The Importance of Journalling for Writers

It struck me, at 4.30 am this morning when I got out of bed to journal, that without all the notebooks I’ve scribbled in over the years my sanity would be precarious at best. I had been lying awake with thoughts whirling round my head, and nothing I tried would quiet my mind enough to sleep. Instead I was getting more and more frustrated with myself and bothered that I would be exhausted today (yet again!)


Yet, as soon as I wrote down these thoughts that had been whirling round, I began to feel calmer.  It wasn’t instant and nor did I instantly fall asleep when I got back into bed. But it was better, and I did sleep. And for me, that pretty much sums up journalling in general. It doesn’t always work instantly, and it doesn’t always work perfectly, but it does help me to get on track and to achieve my goals.

Becoming a Writer

The first book about writing I ever read was Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. This was originally published in 1934, but it still sells  in bookshops and on Amazon today. Brande’s advice is not about writing technique so much as building confidence in your writing. She suggests that writers should get up earlier than normal and write for at least 15 minutes every day. Actually no, she doesn’t suggest it. She says you must do this, and her other exercise of setting a time to write each day and sticking to it. If you can’t do these two exercises, she says, your resistance to writing is greater than your desire to write and you might as well give up and find some other creative outlet.

How to Access the Unconscious Mind When Writing

I’m not entirely sure that I agree with Brande’s view expressed in that last sentence, but overall her advice is sound. Her early morning exercises are basically journalling – in them you write whatever comes into your mind without censoring. This accesses the unconscious mind and after a few weeks, you go through what you’ve written and look for a pattern emerging. The type of thing you have written about will indicate the type of writing to which you’d be best suited. When I did this exercise, many years ago, it indicated that short story writing was my forte. I’m not sure it would now, because what I write in my journal has changed over the years.

Brande was writing at a time when terms like “the unconscious mind” weren’t commonplace, but more modern writers such as Natalie Goldberg (Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones) and Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way) also place great value on the journalling process because of its ability to bypass the censoring part of our brain and access what Goldberg refers to as “first thoughts.” As I’ve written in earlier posts in this blog, this type of free writing is the essence of my writing method. When I feel stuck with writing – whether it is fiction or an article – I write whatever comes to mind until I get something that is workable. Sometimes I do several versions of the same novel chapter, and from the various drafts I then draw the writing that has most energy.

Photo by anankkml via Freedigitalphotos

Make Journalling a Practice

Early morning journalling has been part of my life for decades, but there have been times when I let it slip. When I’m away from home it has often been tricky to find time to journal in the early morning: if we’re staying with friends or family there is often someone else around and if we’re in hotels it’s usually a case of shutting myself in the bathroom while everyone else sleeps on. (Yes, I’ve done it.) But I’ve let journalling slip at home too, usually during the school break when my kids would come downstairs earlier than I’d expected and so I’d get caught up in family things and leave the journal. It didn’t matter, I’d tell myself, because I was writing every day on blogs, novels or articles.

But this last week, I’m beginning to see that it does matter. It matters for two reasons that I can instantly see (and perhaps more that I don’t yet see.)

Journalling Promotes Mindfulness

Firstly, when I journal regularly, what happened during my far-too-early morning writing session today happens in my life overall. I feel calmer, I can detach more from anything that’s bothering me. The very act of writing down my so-called problems helps me see them as a story, rather than as me. And so it’s easier to let go, and to quieten.

Secondly, when I journal regularly, I am making it a practice, rather than just some random thing I occasionally do. I am making it a priority and saying that it matters enough for me to do it every day. But more than this, I’m also saying that I matter enough to do what sustains me, what calms me and gives me the space and time I need to “sort my head out.”

It is while journalling that I notice beliefs that I’ve held since childhood that once were useful, but now no longer are. It is while journalling that I let them go. Recently, while journalling, I noticed an image coming into my mind of an memory fragment from my teens when I believed another girl didn’t want to speak to me because I was “boring.” (In this instance, boring translates as shy, and scared to speak.) Though this incident has come into my mind many times over the years, it was while journalling that I realised it was partly a factor in the writer’s block I’ve experienced over the years. (Here’s my recipe for writer’s block: what I have to say is boring so nobody wants to hear it; my writing is boring so nobody will want to read it.)

