Journal writing is a creative practice. The best style is the one you discover for yourself by doing the work. You can learn from the recommendations of others, but in the end the style of journal writing you will value the most is a found thing. And only you can find it. Journaling is a found thing, not a method or process you acquire from somewhere out there.
Advice about journaling ranges from the inspired through impractical to misguided. Some say that the benefits of journaling include increased wellbeing, reduction of depression and anxiety, self-improvement, personal growth, increased optimism, and even greater resilience. While benefits can accrue, they depend on the interplay between what you write in your journal and what you do in the world.
The purpose of my journal writing is to broaden and expand my experience of being alive. Everyone’s life involves joy and sorrow, possibility and loss, as well as adventure and misfortune. We cannot expect to feel good about life all the time because life isn’t designed that way. All emotional states are inherently transient. To pursue happiness, for example, is futile and a potential source of self-harm. Moreover, journal writing is about deepening my connection and sense of belonging in the world.
Everyone has their own approach to journaling. I use journal writing to train my mind to observe and interpret my experiences in truthful and healthy ways. A journal entry is a direct encounter with felt experience. The key, for me, is that my writing originates in my inner life and proceeds to move outward to real life. I may write about finding a way to assuage the discomfort of pandemic stress or I might explore a personal quality I need to develop and practice in everyday life. My journaling is always focused on something deeply felt that requires my awareness and attention. There is a constant interplay between my inner life and the external world of everyday life – a kind of conversation with my reality.
When I am faced with adversity, my focus is to move into that adversity to see what is there and to begin the process of moving through it. I won’t know what the process is, how long it will take, or if I will be successful. This is a key principle in training the mind; that is, you find yourself in unexpected situations immersed in ambiguity and have no idea what to do. These are the moments in life that real learning becomes possible. They are also moments for discovering personal meaning and wisdom, which, for me, is why we are here.
In my thirty years of journal writing, I have also pursued many bad directions that I could only see in hindsight. The first and most virulent problem was self-absorption. I have written many journal entries that cycle around worries, complaints, and anxieties. The second problem, repetition, led to cycles of self-absorption. The third problem was inertia; that is, my writing was disconnected from my experiences. The fourth problem was a lack of authenticity and not writing in a way that was congruent with what was really going on. Finally, I recognized that when I did have a promising idea it often became an orphan and languished on forgotten pages.
Learning to write well involves persevering through a lot of bad writing. It’s not bad writing that is the problem, but the failure to confront it is a problem. In a journal, your writing provides glimpses of that elusive shape-shifting creature called “I.” You don’t need to write high art, but you do need to embrace artistic insight, perception, and awareness to discover things about yourself you didn’t know you knew.
The key is that journal writing is a found thing. You find your style and voice by engaging with ideas, issues, and concerns that are relevant to you. Take one idea and spend some time with it. Focus on it. Look at what you write on the page and then try to locate in the world around you. Constantly move back and forth between the appearance of the idea in words and in your experience. Occasionally, read some previous entries and explore how your perception of them has changed. Look for reasons why. Are there any suggestions floating around in your mind about what to write next?
My approach to journal writing is to train my mind to observe and interpret my experiences in healthy and truthful ways. It’s not always a comfortable experience, nor should it be. Sometimes I struggle to find the words to express a feeling or intuition. At other times I look at my words and cannot locate them in the world around me. Inhabit the disconnection and temporary blocks as fully as possible. Let the uncertainty linger. Most of all, take your words and move them out into the world and see what happens. Don’t allow your journals to become graveyards of lost potential.
- In his book, On Writing, Stephen King describes an idea as a found thing that can only be discovered by engaging in the work of uncovering it. I believe that this is the core attribute of creativity. You discover ideas by doing the work. There is no magic, except the odd interjection from “the guy in the basement.”
- The Art of Journaling from The Daily Stoic is a good article offering many ideas. The problem, however, is that it conflates the idea of journaling with many other kinds of writing. The best advice in this article is: ” Forget All The Rules About Journaling. Do What Works.”
- Although I agree that journal writing practice must be consistent and regular, I personally don’t find quantity to be a useful goal as an end unto itself. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends writing three longhand pages every morning. I have experimented with this and found myself producing a lot of inert and abandoned writing. For me, it didn’t work. Here is the description of morning pages if you are interested in pursuing this idea:” Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. *There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages*– they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize, and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.”
- Journal writing is a quest for belonging, not self-absorbed isolation. In Introspective or Narcissistic, David Brooks concludes, “Maturity is moving from the close-up to the landscape, focusing less on your own supposed strengths and weaknesses and more on the sea of empathy in which you swim, which is the medium necessary for understanding others, one’s self, and survival.”
- Claims about the benefits of journaling can be excessive. It is important to understand what makes journaling effective. In The Good and Bad of Journaling, Steven Stosny states that, “There’s a lot of advice out there about how to journal, some of it good, much of it bad… In general, it is likely to hurt if it tries to help you know yourself in isolation and helps if it leads to greater understanding and behavior change in your interactions with others.” Self-absorption is symptomatic of mental illness. I believe that journaling in self-absorbed ways inhibits wellbeing. Journal writing that encourages connection, interaction, relationship, and participation with others and the world around you are essential.
- In How to Journal Through Your Struggles, Kira Newman concludes that although research shows that writing about your struggles in life may help, the reasons for this are unknown: “There’s something powerful about translating our experiences into words—and not keeping them buried inside.” The scope of the inquiry is limited to a process called “expressive writing.” I believe the reason journal can help is self-evident. When you go into your experiences (good and bad) with the intention of working with them creatively, you generate potential where there once was inertia. Writing is not an end unto itself. The benefit of journaling lies in how your journal writing comes alive as experience.