This I know to be true: Journal writing 101

I hate to think of how long I’ve been scribbling away in notebooks. I do know that I’ve still got some moth eaten ones from my early teenage years, filled with exclamation points and hearts for dots over the I’s.

In the course of journal creativity I’ve had some regrets about things I didn’t do, pleasures at things that went right, and books that helped me along the way. 

I’d like to share these with you.

The journaling habits I wish I’d adopted sooner

First, the things I wish I had done:

1. Always completely date the entries. Sometimes in rereading my words I come across an absolutely riveting passage, marked simply, “August 15th.” I wish I knew which August 15th I was talking about?

2. Keep the journal in a safe place. Once during a particularly stormy period in a relationship, my partner came up to me and announced, “I notice that you haven’t written in your journal the past few days. Is anything wrong?” Needless to say I started carrying my journal with me in my briefcase when I left the house!

At another critical juncture in a relationship I left the journal entries with a friend. 

When I got particularly paranoid, I wrote exactly what I meant, and then shredded it, wafting page shreds to the wind on a late summer afternoon. The action was immensely satisfying and private!

3. Save [most of] the journals. When Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens) died, his wife had this enormous bonfire and burned most of his extant journals and letters, deeming them too damaging to the family reputation. 

I’ve done the same thing—sometimes destroying the notebooks from one stage of my life when I enter a new one. The purge is cathartic at the time, but later I long to remember what I had written. Too late.

4. Write a summary closure for each journal. Oftentimes, I’ll remember a passage, but not where I wrote it. I’d like to revisit that earlier time of my life, but that may entail reading through endless pages of “Sun again. Spaghetti for dinner. Friends visited…” How much nicer if I could flip to the back of the book and find out, “Oh yes, that’s when I worked at the bank and had those ‘boss’ problems…”

5. Use similar hardcover books for journal writing. For many years I wrote in steno notebooks, because they accommodated my left-handed posture. Big ones, small ones, thick and thin ones. 

And then I lost them! They slid behind my other books on the shelf and the spiral binding did not engender easy identification. Nowadays I use a sequence of thick leather bound books from Barnes & Noble that clearly say ‘journal’ on the cover. 

6. Write with a pen. I’ve tried electronic journal writing, but a computer is not very portable. Even with a laptop there is not room for several cats and the book I am reading for reference in my lap at the same time. I need the visceral feel of a good pen—be it gel or Mount Blanc scratching against paper. 

Writing by hand slows down the thinking process and I can ponder what I am transcribing. No cut and paste, either! What I write remains there, needing to be read and understood.

The continuing pleasures of journaling

What has given me pleasure in journal writing?

1. I can be alone with myself. I get up early to write. When the morning is warm enough, I sit on the back porch with my coffee and listen to finches and doves greeting the day. Especially wonderful are weekends, with no time deadlines to meet. This is the hour when I can ponder, write lists, explore frustrations and record gratitudes. A very special time.

2. The act of writing is a jump start to creativity. Writing is a habit. Once the muse knows you’ll be there, she will show up on time. When you start to waffle, she’s off to better hunting grounds! So for me, the very act of sitting down to write in my journal gives me permission to then do some for-the-public wordsmithing afterwards.

3. The journal is a place where I can redo reality. Not only do I record dreams and conversations, I can also give vent to what I wished I had said, as well as my wildest win-the-lottery fantasies.

4. It teaches me how to put the Internal Critic on indefinite hold. In my journal I scratch out, misspell, forget punctuation, don’t indent. It is a wonderfully freeing experience that my child side relishes.

5. The journal is my informal way of ‘listing.’ I used to keep lots of lists. And then I’d make lists of the lists. And then I’d lose the master list and have to start all over again. 

No more. The journal becomes a way to plan my day, without nary a point to check off as being done at the end of the day. In a non-punitive way, it gives direction and intention to the hours ahead.

What books on journaling are important to me

And finally, the books that guide me. I am not talking about the dictionary and thesaurus. These are on vacation when I journal. Rather, I have a stack of dog-eared paperbacks that jump start my work when inspiration lags. Some of these are:

1. Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton. An amazing, wonderful writer. This volume was written as she reached age 60, but she has several published journals written before and after that age. 

Sarton was a poet living by the sea, with an eye for color and a passion for romance. Suffering from chronic depression and physical illness, she nevertheless can write passages such as:

“I was stopped at the threshold of my study by a ray on a Korean chrysanthemum, lighting it up like a spotlight, deep red petals and Chinese yellow center, glowing, while the lavender aster back of it was in shadow with a salmon-pink spray of peony leaves…” 

I stand in awe of her abilities!

2. A book of one’s own: People and their diaries by Thomas Mallon. Mallon gives a compendium of the famous diarists, with chapters such as: chroniclers, travelers, pilgrims, confessors, prisoners. A very nice Reader’s Bibliography at the end with some fascinating journals to explore.

3. The Creative Journal: The art of finding yourself by Lucia Capacchione. Lucia has combined journaling with sketching, freeing thought from the bondage of word choice. Her exercises have a visual creative focus, that can be expressed in both words and drawing. Beautifully illustrated.

4. Journal to the Self  The new diary: How to use a journal for self-guidance and expanded creativityby Kathleen Adams. Adams gives some excellent exercises to deepen the journaling process. She has some compelling suggestions including: using 100 item lists to jumpstart creativity (and she gives you 100 such lists!), 19 ways to write for under 15 minutes each, and the best way to keep travel journals.

5. The New Diary: how to use a journal for self-guidance and expanded creativity by Tristine Rainer. Rainer was a compatriot of Anais Nin, the consummate journalist and they often did workshops together. This volume gives practical advice on creating portraits, using guided imagery, writing entries in third person, discovering joy in one’s life (“Happiness within a diary has less to do with the events you encounter in life than with the way you experience the process of living.”) I find something new each time I pick up her book!

Continuing benefits of journaling

Why do I journal? Because it gives me a way to talk to that most important person in my life, myself. When I journal I can slow down and savor life. I can be reminded of the importance of the Present Moment. I can play with words and metaphors without the pressure of an audience. 

I journal because I cannot imagine life without this daily companion and witness to my existence.


About Author, Pegasus Quincy Mystery Series

I write a mystery series about a young rookie deputy on her first assignment in the Verde Valley of Arizona.
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