It was tough to decide whether to classify the art of journaling in the Artist’s Realm or as a Mind/Body activity. I chose to use both, because it is of great benefit to both, as we’ll discuss.
Journal vs. Diary
I’m thinking this is probably semantics, but I feel there is a distinction to make here. Journaling is kind of like keeping a traditional diary, except a journal tends to be more free-flowing and stream-of-consciousness in nature. Of course, there’s no right or wrong – or even any defined rules to follow – so your journal could include “Dear Diary”-style entries where you report on the various activities of your day. But a journal should also be a repository for virtually anything you care to riff about. You can rant, bitch, preach, and carry on about whatever you want, and you are, in fact, encouraged to let it all hang out with free-form journal writing. Herein lies the true benefit on several levels.
First, as a basic creativity builder, journaling can be very rewarding. The act of clearing your mind of clutter – of exorcising those lingering, distracting thoughts – can really enhance your creative efforts (especially if you’re a writer), because you can more easily focus on the business at hand. It’s like, “Okay…now that I’ve gotten THAT off of my mind and documented somewhere in the world, I’m ready to carry on.” It has a similar effect as talking over a problem with a friend, but it can be even more beneficial in its own way because you can often go deeper, and get even more personal and vulnerable, than you might in a regular conversation.
Also, since the process is devoid of any outside feedback, it enables you to go deeper into your own mind – into the layered complexities of your emotions – because you aren’t getting derailed with the analysis and proposed solutions that are typically part of a dialogue. This can unearth some interesting and surprising things and will often reveal enlightening insights about ourselves…about why we sometimes do the whacked-out shit we do. It can also reveal, on a fundamental level, what makes us tick. All of this, for considerably less than the price of a therapist! (Kidding aside, if you are seeing a therapist, I think journaling can only help the process…)
A Brief Personal History and The Morning Pages
I started journaling as a kid when I was in rehab. It was one small part of the 12-step process we were practicing where we would “keep a daily inventory” of our thoughts and feelings as a way of helping us stay sober. It was a helpful, but relatively inconsistent, practice for me, and remained that way until I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron in the early-90’s. This book, described as a “spiritual path to higher creativity,” was a turning point for me. It really opened up a vein with my writing that has never closed. And one of the main things that got me into an ongoing practice of writing was one of the book’s foundational suggestions: The Morning Pages.
Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages exercise goes like this: Every day, preferably in the morning, you are to fill three complete, standard-size notebook pages with stream-of consciousness writing. You are supposed to do it by hand (no computers) and you are supposed to fill these pages all in one sitting, writing quickly and recklessly. You can write about anything you want, even if it’s nonsense like “Well, here I am doing these stupid-ass Morning Pages again, with not much to say. What does this bitch think I’m supposed to have to write about every day? This is bullshit. I could be practicing right now, or heading off to the gym, or writing something that’s actually publishable…” and so forth. Nonetheless, you are to keep it cranking. And I must say, when you do, you will almost always stumble across some interesting “material”…especially by the time you hit the third page. Sound like a pain in the ass? It is. Sound difficult? It’s harder than you can imagine. Sound time-consuming? Affirmative. BUT, as a creativity builder, it works, and here’s one reason why:
Remember when we were talking about right-brain/left-brain and the benefits of whole-brain thinking in an entry from last month? Well, this exercise is actually a fantastic example of both. First, you have the very regimented left-brain aspect of time and length. It’s very specific; every morning, for three complete pages. Period. This is real structure. But then, once the pen starts moving, you can write about absolutely anything that comes up. Anything. No thematic development required. Emotional outbursts are welcomed. Jump topics without transition. Fucked-up grammar and punctuation are permissible (but not mandatory). Free rein. Very right-brain. So by journaling in this style, you really condition both sides of the brain, which is of benefit to your whole-brain function.
Of course, the morning pages aren’t the only way to journal (although they are quantifiably effective from a sheer creativity-boosting perspective). We’ll discuss a few parameters in a moment. First, though, you can also consider journaling…
A Mind/Body Thing
In addition to the traditional artistic/creative aspects, journaling is cathartic as hell, which makes for an excellent stress-release mechanism. Seriously, you will often feel lighter after an honest and thorough entry. Also, as you sharpen your capacity for whole-brain thinking, your problem solving and organizational skills improve, which decreases the chaos factor, which, again, benefits the mind/body realm.
I’ve been journaling pretty consistently for a number of years now and I couldn’t live without it. In fact, in addition to my extensive laptop “archives,” I have a scary number of various hand-written journals packed away, as well. These offer a different experience. I can write in unconventional ways, doodle around, use different color pens, etc. These are all ways to expand the process “outside the lines” of how we normally approach journaling on a computer.
And one other thing we haven’t talked about is the richness of merely documenting so many events in life that might have otherwise gone hazy over time. I love reading over old entries and being transported back to the time and place of past events. It’s fun, nostalgic and…yes, even painful sometimes, because I see how I repeat certain patterns and am reminded of my many regrets. (Half-kidding.) But this ultimately serves (theoretically, at least!), as it illuminates the good, the bad and the ugly of my journey this time around. It can be heavy.
Go For It
So, give it a shot for at least 30 days and see if you dig it. Here are a few basic parameters.
1. What To Use: There are many choices available for you to document your journal entries. You can use an actual hard-bound journal or diary from the book store or gift shop, any of a number of different kinds of notebooks, or even a simple word processing program on your computer.
2. Privacy: Make sure that whatever you use is absolutely private and that there is no chance that anyone will be reading it. Brutal honesty and complete disclosure is the name of the game with effective journaling, so you must feel certain that no one else will ever read what you write.
3. Let it Rip: Do not attempt to edit what you write as you’re writing it, and don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Just get it out of your head and onto the page, completely without judgment or evaluation. (Later, if you are interested in creating a memoir or poem out of one of your entries, you can deal with editing and grammatical particulars then.)
4. How Much: While there are no set rules as to how much you write in one sitting, just know that the more you can commit to, the more of a true payoff you might find toward the end of each entry, as discussed. At the same time, a mere paragraph or two of gut-wrenching frankness and transparency can help a lot.
5. How Often: A general guideline might simply be every day or two, or whenever you feel like you need to document a moment, a feeling, a situation or a dilemma. But I would commit to some kind of structure to the process, even if it’s “a few times a week.” This will bring in a little left-brain to what’s already heavy right-brain.
Give it a shot and get ready to exorcise a few demons!