I came across an intriguing blog post about journaling on Jane Friedman’s blog. Anne Carley, a writer, creativity coach and journaling advocate posed the following question: Is writing a waste of writing time? The question prompted me to recall my own experience with journaling.
Once upon a time I kept a journal. It was about eight years ago, and I was going through a rough time in my life. I’d made a bad business decision and lost a lot of money because of it. I was out of work and asking myself, “What’s next?” I also went through a health crisis and my mother had recently passed away. I was experiencing a full-blown mid-life identity crisis.
With my life in disarray, I started writing in a journal not to make sense of these sweeping changes that were happening but to vent my anger, frustration, guilt and sadness. I churned out pages and pages of angst-ridden prose – two whole notebooks worth. I vented about my poor decision-making skills and the person who had been involved in the business deal. I poured out my troubles to the journal as if it were a therapist, which I suppose it was. Journaling was critical for my mental health during that time, as was a regular yoga practice. And journaling was far cheaper than visiting a therapist’s office.
Funny thing was, once this series of crises ended, I no longer felt the need to write in my journal. I stuck in in my desk drawer and forgot about it. Every now and then, I’d pull it out, look over what I’d written, write a few more entries, then I put it away again. By this time, I had begun a blog, was writing regularly for freelance clients, had part-time jobs and was writing essays and fiction. I had no more room in my life for journaling.
I know many writers who swear by journaling. They couldn’t imagine starting their day without it. It’s as critical to their existence as breathing.
Admittedly, journaling brings numerous benefits to writers, such as using it as a warm-up exercise, to brainstorm story ideas, or a means to improve their writing. It can help them examine motivations and behavior of themselves and of people around them, and it can be a useful tool to manage your mental health, as it did for me.
While there are certain advantages, there are as many downsides to journaling, such as:
- It can feel more like a diary or a reporting of events
- There are only so many hours in the day and too many obligations to allow time for journaling
- It can be used to avoid doing your regular writing practice, or performing chores you’d rather not do
- It can serve as a distraction rather than a tool to help you
- It can feel like a chore, one more thing to add to your to-do list.
Writer Thomas Plummer suggests that new writers often fail at journaling because they have no idea what they want to achieve with their journaling practice. Plummer writes: “Journaling becomes a mind-numbing exercise because without a plan or an expected outcome, you end up writing the chronological steps of your day without adding an interpretation or without deciphering any meaning of what is going on around you.”
To overcome this failing, he presents an example of how journaling can be done so you get the most out of the experience.
Before jumping into journaling, think about the following questions:
1. Where are you on your writing journey? If you are new to writing, journaling might be a practical entry point, especially if you want to write essays or memoir where deep meaningful reflection is needed.
2. Why do you want to start journaling? Know your why. If your answer is because you want to become a better writer or you want to tap into your creativity, then by all means, go for it. However, if your answer is because every writer you know tells you that you should, or because it helps you avoid other responsibilities, then you will likely set yourself up for failure.
3. What do you want to achieve with your journaling? Have a plan for what you want to achieve with your journaling. My goal when I did maintain a journal was to simply feel better about myself and deal with the emotional turmoil I was feeling. I didn’t have a plan other than to write every day until those intense emotions subsided. Your goal might be different. Without a goal, however, you likely won’t maintain a regular journaling practice.
4. What kind of writing do you want to do? I think journaling is more helpful for narrative non-fiction, essays and memoir writing. It probably isn’t going to help you with writing feature articles or non-fiction.
The choice whether to start journaling is up to you. If you do embark on that journey, you’ll find plenty of resources and coaches on the Internet to help you get started.
One final thought: While journaling can help you improve your writing skills, it isn’t the only way. No matter what medium you use — a journal, blog, or something else — as long as you are consistent with your writing, your writing will naturally improve.
Do you keep a journal? What has your experience been like? Can you tell if your writing has improved because of it?