I also, this time around, realised that it was absolutely possible that I’d made a mistake. It was possible that the girl (and all the subsequent people I found it hard to speak to) was feeling just as shy as I was. Her silence probably had little to do with me. I was silencing myself as a teenager and later as a writer because of a belief about how others saw me that was based only on my own imagination, not on anything real. Realising this has had a far bigger impact on my sense of being a writer than any prize or creative writing degree or best seller ever could. Of course, it’s possible that some people may find what I have to say or write boring, and that has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with me.

How to Journal Mindfully

Journalling can be a way of keeping track of your writing, of noting down aspects of your process that work well or that cause you trouble. This can be very beneficial, but it’s not the kind of journalling I mean here. Neither are you aiming to write a diary where you record events like:  “Today we went to the park with Kate and Wills. Boy it was hot.” But you might include that, and that’s okay.

You are not aiming to fill your pages with whining that a teenager would be proud of. But it might include that, and that too is okay. In its simplest form, you write whatever comes into your mind, without censoring. When we get the negative stuff out on paper, it loses its power.  As Julia Cameron writes: “All that angry, whiny, petty stuff that you write down in the morning stands between you and your creativity.”

Both Brande and Cameron recommend that you don’t reread what you’ve written for several weeks. There’s a simple reason for that: it’s likely to make you more self-conscious and less free about your writing until you get used to it. Brande recommends 15 minutes or more, Cameron recommends 3 pages, so you can choose whichever suits you best. It is important to write with pen and paper, rather than at a computer screen because this makes you more likely to access the “whiny, petty stuff.”

The way I journal is similar to what Brande and Cameron recommend, but has an added aspect. Sometimes I do write the whiny, miserable stuff that has been blocking my creativity, and sometimes as I write it down I believe it, but this rarely lasts for long. Writing it down is often enough to see through it.

If it’s not enough and I still feel stuck, then I sometimes use a process of written inquiry called The Work. Or, I ask myself questions such as: Am I these thoughts or am I aware of them? Asking this question of yourself allows your to step back from “you” as you write. It enables you to notice the thoughts and images that flit through your mind, and to realise that these thoughts aren’t who you are, so you don’t have to believe them. You might even notice how you react to those thoughts and images. And then, in the case of beliefs that don’t serve you, you can allow them to dissolve. This kind of journalling allows our creativity to break free.

Comments

  1. This is fascinating, thank you for sharing it. I’ve never before journalled, as such, except for during a particularly dark couple of teenage years, and I’m fairly sure that it was ‘getting out the whiney stuff’ stuff.

    I doubt I’d have the capacity to journal each day, yet I love the idea of responding to a challenge, and have engaged in a few on my blog (starting a blog hop, joining someone else’s writing challenge, starting my own creative writing attempt thing) and it’s really enjoyable.

    I’ve never been one for writing long pieces of meandering stuff on paper, because it seems too much like school essays. Poetry, however, I prefer paper for.

    1. Hi Lizzie, There’s something about writing on paper that really helps me when I’m stuck – no matter what type of writing it is.

      But I do think that it’s important to do what feels right for ourselves and not try to follow rules. So if journalling is not your thing, that’s fine! If you do want to give it a try, you could always try 5 minutes or one page. Some days I write pages and pages, and other days it’s half a page, but I have gone back to 3 pages lately.

      Thank you for commenting! And I love your blog hop -definitely a challenge worth taking up. You’ve got me curious to read your fiction now too!

  2. I haven’t journaled in years. Maybe I should start again…there are definitely days when I sit in front of the computer and wonder how in the world I’m going to think of something to write for a blog post. Although my desk has about 200 paper notes scattered around with reminders, ideas, points to use later, things to look up…maybe I am sortof-kindof journaling but in a super disorganized way? Hm probably not. This is a really great post.

  3. Kristi, when I do that – wonder who I’m going think of something (or in my case it’s more how I’m going to finish what I’ve started) that is one of the times when I journal. It’s incredibly helpful – for me at least – in rooting out what is causing the block. But, you are so prolific and so varied on your blog that I have a feeling you’re doing just fine with all your notes!

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