Write about the person you were and the person you are now. What would your past self think about what you’ve become, and how do you now understand your past self?
Journaling is a powerful tool to gain clarity and insight especially during challenging times of loss and uncertainty. Writing can cultivate a deeper connection with yourself and provide an outlet for calmness, resilience and mindfulness. When my mom passed on, I found writing to be cathartic. When I read through my journal years later, there were thoughts that I developed into poems, and others that simply provided a deeper insight into myself. In this series I’m speaking with people who use journaling to become more mindful and resilient.
As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Paula Vene Smith.
Paula Vene Smith (@PaulaVeneSmith on Twitter) is a college professor whose published work includes short fiction, essays, poetry, and a book to help academic leaders (deans, department heads, senior executives) manage risk at their institutions. Paula teaches English at Grinnell College. After offering a course in London for American students on the early history and practice of diaries, she posted 40 mini-essays on “Discovering Diaries” to explore the many dimensions of reading and keeping journals.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story of healing. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
Thanks for the opportunity, Heidi! — and I want you to know that when I learned you were to be my interviewer, I went and looked up your poetry and have greatly enjoyed reading your work. Now, for this first question, I’ll start by pointing out an embedded assumption. The question seems to expect me to tell a personal story of healing. Just now, you named several other ways that you’ve also used your journal — like creating art and reflecting on life’s insights. The journal can offer a restorative path when we’re broken, injured, or ill, but that’s just one part of the story. I’d like to persuade you and Authority’s readers that the greatest value of a journal is its integrative power — the power to step back and find coherence amid the highs and lows, the unresolved interactions, and the entire spectrum of one’s experiences.
In my own case, I was born and raised in a family that moved to a new country every few years. I was the oldest of four kids, and our father was a U.S. Foreign Service officer (diplomat). At age 16 I left home to attend Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school — my third high school in three different countries. After graduating I went on to earn college and doctoral degrees, married, raised two children with my spouse, and pursued my career as a writer, professor, consultant on risk management, and college vice president for academic affairs. Throughout, I’ve kept a journal in times of both transition and relative stability.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about journaling. Have you been writing in your journal for a long time or was there a challenging situation that prompted you to start journal writing? If you feel comfortable sharing the situation with us, it could help other readers.
Like lots of journal-keepers, I began as a teenager. Since my favorite place was the library and I was constantly reading, most likely the idea was inspired by examples like the diary of Anne Frank, Harriet’s notebook in the children’s novel Harriet the Spy, and bestsellers for teens like Go Ask Alice. My first journal, kept when I was 14 and my family lived in Mexico City, no longer exists. I destroyed it because a few years later I was embarrassed by some of the contents, such as how my best friend and I got interested in witchcraft and tried to cast some (fairly innocent, as I recall) magic spells. Of course, like so many others who have discarded or destroyed their journals, I wish I still had that lost volume. I apparently didn’t take long to regret getting rid of it, because I’ve kept every volume since.
The earliest pages I still have were typed on a manual typewriter in the summer when I turned 15. The first sentence declares, “I decided that instead of waiting until Jan. 1, I’d better begin my diary now, because things are happening so fast that I think we’ll be in Lima [Peru] by November, and by January we’ll be in our house and enrolled in a school.” Behind these words, I can hear the voice of a teenager who aims to sound confident, but also relies on her journal to help navigate the upcoming months of uncertainty and international transition.
How did journaling help you heal, mentally, emotionally and spiritually?
To understand how this process works, the most helpful source I’ve found is James Pennebaker’s work at the University of Texas. Dr. Pennebaker is among the foremost researchers to study mental-health benefits of “expressive writing” — also known as journaling. Pennebaker wrote in The Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology (2011) that for many years psychologists believed in “the inhibition idea” as the key to explain health benefits gained from expressive writing. The inhibition idea is that bottling up your thoughts and feelings will cause stress — stress you can relieve by expressing yourself in a journal. Heidi, you referred to this idea earlier when you invoked the “cathartic” power of journaling, especially to handle personal loss.
