In 2009, I experienced what novelists call a “dark night of the soul.” I had just gotten married, and struggled with my new adult identity and the loss of my maiden name. In the space of six months, three loved ones passed away, including my beloved grandmother. I was frustrated at work and knew I wanted something different from my life. I felt lost and depressed.
Then someone close to me asked this question: “Do you still keep a journal?”
The answer was, “No.” Although I journaled all through high school, a habit that kept me surprisingly sane while coping with thyroid cancer, I had stopped once I got to college and went into remission. By 2009, I hadn’t written a word outside of work in years. But I remembered how journaling had helped me before, and thought it might prove beneficial again. On my 28th birthday, I created a new file on my computer simply named, “Journal.”
Looking back six years later, I can honestly say that one tiny action changed the course of my life. Before then, I was on track to be miserable in my job and struggling with my sense of self. Keeping a journal helped me change my perspective, gave me a positive outlook, and even began to dictate my future.
Tips for Keeping a Journal
If you want make a journaling habit stick, give careful consideration to when and how.
When depends on two things: the time of day when you have the mental energy for free-writing, and/or the time that a free-write will be most beneficial to you. For me, journaling fits best first thing in the morning, as a warm-up to my bigger writing projects. I’m both fresh and preparing for more writing at that time, so it fulfills both qualifications. The only downside is that I end up writing about things that happened the day before instead of the day of. This works for me, but if you’re the kind of person who likes to empty your mind of stressors and recalibrate at the end of the day, evenings might work better for you.
How usually takes a little trial-and-error. Many people insist that a journal must be kept by hand because thoughts flow better from your brain when you’re writing longhand. I personally find it clunky and uncomfortable; my hand can’t keep up with my thoughts, so I prefer keeping a journal file on my computer. When I was a teenager, though, I kept my journal in giant sketchbooks and wrote with markers, because that pleased me. The right approach is the one that feels most comfortable for you.
The Past: Dump The Negative, Savor the Positive
So you’ve set up your time of day and gathered your materials. What next? You can use a writing prompt to get yourself going, but I recommend simply chronicling your time since you last journaled (an incentive to write every day). Writing about what you did generally leads into writing about how you felt at that time, and soon you’re exploring deeper places within yourself.
Once you’ve gotten used to this process, you’ll begin to experience that metaphysical ability to watch yourself write as if from a distance. You’ll develop an extra voice in your head, a journaling voice, which will point out to you when you’re complaining or being super-negative. Use that voice for good; let it guide you toward bringing out the positive in your life. You’ll be surprised at how well this works. Start by dumping all of your negative thoughts on the page, and as you write, you can reframe the negatives into positives and encourage yourself to move forward.
The Present: Get Into A State of Flow
“Flow” is the state first documented by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly that is the goal of every artist and athlete: the ability to become so engaged by the activity that you’re unaware of time passing. Trying to get into a state of flow can be wonderful for journaling, in part because it helps your writing feel more natural, in part because it helps you practice your writing voice for other projects. There’s no “secret sauce” for obtaining flow; you’ll know it when you see it.
The Future: Make Lists to Inspire Passion and Excitement
I often like to end my journal entries with things I’m looking forward to that day or the next. If your next few days don’t look very enjoyable, you can try ending with a seasonal bucket list (“things I want to do this fall”), a list of books you can’t wait to read, or just a few things that make you feel good about yourself. Ending on a high note will help you emerge into the real world stronger, happier and more secure with your sense of self.
Reflect On The Past
An oft-ignored step of journaling, but the one that leads to the most personal growth, is reflecting backwards. Once you’ve amassed several entries, look back at the first ones. Do you notice a difference in your content or style? Are you more or less positive, focused, emotional? Looking back will help you to see patterns in your writing, and even give you that extra perspective you need to make changes in your life.
The act of journaling has helped me understand so much about myself and the direction of my life. It was journaling that first led me to understand how much I wanted to be a writer, and it continues to be the place where I pour out ideas, good and bad, for my writing future. It also helps me to put life events in perspective, to see the big picture when warranted, and to accept the things I can’t change.
Journaling has changed my life; it can change yours too. By releasing negative past experiences and honoring the positive ones, being mindful and flowing through the present, and re-thinking your outlook on the future, you can literally re-write your life.
Leanne Sowul writes historical/literary fiction and teaches music from her home in the Hudson Valley, NY. Aside from journaling, she stays healthy and sane by practicing yoga, biking, and attempting to force herself to stop reading and go to bed early. Her blog Words From The Sowul is a haven for writers, readers and lovers of words. Connect with Leanne at her website, via email at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, or on Twitter @sowulwords.