Is Journaling Worth Your Time?

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?

Nine signs you were born to be a writer

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I think I realized I was born to write when I was in seventh grade. My English teacher pulled me out of class one day and asked if I was interested in participating in an essay contest. I was flattered and said yes. Never mind that I never submitted an essay to the contest.

Over the years, other teachers expressed similar opinions about my writing skill. No wonder I wanted to write when I grew up. Everybody thought I was good at it.

That begs the question: how do you know that you were born to be a writer? The answer, I suppose, is as varied as the individual writer. Some people start creating plays and writing short stories as early as kindergarten. Others discover their writing hobby in high school when they begin keeping a diary or dabble in poetry. Yet many others don’t discover writing until well into adulthood.

The truth is there are signs that you are meant to be a writer, or at least love to write. (I believe there is a difference between the two: loving to write is more of a hobby while being a writer is a calling.)

Here are a few signs that convinced me that I was born to write. Of course, your experience may be quite different than mine.  

1. You see stories all around you. No matter where you look – your backyard, the park, the school, or the grocery store – stories abound. You can find stories in the people you see on the street and in nature too. For example, there’s a story behind the couple arguing in a restaurant, and a story behind the family of raccoons that dig into your garbage cans every night searching for their next meal. When you see stories in people, places and things, you know you are a writer.

2. You’re a day dreamer. You could be sitting in a classroom, around the dinner table, or out on the patio with your morning coffee, and your mind transports to other worlds – some you know well, and others that don’t exist except in your own imagination. If you’re constantly dreaming of real or imagined worlds, you have the creative mindset to be a writer.

3. You love to read. Reading and writing seem interconnected; I don’t think you can do one without the other. If you enjoy reading full-length books, such as memoirs and nonfiction to suspense thrillers and science fiction, you are naturally going to want to write full-length books too. Reading helps you learn about crafting stories, essential if you want to be a writer.

4. You enjoy spending time alone. Recent research at the University of Buffalo finds that unsociable individuals who withdraw from society because of a “non-fearful preference for solitude” are more likely to engage in creative activities. Writers are by nature solo artists. They do their best work when they are alone. They don’t mind that alone time because it gives them a chance to hear their thoughts, organize their ideas and craft their stories, both inside their heads and on paper.

5. You’ve received compliments about your writing. You may even keep a file of papers and essays with teachers’ remarks on it that remind you how good you can be. Pay attention to the feedback you get from teachers and colleagues. More important, pay attention to what you learn about your writing from their feedback. For example, while the feedback from my teacher in eighth grade made me feel good, her observation about being verbose and repetitive made me more aware of what I needed to work on. To this day, I write with an awareness to be succinct. If so many people tell you that they enjoy your writing, that might be a sign that you were meant to write.

6. You always kept a journal. It seems many writers kept a journal when they were younger. Journals are a way to sort through your emotions, your ideals, your hopes and dreams. You might one day look back over what you’ve written so long ago to see how far you’ve come in understanding that time of your life. Making sense of nonsensical things is one of the strengths of writers. Keeping a journal to do that is one more sign you might have been born to write.

7. You are constantly reading and learning about writing. You attend workshops, conferences, lectures, and author readings. You join writing groups to get feedback for your work. You soak up all the knowledge you can about your craft. You don’t have to attend an MFA program to be a writer because there are plenty of other resources available, such as websites, magazines and writing studios. There’s a huge writing community, and we can all learn from each other.

8. You express yourself better in writing than verbally. Debra Lobel, an author at the Writing Cooperative, says when things get too emotional, she writes about those emotions and puts them down on paper. Sometimes she sends the note, but other times, Lobel says, she puts it into her fiction. If you were born to write, you probably find it easier to put your thoughts on paper than to speak them.

9. You had imaginary friends in childhood. Sure, you hung out with your school friends and did your homework together, but when you needed a good heart-to-heart chat, you turned to those invisible friends for comfort. At least, they never talked back to you.

However, just because you experience any or all of these signs doesn’t guarantee that you were meant to write.  Conversely, you can still be a writer even if none of these experiences is true for you.

Think about your own writing experience. Were there any signs early on that you were meant to be a writer?

Come to think of it, there is probably only one true sign that you were born to write. That is making the time to write every day.  

How Well Do You Manage Your Emotions When You Write?

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Several years ago when I faced an emotional and financial crisis, I took to journaling almost every day to deal with the pain and anxiety I felt. The emotional pain was so intense, in fact, that it took two notebooks of journal entries to release those emotions. I just kept writing and writing to release the anger, fear and guilt I felt until I had my emotions under control. Writing in my journal was much better than pacing floors and indulging in crying spells.

Psychologists at the Harvard University Healthbeat blog call this expressive writing. They cited several studies showing how expressive writing (journal writing) can help you manage stress and anxiety by organizing your thoughts and making sense of traumatic experiences. Expressive writing can also help you break free of the endless mental cycling through of events that can lead to brooding and depression.

