Thursday, September 1, 2016

When a writer tries journaling

I’ve felt troubled in recent months. I’ve been busy and unable to catch up; I’ve worked hard, and in my working, I’ve shorted myself time to collect my thoughts and to just relax and fool around. I haven’t been a fun mom or partner or friend. And I’ve had some crushing disappointments—things that have gone wrong that I haven’t managed to bounce back from.

The other day, I bought a journal. I did it on a whim, really—I was at the drugstore, and I spotted a notebook with a pretty pattern on the cover. It was on sale. I grabbed it. I liked the look and feel of it so much that I needed to write in it.

And so I started journaling. It’s a no-brainer for a committed writer to turn to words to make sense of things. Many times in my life I’ve made lists of pros and cons—for moves, for job changes, for breakups. I’ve listed baby names. I’ve listed things to do. I’ve dieted and listed each day’s meals and calories. Seeing my ideas written down has helped me to flesh them out—to turn a notion into a scheme. I’ve always had a gift for untangling words, and when the words are attached to difficulties or desires, my writer-editor brain works for my own larger good.

For my journal, I’ve made a few rules. First, regardless of what’s going on, I’m just going to use a page—the front and back of a single piece of bound paper. This rule requires me to be direct and honest, and to maintain focus as I work.

I end my entries with three specific observations: beauty, loss, and progress. Each day I write down something beautiful I noted since the last time I wrote, and then I write down something that’s causing me grief. I finish on a positive note with progress—what did I do today to allow myself to express more fully as the person I’d like to be?

I leave a bit of a margin, and in it I write down random things—funny quips from my son, a thing the cat did, a phrase I humorously mis-heard. These can be anything, but the common denominator is that they are things that make me laugh or smile. Thus my little journal becomes a tool for optimism, and I certainly needed something like that in my life.

Anyone who is reading this blogpost, in a space dedicated to writing and creativity, is probably wired somewhat like I am. We figure things out on the page. When we hear an introduction, we need to know how the name is spelled, because words are how we process the world.

Although I’ve taken some time off here, I do consider myself a daily blogger—that is my aspiration. And I also have a daily poetry project that I publish on Twitter—small, haiku-like poems that memorialize a person lost to gun violence the previous day. In a way, I’ve been journaling all along; until very recently, though, my writing hasn’t been the same as personal journaling, undertaken to sort out my problems and to work on becoming more fully me.

When a writer journals, the matter of style is front and center, in a way that it likely isn’t for the average diarist. What is the role of style in a journal? Is the journal a blank slate for honesty and candor, or is it a medium for literary artmaking?

I wouldn’t bother writing if I didn’t plan to embrace the potential for the clearest, most expressive, most artful statement possible. Real writers don’t fart around when dealing with words; they make art because they must. Even freewriting is about pushing ideas further and being on the lookout for intriguing chance connections.

In my journal, I try to be very honest as I write about what is, frankly, a monotonous and ordinary life. I have no hang-gliding to report. I don’t invent things. I don’t hobnob with celebrities. Mostly, I watch a lot of TV.

But my life is my topic, and I’m working on making it better. I’d like a full-time job; even more, I’d like a place where I fit in, enjoy friendships, contribute to something larger than myself. I’d like a desk, a set of keys, a job description.

And I’d also like the rest of it all to fall into place. I want the kind of regularity that can allow me to live and work in a clean house, and to exercise love for family, and to engage in rest and relaxation for myself. It’s not happening on its own, so I’m working through it—through getting what I want and need, or through changing what I want and need (I’m not sure which just yet).

I am artful while I do it, though, and I’m always on the lookout for important insights, or for poetic images, or for prose prompts and starts.

It’s going well so far, just a few days in. Now to see how long I can keep the momentum going ….


  1. Have you ever read Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way? She suggests writing three pages every morning - the Morning Pages - to clear your head. I've been doing this since 2004 (because everyone in my MFA program was talking about it) and it's been tremendously helpful.

    1. I have a good friend who swears by Morning Pages! They weren't effective for me, but I see what they do for her. My own journaling is a late-in-the-day project, and that's going pretty well so far. Glad to hear that you have such a long and productive experience with journaling!

  2. It took me a really, really long time to find this - I had thought it was on FB somewhere, and maybe it was - but I am so glad and grateful I did. I very much needed this post in my life right now. Thank you for the wisdom and inspiration.