Like many writers, I’ve kept a diary or journal since I was a teenager. I wish I had my old journals, but after someone read my diary when I was fourteen, I burned it and vowed never to keep a diary again. I kept writing, though, and as is usually the case with young writers, the events of my life found their way into my early stories, essays, and bad poetry. I was still getting the benefits of keeping a journal, but in a different form.
I began journaling again a little over twenty years ago, at first intermittently, and now more consistently for the past nearly ten years. I’ve kept these journals, and when I go back and read my older journals, I am embarrassed at some of the things I did and said. But these journals also bear witness to how far I’ve come.
Journaling has improved my life, but it has also improved my writing. Here are six reasons I think every writer should keep a journal:
1. Journaling Is a Way of Documenting Your Life. This is the way most people think of journaling: a way to document one’s life. Sure, this is a part of it, but it’s not just a matter of writing down the things that happened yesterday. It’s a way of documenting who we were yesterday. Looking back at old journal entries from years past, we may laugh or we may cry. We are confronted with things that have remained integral to our lives but also with things we’d completely forgotten. Sometimes we are thrilled with the memories. Sometimes we are reminded of things better left forgotten. We inevitably cringe. But we also see our own arc of change, our growth from the person we once were to the person we are today.
2. Journaling Is a Form of Therapy. Writing about the events of our lives is a form of remembering, processing, and making sense of. Like talk therapy, it is an opportunity to get it all out there. We confide our secrets, share our feelings, and examine things with new insight. As we write, we may see events from a new perspective, having had time to reflect, or we may gain the ability to see events from another person’s perspective. We may come to realizations we were unable to reach in the moment. We can express our anger or our sadness or our joy. We can learn to forgive others and, with any luck, to forgive ourselves.
3. Journaling Promotes Physical and Mental Health. In her book Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, Melissa Febos discusses a 1980s study by social psychologist James W. Pennebaker. Pennebaker instructed an experimental group of writers to journal about a past trauma, including their feelings about it, for fifteen minutes a day over a four-day period. A control group wrote neutrally without sharing their feelings. The results of the study showed that, even many years later, the people who wrote expressively about their trauma and their feelings about it “made significantly fewer visits to physicians.” Febos notes that subsequent experiments over the years still support the conclusion that “[e]xpressive writing about trauma strengthens the immune system, decreases obsessive thinking, and contributes to the overall health of the writers.”
4. Journaling Clears the Mind. Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, is a program, a set of tools, and a workbook which, through a series of lessons and exercises, helps artists reach their full potential. One of the most widely discussed tools Cameron advocates for is something she calls “morning pages”—three pages of stream-of-conscious writing, a sort of first-thing-in-the-morning dump of all the things that clutter your mind in order to get rid of them before you start to write. This is a different kind of journaling. Morning pages are not journal entries to be kept but are pages to be ripped up and thrown away—they’re junk. We become what we think about, and Cameron’s morning pages exercise is meant to clear these things out of our minds so we don’t think about them, so they don’t end up on the page when we sit down to write creatively, and so we can move forward with the good stuff, no longer encumbered by the bad.
Another tool I use similarly is “morning questions”—a set of questions I ask myself each morning to direct my thoughts toward gratitude, joy, and productivity. Rather than dumping the bad stuff out of my head, my morning questions are intended to fill my head with the good stuff: I remind myself of all I have to be grateful for, the people I am blessed to have in my life, the good things that are happening in my life, the good things that are on the horizon, and what I hope to accomplish that day.
5. Journaling Generates Story. Journaling is storytelling. We are telling the story of our lives when we journal, although we would never publish that story as is. Still, writing the story in journal form is writing practice. It is useful for adult writers, yes, but it can be especially useful for teens for teaching story and essay writing. Journaling does more than document what happened that day or the day before. It generates a story, evokes memories, and can generate story ideas.
6. Journaling Is Empowering. In Body Work, Febos writes about the way she uses her journal as a source of empowerment: “For years now, I have ended my daily morning journal entry with the sentence: Today, I reject the patriarchy’s bad ideas. It’s a needed reminder that when I start to feel bad about my body or laughing too loud in a restaurant or start to wonder if I should shave my armpits, those are not my ideas. I like my body, laughing loudly in restaurants, and my soft armpit hair.” [Emphasis original.]
Earlier in this post, I wrote about the way looking back on old journal entries can be cringe-y. But they can also be empowering when we realize how much we’ve grown in the intervening years. Consider what the last sentence in your daily journal entries might be. What do you need or want to be reminded of every morning? What will empower you as you face the day?