So why am I writing about this? With so much going on in our world, many people begin writing to deal with their often confused emotions to make sense of things. For many, writing helps heal wounds both old and new. At a time like now, expressive writing, or different variations of it, can help you deal with the emotional aspects of these dramatic events.

Writers learn to write with emotion, to use it to fuel their stories. But how do you write when you feel too overwhelmed by life-altering events, when you feel too emotional to write? How do you express your emotions without being overwhelmed by them? How do you put those emotional experiences into proper perspective?

Here are a few writing tools to help you navigate those rocky seas of emotion.

1. Journaling – Therapists at the University of Rochester Medical Center say that journaling is one of the easiest ways to release your emotions, next to talking to a close friend or family member. That’s where expressive writing comes in. The idea behind journaling, or expressive writing, is to set aside time every day to write in a journal or notebook for a specified amount of time, say thirty minutes or so. (However, in my personal experience, if you’re feeling really emotional about a situation, you might consider writing for longer than that, or at least until you have nothing left to put on the page.) Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation or sentence structure, and don’t show your journal to anyone. Journaling is your personal path to healing.

2. Freewriting – Freewriting is like a stream of consciousness on the page. You don’t stop to edit yourself either, much like journaling. While expressive writing helps you deal with the emotional content, like a dumping ground of sorts, freewriting is the flow of thoughts and ideas. Journaling is more personal, while freewriting is less emotional. But because of the assortment of ideas, freewriting helps you sort through them to find nuggets of wisdom. I also recommend handwriting for both journalizing and freewriting because writing by hand creates a direct connection to your subconscious mind.

3. Letter writing — Another exercise I used to get through my emotional crisis was letter writing. Write a letter to that person (or organization) who you feel angry with (or disappointed, saddened, frustrated, etc.). Describe your rage or fears, and most important, explain what you would like them to do in response. Be specific in your request. Most important, don’t mail the letter. Instead, tear it up or burn it. Release the contents into the Universe. You never ever want to mail a letter to someone that you wrote in anger. You might regret it later. Write as many letters as you see fit until your emotions are under control. It really does make you feel better to get things off your chest, even if you never mail the letter.

4. Write about your experience in third person. This suggestion comes from a therapist at Psych Central, who explains that writing in third person (he/she/they) creates distance between yourself and the traumatic event. When it’s less personal, the traumatic experience is easier to deal with.

5. Do nothing. Yes, you read that right. Do nothing – at least for right now. Be careful not to respond to a volatile situation with a kneejerk reaction. What you write in the heat of the moment may not be what you really want to say. Allow time for your emotional self to cool off. It could be a few days, a week or a month or more. When you wait for the drama to subside, what you want to write about will eventually become clear.

The turmoil in the world has created a lot of emotional noise. You don’t want your voice to get lost in it. Take a step back (or two or three) from the drama, allow some time to pass, then you’ll be able to look upon that situation with greater clarity. Writing can help by giving you an outlet for those pent up feelings.

With life in topsy-turvy mode these past few months, writing solely for yourself can bring balance back into your life.

A Writer’s Guide to Overcoming Self-Doubt

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“Our doubts are traitors,
and make us lose the good we oft might win
by fearing to attempt.”

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Shakespeare said it best when he said that “our doubts are traitors.” They betray us by preventing us from engaging with our creativity in a healthful way. They betray us by instilling fear in us that our words will never matter. And they betray us by asserting their will over us. If we give in to those doubts and fears, we lose the chance at achieving greatness with our writing and making a difference in the world.

In my previous post, I wrote about how we can manage our own writing expectations. One of the factors I described is the inner critic, that internal voice that suggests you may never be good enough.

That inner critic is especially adept at creating an atmosphere of self-doubt. When that critic plants seeds of self-doubt in your mind, they are bound to sprout numerous buds that can grow into overgrown weeds.  When those overgrown weeks begin to choke your creativity, you know it’s time to take action. The last thing you want is self-doubt creeping into your writing practice.

Many writers have written about how they have dealt with feelings of self-doubt and insecurity all their writing lives. No one is immune from feeling that way, not even the most successful published authors like Stephen King, Clive Cussler and Sandra Brown, to name a few. I’m sure even Shakespeare had moments when he doubted himself. Self-doubt is as common as breathing.

Every writer who has experienced those feelings have found ways to deal with them, from journaling to staying focused on their craft to simply ignoring them. Borrowing from some of their ideas, here are a few ideas how you can deal with self-doubt when it makes its presence known in your writing practice.

1. Acknowledge its presence. Every writer who has ever written anything, published or not, has experienced occasional bouts of self-doubt in their careers, and the more successful ones are more prone to experiencing its ugly cousin, Imposter Syndrome. That’s the unshakable belief that you’re getting away with something and that you will soon be found out as a fraud. Realize that self-doubt happens to everybody. It’s a normal part of the writing process and it doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with you. In fact, many writing experts say that if you don’t ever feel self-doubt, you’re probably doing something wrong.

