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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Journaling: Why You Should Do It, and Do It Without Apology

Photo credit: Caroline H. Browning |

The idea of routinely writing about our lives can conjure up skepticism and even derision. As writers, our creative pursuits can convince us that journaling would be anything but beneficial. Reviewing what it offers tells a different story.♦ 

Nothing better represents our opposition to chronicling our lives than the way we cringe at the words “Dear diary.” We writers seem as apt to resist as anyone else, despite our love for narrative and our belief in its worth. This reaction probably has something to do with our attitudes towards maintaining a diary, or journaling. We gender-cast it as decidedly feminine, and that it requires regular and rigorous concentration on our experiences makes it a stigmatized ritual. We might be left with more than one unflattering assumption about those who choose to do it.
      For starters, investing the necessary time, willingness, and energy in journaling can suggest we prioritize focusing on ourselves over other activities, ones outside ourselves. With our saturation in social media, do we really need more “me time”? To fill pages upon pages with personal details begs another question: Do any of our lives—so ordinary—provide substantial enough material for journaling? We might suspect people who keep a diary believe their lives are in fact brimming with conflict, and they see themselves as the exception. Perhaps we can almost hear them saying, You wouldn’t understand.
   Based on this thinking, we might see journaling as conceited and self-absorbed, or melodramatic, juvenile, and “woe is me.” We do not want to be that person. If nothing else, we might simply shrug and say we couldn’t possibly picture ourselves keeping a daily record of our lives. Sure, it may be valuable for others, but we would find it dull, pointless, and painful. It isn’t for us. Besides, we have characters calling our names, and their lives seem far more interesting. And are we so quick to forget that some of us believe we write to get away from our lives and ourselves?
    Reluctance and doubt—rooted in this thinking—whispered to me like mad when I started journaling steadily senior year of high school. I’d had a stint in fifth grade, and again sophomore year of high school. Some days I still doubt its importance and feel reluctant to keep at it. (I am a writer, after all.) Yet, I haven’t stopped.
     Here are the five reasons why:

1. Greater retention of memories

Psychological research indicates that writing by hand improves memory of that information, as does contextualizing the information within a narrative framework. Writing about an event within 48 hours is best for retaining details. Granted, there is no shortage of studies demonstrating our memory of events is mostly inaccurate, especially considering we do not retrieve memories, but reconstruct them. What matters when it comes to journaling, however, is what you believe, feel, and think. We are all unreliable narrators, but that does not diminish the significance of what we put down on the page. If anything, our skewed perspectives make our writing that much more insightful: they reflect and reveal who we are.
     Memory is how we have a basis for knowledge and understanding of our lives—of anything. When you journal and strengthen its preservation, you’re better informed of where you have been and what those points in time mean to you going forward. Not to mention, you give yourself a place to visit to relive moments that are worth it.

2. Opportunity to evaluate and direct your focus

Part of what you learn from journaling is what is worth remembering and what is not. Remembering certain painful events is important for what they teach us, but others are transient and trivial—a spat with your friend, a hitch in your plans. A week that just wouldn’t go your way. Of course, it’s difficult to know which memories are which until hindsight kicks in, but we also often know when we’re being unfair and dramatic. As you accumulate entries, you’ll become better and better at distinguishing “brands” of pain. You’ll train yourself to write when it counts, when there is a distinct pattern of smaller hurt or something isolated but grueling. With any luck, your mind will follow your pen, and your behavior will follow your mind.
     Knowing what to hold onto and what to relinquish serves your creative writing, too. When you don’t lend painful events weight they don’t deserve, they don’t swell in your mind. Those that do warrant deeper processing and greater retention, then, receive just that. Stephen King has said, “A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.” Artists famously create out of personal darkness, and if you don't let every fall in life leave its mark, you’ll see the true scars for what they are.
     On a cheerier note, journaling conditions you to turn your head towards whatever grips you and make note of it. When something elicits from me a passionate, visceral response, I remind myself in my phone to journal about it. In this way, I’m prepared daily for something compelling to come my way, and my brain knows it. Journaling is a lot like keeping notes of creative thoughts you have during the day. Just knowing you’re armed goes a long way towards what comes next.

3. Discipline building

Don’t run. I’m not about to tell you that journaling daily is a non-negotiable must. I do recommend giving yourself no more than a week’s grace period between entries, with two weeks reserved for when life is especially unmerciful. It happens. The point is, once you overcome your fear to commit, and your fear that you’ll lack time, material, or interest, so long as you journal regularly, you reliably exercise your writing muscles.
    This routine does nothing but feed your writer self. True, those muscles aren’t at their most creative in this context. Nonetheless, pen is meeting paper. Just as important, you show yourself that you can meet deadlines (by imposing a timeframe within with you must write at least one entry) and maintain a schedule—and reap rewards for such discipline. In making yourself write even when you don’t “feel it” or deem it necessary, you’ll sometimes come up pretty dry. Sometimes, though, you won’t, which might just make you less lenient with yourself the next time you sit down to creatively write and tell yourself it’s not a good time.

4. Psychological healing

Psychological research illustrates that writing about emotional upheavals has a cathartic effect. In Writing to Heal, social psychologist James W. Pennebaker testifies that people engaging in “expressive writing” report feeling happier and more positive after writing. Their depressive symptoms, rumination, and anxiety diminish over the weeks and months following their writing on emotional events.
     To maximize your sense of relief, Pennebaker recommends writing without disturbance for at least 20 minutes straight, ignoring grammar and spelling and writing only for yourself. He further recommends writing about something very personal that you find important, and limiting yourself to situations you can handle in the here and now.

5. Ability to better understand yourself

This is the big one: the greatest result of journaling, and the most obvious.
     When you journal, you have the opportunity to delve into yourself, turn your mind and heart inside out. You grant yourself unlimited psychological access to who you are—your motivations, your fears, your desires, your goals, your past. Your grime and your gold. You have the ability to understand yourself as well as you understand your characters, all the while (hopefully) respecting yourself enough, as you respect them, to be open to surprises—moments of spontaneity and deviance, as well as stretches of regression or growth. And because you’re writing it all down, you can revisit yourself. You have effectively fossilized your most valuable parts.
     Never will getting to know a human being, including yourself, not serve your creative writing. In fact, you are the single most important person you will ever meet. Richard Kelly, writer and director of the 2001 cult classic Donnie Darko, shared this insight about his protagonist in an interview: “There are a lot of parts of Donnie that are a part of me. That’s inevitable. Art is personal. For me, all artists I admire expose themselves.”
     So, expose yourself. If you aren’t interested in your own story, you might struggle telling anyone else’s. Legitimate it. Get close to it. Actively spend time with it.
     Michael Martone has a lovely metaphor about writing: “A story is a controlled crash.” With the range of our control, our lives in many ways are controlled crashes as well. The meaning making inherent to journaling, the attention to detail, and the progression and pattern detection—they are story backbone, even those we tell ourselves about ourselves.
      If you start journaling, chances are you’ll thank yourself for it.
      Your characters definitely will.

  • About the Author
    Caroline H. Browning is in her third year as a Psychology-Creative Writing double major at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She attended Antioch Writers’ Workshop Young Writers Program in 2011 and owes it to finding her two best friends—both writers—and a kickass mentor named Katrina Kittle. She has a novel underway (still) but can’t complain.

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