Do you want to be a writer but you find it hard to actually find the time or inspiration? To call yourself a writer, you don’t have to be published. All you need to do is write. Regularly. And you don’t have to wait for inspiration to strike. Published authors don’t believe in writer’s block. They know it’s a lazy excuse.
What made me finally embrace writing as a regular practice was my journaling practice. I’ve sporadically kept a journal all my life. I recorded my travels, my feelings, the banality of my days. Journaling helped me sort the messiness of feelings and thoughts into something linear.
During the tough times, when I fell into the abyss of grief, my journal became my on-call therapist. I wrote my way through pain and back into joy. It took a dozen moleskins.
When I’d written myself whole again, I gave myself the gift of a year-long online creative writing course. It was one of those life-changing things. My writing flowed like a burst pipe. It was magical. I realised that my obsessive journaling had trained me to tap into the flow. It had trained me not to be intimidated by the blank page.
1. Journaling trains the writing muscle
I free-write for a set amount of time each morning. It’s part of my morning routine. It complements my yoga and meditation practice. I give myself permission to write about anything at all. Putting one word in front of the other will usually lead to an idea or an image that has the potential to develop into a scene. I simply write in a stream-of-consciousness, trusting myself that something interesting will happen if I tap into the flow. Not everything I write is great. Far from it. But showing up every day to the blank page has taught me to understand that writer’s block is, as Steve Pressfield says in Turning Pro, an amateur’s mindset.
Writing continuously for a set period each morning is like having an exercise routine. It hones your skill and it creates the discipline necessary to become a writer who actually writes rather than dreams about it.
2. Journaling teaches you to express emotions
Journaling means you give yourself permission to write about your deepest feelings. My journal is the place where I go to work things out and to dig deep. My journaling practice has taught me to verbalise raw emotion. The journal is where I show my most vulnerable self. It’s where I have the courage to name the stuff I don’t even share with my bestie. Writing with brutal honesty is great preparation for writing characters.
Characters need emotion to come alive, to resonate with us. Think about it. What holds your attention in a novel? A great storyline and a fully fleshed-out character. An engaging character is a flawed character. It’s the first rule of creative writing courses.
Characters who show anger, who know fear and who are vulnerable resonate with us because we are flawed and vulnerable, we know fear and anger.
3. Learn to get into a character’s head
A very effective journaling technique is to write a metaphorical dialogue. This could be a dialogue with yourself, say your teenage self, or it could be with another person. Maybe there is someone you need to forgive, someone who has hurt you, a former lover or your mother. Dialoguing is a powerful way to work through old grievances and to move on.
It’s also a great way to understand why you do the things you do. Are good at self-sabotaging? Do you lack self-esteem? Is your head filled with negativity? I’ve been able to nail all of those things in my diary. Alas, this doesn’t mean I am no longer self-sabotaging or lacking self-esteem. But keeping a journal allows me to keep track of my bad habits.
Writing dialogue in two voices in your journal is a powerful way to work these things out. It means getting intimately familiar with your mind, including the bits you might be uncomfortable with and those deeper levels the conscious mind can’t access. That’s excellent preparation to get inside a character’s head.
4. Journaling teaches you to take risks and experiment with words
I used to write for academic publications before I started to freelance as a copy and travel writer. Sitting down to write a piece for publication can be anguishing. I drink too much coffee, I eat too much chocolate, I waste too much time, debating with my inner critic. Writing can be synonymous with agony. To take a break, I often pull out my journal and just write. It’s always liberating and it usually leads to some creative clue.
We write our journals knowing that our writing will not be judged. It’s not meant to be read by anyone. When I write in my journal, I don’t stop to edit, I don’t analyse, I don’t care whether things make sense. Journaling taught me to approach other types of writing in much the same way. I still do the occasional travel writing assignment. Rather than sit in front of the blank page, feeling resistance rising, I’ll just free-write for 15 minutes and a structure usually starts to appear organically once I switch off the editor for that first part of the writing process.
5. Journaling trains you to tap into the intuitive part of the brain
When we switch off the inner editor, we allow ourselves to tap into a different part of our brain. We step away from the analytical side of our minds to let the intuitive part of the brain have a voice. That was the first lesson I took away from a year-long creative writing course. It was in the warm-up exercises when I allowed my writing to flow without stopping, that I was able to reach deep inside my creative potential.
It was exhilarating and dizzying to have found a key to an area of myself I hadn’t accessed before. I had tried creative writing before and I’d approached it in the same way I’d approached my academic writing. If I hadn’t gotten anywhere, it was because I’d killed it with overthinking. Journaling trains you to access the subconscious mind and that’s where you’ll find the gems.
So what kind of writer do you want to be? A writer who writes or someone who dreams about writing?
Journaling was my key to writing every day.