in self-acceptance; at best, an old journal is a gold mine for revisiting and understanding old selves.
Title each entry. Rereading all your entries on a particular topic can be a very enlightening exercise, but if you ever want to review all the entries you’ve written recently about the ups and downs of your financial life, for example, you’ll have to skim lots of other entries to find what you’re after. After you finish writing an entry, write down a title that sums up its essence – “Won the lottery today” or “Why did I buy a 60-inch plasma TV?” – and you’ll be able to find those on a particular topic more speedily.
Make a pact with yourself about journal keeping, and update it regularly. I can’t think of any journal-writing approach or technique that’s not valid, as long as you’re journaling as you’d like. So consider writing, right in your journal, how you’d really like to do it for, say, a month. Do you want to write every day? Once every couple of weeks? At the end of the month, reconsider this agreement with yourself and tweak it as needed. Be realistic; your journal-writing pact shouldn’t make you feel guilty that you haven’t done it “right.” It should inspire you.