Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Value of Journaling

One of the most common pieces of writing advice (and one I happen to disagree with*) is write every day.  "Well," you think, "I'm taking 18 credits and am in 12 activities and have a job and run a cupcake-decorating business on the side.  I don't have time to write every day."

I bring you a solution.

You can write every day.  It's not necessarily fiction, but it's words.  And any writing is still writing.

Start keeping a journal.

I've been journaling on and off since 2006.  I started in a tiny mini-notebook (with a lock, of course) and I wrote sometimes very regrettable middle school-esque things about school, home life, and other various thoughts.  For the next few years, I alternated between writing every day or writing once every few days.  I stopped in early 2013 for various reasons--namely, the fact that it had become more a chore to journal than anything else.  In the following months, I considered starting again, but I thought, "Why do it if it feels like a chore?"

In February of 2015, I finally came back.  I realized that my issue wasn't that it was a chore--it was that I was going about it the wrong way.  I didn't force myself to write a summary of my day, every day.  That's an okay way to journal, but that just wasn't something I wanted to do, or could handle, given the fact that I was now in college.  I approached it not as an obligation, but something that was there if I needed or wanted it.  If I had something on my mind, I journaled about it.  If I had a repetitive thought, a quote stuck in my head, a story or poem idea, I jotted it down.  If I had nothing, I was content to let it be.
These are all the journals I've filled, 2006 to present, from left to right.  I stopped in the blue cross book third from the right, and started back up in the spiral-bound book second from the right.  The brown book is my current journal.  The words are lines from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" because I'm a nerd.
I didn't write every day.  Most of the time, I ended up writing about once a week.  Sometimes I'd just freewrite with no specific goal, simply letting myself fill pages until my mind felt a little calmer.  I didn't bother recording the details of each day; I just wrote whatever I felt needed to be written.  A few months later, when I had some personal things to straighten out, I used the journal as a way to record my thoughts and feelings so that I could work through them in a more visual way.  Looking back, I have no idea how I would have figured these things out without the journal.  

Fast-forward to late August.  For reasons that are unspecific and inexplicable, I made it my goal to write in my journal every single day.  I didn't give myself word count minimums of any kind--even one sentence will do, and that's what happens most days.  Since August 22, I've written at least one sentence almost every day.  Like before, I make full entries when I feel the need, but on every other day, it's just a small piece of writing.  It's not always significant.  Some days, I just jot down one random thing that happened, or the lyrics to a song I'm listening to.  I've written little poems, full poems, story ideas, ideas for the future, little things that made me happy, something memorable someone said to me, how the sky looked at sunset, something that's worrying me, quotes, a cool fact I learned that day,..and so on.

Of course, your journaling practice doesn't have to be a daily thing.  It's how I do it, but everyone works differently.  The key to journaling in general is not to expect every entry to be meaningful, poetic, or even to make sense at all.  It's not about censoring yourself--no one is reading it.  It's about letting whatever's into your head onto paper.  This is surprisingly therapeutic.  Even the simple act of writing down a feeling or thought can help you accept it as it is, and figure out how to make a change if needed.**  It gives your thoughts a physical place to rest.  It's a place to rant and not have to worry about judgement.  Again, it doesn't even have to make sense.  When I reread some of my old entries, I have no idea what I meant.  It wasn't even about what ink hit the paper.  It was about the act itself of ink hitting paper.

The awesome thing about journaling is that the practice is 100% customizable.  There is no right way to do it; you can't be wrong.  For creative writers, it helps you hone your skills, giving you a chance to record cool images, things that inspire you, and snippets of fiction or poetry someplace completely private.  For anyone, it's a space to record thoughts with a physicality that is somehow freeing.  As one of my theology professors once said, "Through writing, we discover thoughts we didn't even know we were thinking."

If nothing else, buying journals is fun.  Filling them gives you an excuse to buy more.

*My disagreement with this common advice lies in the fact that getting better is about repetition, not necessarily daily practice.  Sure, writing every single day is great practice, but not everyone can make it work.  This is life.  The key is to write on a regular basis, but this can be every other day, or once a week, or whatever works.

**It actually has a lot in common with mindfulness meditation, if you're interested.

Do you journal?  What's your method/style/routine?
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  1. I really enjoyed this post! I've kept a journal since I was eight, so it's always nice to get a fresh perspective on writing a journal. I like what you said about writing whatever is on your mind at the time, just as a way to get your thoughts on paper, even if they don't make sense later. I think the most important thing about journaling for me right now is to use in for the now, not as a serious writing project, but as a way to processing what's going on my my life right now.

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. I think you've inspired me to start keeping a journal again. I've missed writing down random things!


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