Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Power of Keeping a Journal or How to Cultivate Talking to Yourself

I won­der if I shall burn this sheet of paper like most oth­ers I have begun in the same way. To write a diary, I have thought of very often at far and near dis­tances of time: but how could I write a diary with­out throw­ing upon paper my thoughts, all my thoughts — the thoughts of my heart as well as of my head? — & then how could I bear to look on them after they were written? Adam made fig leaves necessary for the mind, as well as for the body. And such a mind as I have! - Emily Barrett Browning

Beginning in third grade, I developed the fortunate habit of keeping a journal. It began with the receipt of a blank lined book for my birthday that had a floral design on the padded cover resulting in a pleasantly squishy give when I wrote in it. At the time, I must have read something that influenced my first entries, as I began them all with “Dear Diary” in my carefully printed and childishly round handwriting. The formal salutation was something I didn’t change until high school, and I remember it initially felt strange to leave it out (although way more mature) and just start writing on the page after putting the date on the paper. I now understand that the greeting of Dear Diary, no matter how cliché, gives permission to confide in the paper, to have a conversation about the markedly interesting or pressing things that are taking over that moment in time. (For instance, in 3rd grade this involved my desire to get a Koosh™ ball for Christmas, and later in 6th grade, the day that one of my friend's older sisters swore at the bus stop, calling someone a "bitch" which was a really big deal at the time.)

I can’t imagine not having a journal. That is how deeply ingrained this habit of personal writing is. I get antsy if for some reason too much time goes by where I don’t sit down and write—or as I think of it “catch up with myself.” Withdrawal usually kicks in at two weeks. If I am traveling and don’t take my journal with me, I write on hotel stationery (or any paper I can find) and paste them in later.

I don’t write formally. And it is certainly not premeditated. It is a splash of words that come in the moment, my collection of thoughts from a certain event, idea or place. Sometimes I try and capture what I am writing in great detail, but more often than not I write as though I am sending a letter to myself. This other self that I write to apparently has great tolerance for emotions (without needing a lot of background), the banalities of everyday (I like to write when I am cozy), and much talk of my goals and wishes (without detailed project plans.)

But perhaps one of the most important things that has come out of my journaling is a connection with my inner voice. When I go back and reread entries—something that I do occasionally or when I am looking to remember a detail or emotion from a certain time—I think, Wow, who wrote this? Did I really understand all that at the time? I want to be like this person! At my yoga center, they call this inner voice your True Self. My True Self apparently likes to communicate through writing and re-reading journal entries, and sounds calm, collected, confident and most of the things I don’t feel when I am sitting down pouring my heart out via words on the page.

Julia Cameron documents the power of tapping into your True Self through in her famous creativity book The Artist’s Way. Cameron’s Morning Pages, which are different from journaling but share some of the same aspects, are a key tool for taping into our natural tendency for creative thinking. While Morning Pages and the resulting ideas, conversations, etc. always seem to involve a little bit of magic they are the result of dedicating time to write, and writing without judgment.

Journaling is different than keeping a diary, and for me more liberating. A diary is traditionally viewed as a daily record of one’s everyday activities whereas a journal is not restricted to rigorous time keeping and can be kept on any subject, hence labels such as “dream diary” vs. “travel journal.” Morning Pages, are decidedly less formal and are a “brain dump” of your immediate thoughts onto the page. One of their key components is routine and after time this can create a special creative time and space to play with ideas.

As a creative thinking tool a journal (or the less formal tool of Morning Pages) is incredibly powerful and valuable. Not only can you cultivate the habit of putting pen to paper and capturing your thoughts, but you give your brain a chance to fully disclose all the stuff it rambles on (or stage whispers) about non-stop during the day. The added benefit of these thoughts making it to paper is that they then become a conversation. This can lead to better understanding of a thought or emotion, or ideas and solutions. For instance, the constant critiquing of your body may become a written dialogue about how work is boring, or that you don’t feel very powerful and that it may be a good time to get a gym membership or study a martial art.

If you have not ever kept a journal, I highly recommend starting. It is an amazing creative tool to have, although it can be difficult to stick to and/or sometimes even begin—as can religiously doing Morning Pages. (On the other hand, for some people it is instantly addicting.) One concern that everyone faces is that of putting their inner most thoughts on paper. Whether it is a fear of the thought becoming more real once it is written, or worse, that someone will read our inner most thoughts, we have the preconceived notion that putting something on paper makes it official. I am happy to say that this is not true. Writing something down gives us the space to have a conversation about it (with ourselves), or get our mind out of the record groove that it may be stuck on.

As for finding the security and safety to write without the fear of someone reading the pages, I feel that is a basic and very important personal creative right. A sense of safety is something that all creatives need to bring their ideas into being. With something less formal, like Morning Pages, you have the option to destroy them after writing (especially if you are just doing a “brain dump”). If you are writing for posterity, or want to have your journal or Morning Pages as a reference, then the people in your life should know they are a sacred space.

I believe that journals are (casual yet) sacred spaces. They are for us to write in now and learn from ourselves. And later, if we want to share them, they can be for someone else to learn of our lifetime and our wisdom.

A little extra:
• To cultivate the habit of journaling, make sure to find a journal that you love to write in. What is your purpose of journaling? Are you writing for your own insight and ideas or for posterity? Knowing why you want to keep a journal will help you select the best one for your purpose. One of my favorite companies for journal is Graphic Image, they are all acid free and highly durable. Levenger’s also has a great ledger and a 5 year diary, if you want to start small or track ideas or events daily.
• In addition to knowing what kind of journal you want to keep, you can develop your writing style. If you are writing for memory, then make sure to capture in writing all of your senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, sound. If you are writing for your eyes only, then practice writing without judging. A good book (very deep) on journaling is A Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest by Christina Baldwin.
• If this is a new habit, make sure to dedicate time to write in your journal. Part of the magic of Morning Pages is that your mind is still waking up. For those of us (me included) who are not morning people, writing before bed or during a quite space on the weekend can be as effective. Creativity as a skill loves routine.
• Famous journalers include John Adams and Louisa May Alcott, whose journals provided her with the material (almost page for page) for her famous book Little Women.