But in the Oxford Handbook, Dr. Pennebaker explains that his research has shifted from the idea of simply unleashing pent-up feelings, to focus more on what happens in the brain, a cognitive process: It’s now understood that when you “narrate” an experience by writing it down, you mentally crystallize the experience into a clearer form. That new clarity allows you to integrate the experience as a part of your personal identity and your life story. In other words, writing in the journal gives you a chance to stand back, gain perspective, and honestly evaluate what just happened. A powerful experience, good or bad, can feel confusing, overwhelming, hard to define. Writing it down can help by attaching that structure of words and labels. Besides, once having developed a language that feels true and accurate, in a sense you’ve “rehearsed” how to talk about it, which can help when you’re ready to share the experience, whether just to convey something personal or, even more important, to explain to others why you need support.
Did journaling help you find more self-compassion and gratitude? Can you share a story about that?
A few years ago, I found myself negatively comparing what I’ve achieved as a writer with the literary accomplishments of people I went to college with, or with whom I’ve worked in my career. I found myself surrounded by more successful writers. This way of thinking lowered my spirits. Only by looking back to see how I’ve charted in journal entries a consistent, lifelong commitment to writing, and how I’ve battled the challenges that kept me from being productive, could I see that my journal — in which I had kept writing all along — not only reconciled my writer and non-writer roles, but showed the path forward. It was time to delve into the history and theory of this flexible, powerful literary form. I went and read all I could find on diaries and journals, began offering workshops and courses, and have now started to publish articles. In this way, my almost invisible practice of writing in a journal has gradually taken center stage and lets me feel the gratitude of having something unique to contribute.
What kind of content goes into your journal? For example, do you free-write, write poems, doodle?
My aim in the journal is always to sound like myself — the way I talk, the way I come across to the people who know me best. Within that commitment, I try to experiment with as many as possible of the intriguing strategies for journal writing that I encounter as I go about my research. I read many diaries, published and unpublished; each writer has a distinctive voice, and you can take apart the special way this person uses language, what they’ve focused on, which events of the day seem to them important enough to include in an entry. I encourage your readers to seek out interesting diaries and journals — especially by people who lived in a past historical period or whose life experience differs from their own — and listen to them, learn from them, get inspired and challenged by their voices. Memoirs composed after the fact don’t have events erupt that were unforeseen by the writer, nor can they chart the day-to-day uncertainties of life.
One of my favorite historical diaries is the Memphis diary of Ida B. Wells, and I’m excited to read Alice Walker’s edited journals, coming out from Simon & Schuster next April. There are also plenty of “how-to” manuals. For those interested in the spiritual, mental, and physical healing that a journal can support, I would suggest books by Christina Baldwin, Ira Progoff, or Kathleen Adams. If you’re more inclined toward feeding your creative life, Stephanie Dowrick’s Creative Journal Writing or Tristine Rainer’s The New Diary may suit you. Hannah Hinchman and Clare Walker Leslie are expert guides to the self-knowledge one can gain through close observation of the natural world.
How did you gain a different perspective on life and your emotions while writing in your journal? Can you please share a story about what you mean?
In my 20’s I discovered a powerful journal activity called, “Now: The Present Moment.” This exercise, devised by psychologist Ira Progoff, encourages a pause to think about the current stage in one’s life. You’re asked to identify a point when this chapter of your life began, instigated by some key event in your life that has continued to shape your experience ever since it occurred: “This period may have begun very recently, or it may extend back many years. It may have started with a new relationship, a new job, or a move to a new city. Perhaps it began with an idea for a new project, a marriage, or the birth of a child. Or it may have begun with a loss, a separation, or a death.” Progoff then offers a meditation and a set of questions to work through, using both conscious attention and softer dreamlike imagery, to clarify the place where you are.
Found in Progoff’s book At a Journal Workshop, this exercise has become a touchstone of my journal practice that I’ve gone back to again and again over the years. It always leaves me in a calm and centered state, having attained new clarity on where things stand.
In my own journal writing, I ended up creating poems from some of the ideas and one of them won an award. Do you have plans with your journal content?
Heidi, was it your beautiful poem “How We Live On” that grew from a journal entry? If it was, that is so great to know, and congratulations on the award. Yes, I’ve had that experience too, where images and thoughts first shaped in my journal find their way into poetry, fiction, and nonfiction writing. Decades ago when I completed my first novel manuscript, I showed the draft to some early readers; I was surprised by how they immediately identified the passages that had come from my journal as the strongest parts of the work.
