How to harness the awesome power of journalling

I’m currently writing in journal number 124 in a 24-year-long run of journalling. There were journals before this ‘set’, some lost in a house move, others disappeared in my teens.

I write everything in these journals:

  • random thoughts and observations
  • notes on books I’m reading
  • goals
  • how the day/the week /the month/the year went
  • to do lists
  • deep reflection
  • shallow thought-dumping
  • writing exercises
  • ideas for books, stories, poems, blogs…

The journals are beautiful. Many of them were handmade by daughter or have been gifts. Each one is an artefact. They’re also a problem in that they’re not written for anyone else to read, so what will become of them?

Nonetheless, I persist. I often feel I don’t know what I’m thinking until I write it down. It’s my act of processing. It’s also the fount of my creativity.

Why?

1. To practice

Great musicians practice. They go over scales and arpeggios, études and exercises. When tackling concert pieces, they go over and over particular phrases, gradually building speed and confidence.

Writing about the diaries Virginia Woolf kept over 26 years, she says:

The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.

And, after her death, Leonard Woolf described the 26 volumes as:

a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.

Writing is a muscle. The more we use it, the more flexible and strong it becomes. Whether you are writing morning pages in which you do 2 or three pages of a writing prompt or outlining ideas or setting down emotions, the more you write, the more confident your writing voice will become.

When I teach writing courses and set exercises for the group I’m working with, I do the exercises myself into my journal. It’s an interesting way to see how I respond the same pressure to write in the moment and one I can look back on.

Do you keep morning pages or use a journal for writing exercises?

2. To record

A journal is a great source book. We can store away quotes. We can jot down overheard conversations that might later become dialogue in a story. We can name the world as we go about it and then go deeper to record the details with precision and note our reactions so that stories begin to emerge.

In the essay ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ (part of the book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem) Joan Didion talks about mining her journal when inspiration seems otherwise scarce:

on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there…

Some writers have separate books for notes. Often something small and portable works well for capturing a bit of overheard conversation on a train or a description of exactly how light falls on a river at dusk. I carry my journal everywhere and it all goes in amongst all the other sorts of writing.

Where do you keep the notes that become articles, poems or stories?

3. To keep lists

In her journal, Susan Sontag also moves between various forms of writing. There are episodes of detailed autobiography and passages which are philosophical or academic. But running throughout the journals are lists. She lists movies she’s seen, books to read, places to eat and drink. She lists words, not only in English but in French, German, Greek, Italian and Spanish. She lists writers, poets, painters…

In Writing Wild, Tina Welling talks about the ‘power of lists’ as a natural patterning we can employed to capture everything from sensory details to our hopes for the future.

I have ‘to-do’ lists in many forms, but will often put my to-do list for the day in my journal the night before. It’s a way of prioritising and impressing each item onto my mind. And, like Sontag, I keep lists of books I want to read or make lists of places I want to visit when travelling.

Where do you keep your lists and what do you list?

4. To set and reflect on goals

Photo by Cristina Munteanu on Unsplash

Goals are a subset of lists. At the end of every year I do a huge journalling exercise thinking over the highs and lows of the last year. I look back at the goals I put in my journal the year before and think about what I’ve achieved, where I’ve failed, how aspirations have changed or developed …

I often remind myself of my goals in my journal as I go through the year. And I break the goals down into steps that I can reflect on during a particular week or month. My goals this year centre around writing, travel, family and the person I want to be.

I’m conscious from my 24-years of journals that I’ve sometimes felt completely stuck and incapable of change. I’ve sometimes felt that I was journalling the same stuff over and over with no movement or momentum. But when I look back over a long period, huge shifts have occurred. Journalling has been an important part of finding the resolve to make those changes.

This is how Benjamin P Hardy describes that process:

It’s where the mental creation happens. And because my mental creation recurs on a daily basis within my journal, the physical creation is organic. It’s simple.

Where do you write about your hopes and dreams? Where do you envision change?

5. To celebrate

I often feel there is something artificial about gratitude journalling. Perhaps this is because it’s often advised for people who are going through dark episodes of life. I’m wary of the ‘think about all the things you have to be grateful for and your worries will vanish’ approach.

But despite this caveat, when there are joys to celebrate, however small or simple, a journal is a great place for it.

Where do you record the best moments of your life?

6. To rant

The privacy of a journal is a wonderful space in which to dump all manner of emotion.

Writing about Albert Camus, Susan Sontag notes in Against Interpretation and Other Essays:

Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself. In it he exists solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being.

The suffering, struggling being appears frequently in journals. A lot of what we write in journals is rubbish. It can be self-pitying or harsh or judgmental. If we keep writing and reflecting, journals are places to process negative emotions and come out the other side. As Eugène Delacroix puts it:

I am taking up my Journal again after a long break. I think it may be a way of calming this nervous excitement that has been worrying me for so long.

Where and how do you diffuse your negative emotions?

7. To get creative

Journalling is a powerful way to tap into our creativity. This can be particularly the case when you establish a journalling practice of writing last thing before sleep and when you first wake up. The subconscious seems closer to the surface at such times and we are more likely to dive into a deep stream of consciousness.

Anaïs Nin says of her journalling:

It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.
Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.
…in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, brought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.

How can you use a journal to tap into your deeply creative self?

8. To appreciate solitude

Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash

Writers are not strangers to solitude, but to write without any trace of an audience in mind not only frees the writing but also enables us to delve deeper into solitude.

One can never be alone enough to write,

Susan Sontag commented.

And Ernest Hemingway, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature (which he recorded as he didn’t attend the ceremony) goes further:

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

We might not agree with Hemingway that loneliness is crucial but solitude, which is becoming an increasingly lost art, is. In a journal we don’t only write alone. We create something that is internal and reflective.

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland writes:

I got fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness. I was interested in silence as a lost cultural phenomenon, as a thing of beauty and as a space that had been explored and used over and over again by different individuals, for different reasons and with wildly differing results. I began to use my own life as a sort of laboratory to test some ideas and to find out what it felt like.

And she notes:

We believe that everyone has a singular personal “voice” and is, moreover, unquestionably creative, but we treat with dark suspicion (at best) anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity — solitude.

Where do you practice solitude?

9. To reconcile with ourselves

We can use a journal to pull in the outer world and reflect on it. But we can also use journalling to go within. In ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ Joan Didion talks about the compulsion to write. This is not only an act of remembering but a way of making sense of the self.

Journals are interesting accounts of the person you have been ten years/a year/a month ago. As Didion puts it:

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. […] It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.

Virginia Woolf sometimes addressed her diary to her older self and, during periods when she was struggling, noticed the therapeutic value of writing:

Melancholy diminishes as I write. Why then don’t I write it down oftener? Well, one’s vanity forbids. I want to appear a success even to myself. Yet I don’t get to the bottom of it.

A journal can be a safe space to throw off vanity or the pressure to pretend we are more successful than we feel and simply write.

Where do you find your past self?

10. To become a different story

Of course, journals also enable us to reflect on the self we want to become in the future.

Susan Sontag wrote in one journal entry:

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts — like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.
The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.

We can always change. My journal is a testimony to that.

Journalling is a way of creating the person you want to be and then checking back on that. It offers an alternative, a way to become a different story.

What story do you want to be?

In short

Journalling is a powerful way for writers to dig deep into:

  • their own practice
  • observation and note-keeping
  • lists and goals
  • joys and frustrations
  • deep creativity
  • past and future selves

How do you use your journal?

Becoming a different story

I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life. I’m interested in connecting with others who want to explore the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life, sign up to my email list — or feel free to continue the conversation here.