A regular journaling practice is a powerful way to get to know yourself, your passions, your dreams and your goals and to work through the tough stuff.
Many of us have reached for the world’s oldest self-help tool, the diary, as teenagers to make sense of our pubescent hormonal confusion. As adults, many of us re-discover journaling when life challenges us to make tough choices, to find new meaning and to negotiate painful turning points.
A relationship break up, the loss of a loved one, the hormonal turmoil of menopause, depression or the simple need to reconnect with our creative side can send us back to the journal.
We have many reasons for starting a journaling practice. The important thing is to get started. Trust me, it can be deeply transformative.
Here are some tips to get you started in your regular journaling practice:
Pen or keyboard?
Whether you keep a beautiful leather-bound diary, the classic moleskin journal or a digital journal, there is no right or wrong way. Many writers argue that the pen brings a different quality to their writing.
Natalie Goldberg, the author of the seminal book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within says that “handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart.”
I do both. I keep a moleskin diary in my handbag. It’s my on-call journal that I can pull out while waiting at the dentist’s, or in a busy market if I want to write down a snippet of dialogue or capture a word picture. For my daily freewriting practice I use a digital journal. I am simply a faster typist than I am at handwriting.
But the digital diary has its drawbacks. It tempts me to go back over my words and edit rather than move forward as the pen would demand. So when I am trying to mine my unconscious mind for story ideas or to write a scene of creative fiction, I’ll use pen and paper.
Set a time limit
When you start your practice, the challenge of the blank page can be daunting. Journal therapists like Dr James Pennebaker advocate setting a reasonable time limit, to give structure to your practice.
Think of it as a timed run, or a timed meditation. The important thing is not what you write, but that you write continuously. I set my timer for 30 minutes. Then I do what I can’t do when I go for a jog. I do a writing sprint without stopping to catch my breath.
If you are just starting a journaling practice, begin by setting a timer for 10 or 15 minutes. Whatever feels comfortable. The important thing is that you keep writing without stopping. Just keep the pen on the paper or the fingers on the keyboard and keep moving forward. You’ll be surprised where it can lead you.
If you don’t like timed exercises, you can set a page or word limit. Whatever works.
Make your journaling practice a daily routine
Like anything, if you do it every day at the same time or place, your journaling practice will become second nature. It’ll become something you crave, rather than consider a chore. Like running or doing yoga, if you do it regularly you’ll get better at it. A daily practice will hone the writer within.
Have a dedicated space for your journaling practice
It’s a good idea to have dedicated space for your journaling practice. It could be a comfy armchair, the kitchen table or a nook you set up in your house as a little sanctuary in honour of your creative self. If you work from home, avoid journaling in your home office.
I do my journaling sitting crossed legged on my meditation cushion, resting my back against the wall, so that I can be fully present to write and not be distracted by aching limbs.
Make your beverage of choice, maybe light some incense or candles. Create a little ceremony to honour your creative practice. I like to sprinkle freshly picked frangipani petals on the little altar that defines my meditation nook.
I do my journaling straight after meditation, before I engage with anybody. That way I stay within the mindfulness I have created through meditation. It means my journaling practice becomes another form of meditation.
Don’t try to be deep and meaningful
A journal is not about creating a masterpiece or even about honing your writing voice (that will happen organically as you stay with the practice). Journaling is not about being intentionally deep, it’s about accidentally tapping into the deep stuff. Writing a journal is about getting the flow to happen, so that you may tap into what lies just below the surface level of consciousness.
If you start with the intention of writing something beautiful and deep, you will set yourself up for failure. A journal is not meant to be published or shared. In fact, psychotherapists often will recommend shredding or burning the pages on which you have verbalised what disturbs or troubles you. It’s a ritual to let go of pain and sorrow.
Do whatever works for you. I have several boxes full of journals. All of them contain some little gems of wisdom. But not every day will produce produce deep insights. Sometimes it’ll just be a brain-dump about missing a yoga class and eating ice-cream instead. And that’s ok too.
Turn off the inner editor
Journaling is about capturing the raw and the unfiltered. Don’t worry about grammar, sentence structure or spelling. Just let it flow. Don’t be tempted to edit. Editing will interrupt the natural flow of your thoughts. It will turn on the analytical part of the brain.
Journaling is about tapping into the right side of the brain, the intuitive part of yourself. It’s about exploring the spaces of your mind where the rational mind can’t go. Editing means stopping the flow, stepping back. So turn off the inner critic and just keep the pen moving without judging or editing.
Keep it safe
Journaling is a private dialogue with yourself. To feel safe to express what you wouldn’t tell your best friend, make sure your journal is safe. If you use an actual paper journal, find a place where it can’t be accessed by others. When my mother read my journal during high school, I felt deeply ashamed and angry. I wanted to kill her. I think I filled an entire diary plotting my revenge and venting my anger.
These days I keep a digital journal that I protect with a password. If you follow this approach, make sure you remember your password. I have a year’s worth of soulful writing in a 30,000 word document that I had planned to mine for a memoir. The trouble is, I forgot the damn password to the document!
Useful writing prompts to get you started:
1) Freewrite for 10-15 minutes: find a quiet place, sit down put pen to paper and write whatever comes to mind; don’t take the pen off the page, just keep going until thoughts and emotions come to you and just write through that.
2) Make lists: list what you ate the day before, list the things you loved about the day before, list 5 things you want to do before you die, list 5 things you’ve ticket off your bucket list, list 5 things you want to achieve today or 5 things you are grateful for.
2) Dialogue: Have a metaphoric conversation, written in two voices, with someone who hurt you, someone you love, or someone you miss. You can also make it a dialogue with yourself. For example, have a dialogue with your teenage self, your pain, your depression or your inner critic. It’s a powerful way to change your thought patterns.
3) Write an unsent letter: This is a great way to get something out of your system or to make peace with someone who has hurt you. Write a letter to someone from the past or someone you need to forgive, say the things that need to be said and then move on and let go.
Try writing a letter to your 18 year old self, your mother, a former boyfriend, a nasty employer, a friend who has become estranged, an unborn child. It works with anyone you have something to say to.
4) Sentence stems: A very simple way to overcome the block of the blank page is to write down a sentence stem and to fill the blank with a word or phrase. This could be something general like Right now I feel …. Or something tailored to a particular question or problem you want to work on.
Here are some other examples of sentence stems that you can use to get you started:
The most terrifying moment of my life was . . .
The best thing I did yesterday …
What I really wanted to say …