2. Give self-doubt a persona. Whether you call it your internal critic, the fraud police or something else, it might help to give self-doubt a name, writes Jim Dempsey at Writer Unboxed. Or try drawing a picture of it. What does self-doubt look like to you? Then put the drawing on your wall and stare it down whenever it tries to speak to you. When it shows up in your practice, you can say, “Oh, no, here comes Negative Nellie again!” It might be easier to fight off its effects when you can bring it out in the open, rather than hide it away in your subconscious where it can do more damage.

3. Write about your feelings. If you keep a journal, as most writers do, take time to write about those dogged feelings of doubt so they don’t overwhelm you. It can be easy to allow self-doubt to consume you to the point where you cannot write or create anything. Don’t do that. Instead, write about those feelings. It’s another way of acknowledging their existence, and that’s healthier than brushing them aside in the hopes they will go away.

4. Realize the feeling is temporary. Feelings of self-doubt and insecurity will ebb and flow in your life like ocean waves. Recognize that those feelings will pass in a matter of hours or days. Don’t let them deter you from your writing. In fact, most writers say it’s important to keep writing during those blue periods. You’ll eventually come out of them.

5. Give yourself permission to write junk. During those periods of self-doubt, it’s important to keep writing, suggests Ruthanne Reid at The Write Practice. Your writing won’t be the best stuff, but at least you are still working on your craft. There’s no such thing as wasted words, she says. No matter how awful your writing may be during that phase, there’s bound to be nuggets of valuable content that you can build on. Have faith in the writing process. It won’t let you down.

Acknowledge that self-doubt is part of the writing process. Make friends with it. Know that it will come and go in your life like old friends do. The next time it shows up in your writing practice, welcome it. Remember that it’s there to help you overcome obstacles so you become a better writer.

How Writers Can Turn Envy Into Motivation

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Have you ever listened to someone read from their recently published debut novel and think, “Gosh, I wish I could have my novel published.” Or maybe you read someone else’s work in your writing class and thought, “I wish I could write like that!”

If so, you’ve just been attacked by a little green monster named Envy.

Envy shows up in your life when you perceive others having what you don’t have: talent, power, prestige, money, popularity.

Envy is usually tied to some other hidden emotion. It may be a sign of competitiveness or insecurity, for example. You want what others have because you fear you don’t have enough of it yourself. Or that you’re not a good enough writer to ever be published like your friends and colleagues. You subconsciously compare yourself to others and fall short. Envy steps in to fill the void.

Envy also shows up when you compare your sense of self with your ideal self, writes Mary Lamia, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to project that ideal on someone else. If your personal ideals are exaggerated and unreachable, you will always feel that you are never good enough.

David Ludden, Ph.D., also writes in Psychology Today that envy has a dark and light side. On the dark side, we may harbor ill will toward someone who appears to have more of what we want. Benign envy – the lighter side – can be converted to motivation to improve ourselves. We can use envy to learn from others and observe how or why they have become successful. For example, maybe they got published because they took the time to research the publication and figured out how to pitch their story to the editor. Maybe that other writers gladly accepts feedback from an editor while you are reluctant to accept their critique.

When envy shows up in your life, there are several ways to deal with it. For starters, you need to be aware of when it shows up. What prompted its entrance? Most important, what can you learn from it? Here are three ways writers can deal with envy.

1. Embrace the emotion. Accept the fact that it’s normal to feel envious of others sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just a signal that you might be feeling insecure in your own abilities. Accept the fact that it will show up on occasion. As author Elizabeth Sims suggests in The Writer, envy loses its power over us when we tell ourselves that it’s okay to be envious.

2. Keep a journal. Ask yourself probing questions, then write down the answers, says writer Amy Torres at The Writing Cooperative. For example, ask yourself “Whose talent do I wish I had?” “What does this person have that I don’t?” and “I wish I could write as well as [fill in the blank].” As you ponder the answers to these questions, note what emotions rise to the surface. Then embrace those emotions. Allow yourself to really feel them. Then write about what you feel in your journal.

3. Be the best writer you know how to be. Show a confident front, says Sims. Even if you don’t feel secure, put on a brave smile. Fake it until you make it, as they say. Then go out and be the best writer you know how to be. Don’t worry about what the other writers are doing with their work. Focus on your own craft. Smile and keep working.

Envy and its ugly cousin jealousy are bound to show up in your writing life. That’s normal. When they do, recognize them for what they are – signs that it’s time to refocus your energy on improving your own writing practice. Observe what the object of your envy is doing. Maybe you can learn from their example. Then use the benign energy of envy to motivate yourself to work differently.

Once you embrace envy as part of the writing process, those periods of envy will shrink so you don’t notice them anymore.