How Journaling Can Change Your Life or Strait-Jacket Your Creativity

Jun 24, 2015

I’m always sad when, on one of my writing retreats, the subject of journaling comes up and someone will sigh and say things like,

“I know I should journal but I never can seem to make a daily habit of it.”

“I tried morning pages but I couldn’t find time to write three whole pages so I gave up.”

“Journaling is good for you but I never seem to do it!”

I want to jump up and down, run round the room, yell, “No no no! There are no shoulds! You can use personal writing to serve you however you want!!” But I have learned, imperfectly, that this is not the best way to make a skillful point to another person. So instead, I talk about how my relationship to personal writing has changed and how beautifully it serves me now.

Because writing to and for myself is one of my most essential practices. I could not do what I do or understand my life without personal writing. Just one example? The 54,893 words I have written in my “barn burned down” book journal, exploring ideas and issues – from what the book is really about to whining about how hard it is to write.

Notice I call this “personal writing” not journaling. Journaling had come to mean writing about myself for the sake of figuring myself out and improving myself. I don’t know why I built up such a limiting prison around journaling, but I did. And when, years ago, I gave up on self-improvement (because it doesn’t work), I also gave up on journaling. I threw out years and years of journals – the combination of whining and complicated plans for a new me made me nauseous – and decided that journaling was, for me, just not necessary.

Oh, how adorable black-and-white me can be!

I’m not sure exactly when I connected the dots and realized that the writing I did when I needed to understand something, when I wanted to follow an idea, when I needed to know what I thought, WAS journaling. I’d like to say I was reading Virginia Woolf’s diary or Frida Kahlo’s and went, “Oh right, I can do whatever I want, just like they did.”

Instead, it s.l.o.w.l.y dawned on me that my personal writing could be anything I wanted it to be. It already was, but because I wasn’t seeing it that way, I couldn’t fully draw on it. We humans need to notice what is working so we can do more of it and develop skillful habits.

Now journaling means give myself a time and place to follow my mind and my ideas just for myself. Time to let my thoughts and insights grow. That privacy? So crucial. I would even dare to venture, for those of you who write & create as part of your work, that a private place to explore and create that you do not share (at least for a while) is imperative for the growth of your voice and insights.

A few ideas that have helped further liberate my personal writing:

  • I have no rules for my journaling. I do not ever think, “I must write” or “I must write everyday.” Ugh! I write because I want to explore, to engage, to remember.

  • If I feel emotionally plugged up or otherwise churning, I meditate. Then if I still feel confused, I do a free write while keeping my hand moving and using the prompt, “What I am willing to become aware of includes…” We use that prompt and many other great ones in The Oasis.

  • I keep a “book” journal in which I only write about the book and the process of writing the book. No blog notes, book reviews, or rants about the kids. I keep everything else – from ideas to lists to “Call Ann” in one paper notebook until it is full. I highlight or use paper flags to note anything I don’t want to “lose” and I try to use dates from time to time.

  • I do not buy the same kind of notebook for my handwritten journals. I tried that, thinking that having a pile of only Moleskins would be cool, but it’s not me. I love going out to find a new cheap journal. My current favorite pen? Le Pen.

So let personal writing, mark-making, color flinging, thinking on the page, collecting influences, celebrating gratitudes, planning your week – let it all be fair game for what you label journaling. Let it be what you want and need it to be. Throw out any preconceptions, shoulds, or forms. And if you already have, I’m so glad I’m there with you now.



P.S. Lisa Sonora is a fantastic resource for journaling prompts and she is offering her world famous fr*ee 30-day journaling class again starting soon. Lisa totally takes a wide open, playful, integrated approach to journaling so no shoulds. I think you might find it inspiring!

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