For those who write regularly in a journal, as the pages multiply it can be a challenge to keep track of ideas that may serve other work — that usable image, concept, or phrase can get buried among all the other journal material, making it hard to go back and retrieve. Sometimes I’ve jotted ideas for future writing on the empty left-hand side of the page, so they’ll stand out when I leaf back through the journal. Other times — even going back to my teenage years — I’ve kept a separate notebook for writing ideas and used my journal to reflect on how the writing is going. I respect the idea of the “writer’s notebook,” and your readers might consult books by Rosalie Deer Heart (Harvesting Your Journals) or Alexandra Johnson (Leaving a Trace) for ways to develop journal material into more public, finished pieces of writing.
Fantastic. Here is our main question. In my journaling program, I have found that journaling can help people to become more calm, mindful and resilient. Based on your experience and research, can you please share with our readers “five ways that journaling can help you to be more calm, mindful and resilient”?
Sure. To put it as briefly as possible, a journal can integrate those apparent contradictions within your life, which you may otherwise waste a lot of mental energy striving to keep separate.
Here are five of life’s discontinuities that you can bridge, using the integrative power of the journal:
- Write about the person you were and the person you are now. What would your past self think about what you’ve become, and how do you now understand your past self?
- Write about your two worlds. Each of us lives in at least two cultures — whether we speak two languages, go back and forth between two social groups that distrust each other, display different personalities at home and at work, or divide our time between a fantasy life and a real life. How do you bridge your two worlds? What does it cost you to defend one of them to the other?
- Write about your mind and your body. Which of them is simply not listening to the needs of the other? What might happen if they could agree on what to do? Or if they don’t?
- Write about the person you are now in relation to your desired future self. To get there, you need to integrate your present self with the person you want to become and stop “protecting” them from each other. Let both develop and breathe; let them talk to each other in the journal. What does your future self need from you right now?
- Write across the full range of your attitudes and conditions; record the highs and lows of your mental and physical states. Try to find ways to let them all into your journal, in a voice that always sounds like who you are. When you look back over the variety of entries, seeing yourself whole will help you to recognize options and find a path forward.
As you steer toward these insights, you may start to worry about others finding the journal and reacting negatively to what has emerged. I’m an advocate of writing difficult journal content in disguised and indirect ways, devising your own code. Maybe you’ll jot down sensory images instead of telling a story, place a quirky symbol at the top of the page to track something that matters to you, cast an entry in the form of a free-verse poem, or label events as a dream even if they really happened. Take the usual precautions with journal privacy, of course (passwords, hiding places, security measures), but also feel free to obscure some of the material in creative guises that still convey its truth and preserve your experience. Sometimes those imaginative adaptations release even more truth than telling a straightforward story.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of peace to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
I hope to influence people’s ideas about journal writing, but for now I’m just starting to teach and publish on this topic. I’m still at the stage of research and surveying the field. In the largest sense I see my work as encouraging people to look at their world, observe the smallest details, and practice describing what they notice as accurately as possible. So many pundits and decision-makers seem to have forgotten that thoughtful interpretation based on scrupulous observation are at the heart of both scientific discovery and the most powerful art. I would hope for journal-keepers to learn tremendous respect and appreciation for the highest-level practitioners both in art and science, seeing them as engaged in acute, highly skilled observation and thoughtful, humane, even loving presentation to the public of what they’ve found.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
I’ve always wondered if Michelle Obama saw my Washington Post review of her Becoming journal when it came out in December 2019 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/12/02/how-michelle-obama-goes-high-new-becoming-journal/ ). My review contends that her book represents a new direction in journal-keeping, taking it from personal healing to a larger view of making change in the world. For another, I would love to see an Advance Reader Copy of Alice Walker’s forthcoming Gathering Blossoms Under Fire and to talk with her about the change-making power of journal writing.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
As mentioned, I’m still in the early stage for a lot of this work. A good source for where it may go is a guest post I wrote for Mari McCarthy’s “Create Write Now” blog. Your readers can find that post at https://www.createwritenow.com/journal-writing-blog/tap-into-the-power-of-discovering-diaries
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued fulfillment and success with your writing!
Thank you for your questions, Heidi. I hope to have more to share on this topic in the future.