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Journaling—How Useful Is It?

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably read, or at least heard of, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Wayin which she advocates writing “morning pages”—three pages of scribbling whatever is on your mind, by hand, in order to clear your mind of the clutter that’s blocking all your brilliant creative thoughts. Those morning pages may begin, “I’m so stressed out. I have so much to do today. I don’t know when I’m going to have time to write … ” or, “I don’t know why I’m writing a book. I suck at writing and who’s ever going to want to read a novel about pigs who save the universe anyway?” And then your brain is freed up to write amazing prose for the rest of the day.

When I was younger, I always kept a journal. I wrote in them so frequently that I stopped buying hard-bound books and just used spiral notebooks. That way I didn’t feel obligated to write something intelligent. I could just scribble whatever came to mind. Here are some excerpts from journals I kept when I was 19 (I have a huge box of journals in my basement):

“I’m sick. I’m broke. I’m completely alone. I miss you terribly.” (no idea who “you” was at the time)

“I was sitting on a wall last November in Zurich alongside the main (only) river through the center of town. I was watching these birds dive for food, wondering whether I would prefer to be a bird or a fish when this one bird went underwater. When he came up, he spread his wings just as he broke the surface and flew right out of the water. I want to be that bird, a bird who can both fly and swim.”

“I’m so miserable I can’t breathe.”

“The meals always start with a basket of sliced baguette and a bottle of red wine. They don’t put butter on bread and it takes a lot of red wine to wash it all down.” (life in Paris)

It’s fun to read them, and some of them have been fodder for descriptive details in my book, but most of my journals are useless to me as a writer today because I wrote very few descriptions of my life abroad and a whole lot of talk about angst.

I stopped keeping journals when I started writing more seriously. I still have one that I write in occasionally, probably just a couple of times a year. I guess my blogs are my journals now, which is weird because they’re public. When I do write in my private journal, it’s almost always because I’m in a bad mood. Last week, I had stress dreams for several nights in a row—the kind where I have a flight in an hour and an entire room full of stuff. I finally sat down and wrote in my journal—mostly just my thoughts about how overwhelmed I am trying to blog and write and cook and do laundry and dishes and twenty-five other things every day while taking care of two kids, and that night I had a much less stressful dream. It began the way the others did. I was about to graduate from college and realized that I had missed the last two months of a math class I needed to graduate. But this time I formulated a plan to talk to the professor and to get a private tutor to go over all the chapters with me, and my stress disappeared. I woke up feeling more relaxed than I had in weeks, and I credit journaling for the change.

So, my question is, do you journal? Why or why not? What do you get out of it? Have you read/done The Artist’s Way?

8 comments to Journaling—How Useful Is It?

  • You know, I was never really a journaler. I used to get diaries all the time as a kid, and I'd write a few entries in the first dozen pages, then I'd forget about them. My life was just never as interesting to me as the lives I wanted to make stories about. 🙂

    Starting in high school, I used journals to record my thoughts about writing or stories. I do have a Word doc diary file where, like you, I mostly record bad mood thoughts. I DO feel like it's a purge, and a way for me to sort out my emotions, I just don't need it all that often.

    Do I think writing "morning pages" is a good idea though? Probably. I've heard them called freewrites too, where basically you write anything for 5 min and it doesn't matter if it's fiction or not, crap or not, just as long as you make yourself write. It's about establishing habit, and as you said, freeing your mind. I don't do it, but I want to. (Don't mostly because I have other morning responsibilities, like taking the dog out and getting to work on time.) Morning might not work for me, but I do need to find 5 min somewhere else in my schedule to work those freewrites into…

  • Hi there.

    I really like your blog! I am a journaling advocate and have been journaling since the age of ten. If you like it as much as I do, you are probably familiar with diarist Anais Nin and her writings. If not, I suggest you read some of her journals. Also, you might be interested in my last poetry collection DEAR ANAIS: MY LIFE IN POEMS FROM YOU, all of which originated in my journal!

    Happy writing!



  • I have always struggled with keeping a journal – any time in my life I have revisited the idea – it's lasted for two months max – mainly cuz I wd use it to write things I don't want anyone else to read EVER! and I m afraid someone will – if not now, then after I die. However, Gmail has become kind of a journal – becos I write to a friend if I m having a bad day . Or even a normal day – and if I ever wrote about anything to do with my life – gmail wd be my greatest resource – do I wish I had kept a journal? Yes! Becos it's fun to run into the few pages I have journalled in the past when I m cleaning up or something – it is REALLY fun – to read about some childhood friend I was pissed off with over so

    ething that seems pretty funny now. But I have never been good at keeping at it – so I finally decided to stop trying to do something that feels like a real chore to me.

  • I kept journals when I was a teenager, but when I read them years later I destroyed them because they were so painful to read. I regret that now.

    I started keeping computer-based journals (just a Word file) again a few days before I gave birth to my son. It was a crazy time with other things going on, and I'm really glad I did. I also kept a few in the weeks after he was born, which again I'm happy about because I definitely don't remember those early weeks of his life.

    My blog is somewhat my journal too now–agree that it's weird because it's public. I think my current journaling is a combination now of Twitter, Facebook, and my blog.

  • Aditi – it's definitely not worth keeping a journal if it's a chore.

    Sierra – I keep journals on my kids in Word docs, too, although months sometimes go by between entries. I also take posts I wrote about my son and paste the into his Word doc journal from time to time. I figure I'll just print it out at some point and stick it in his baby book.

  • My journals are full of agnst as well. This year I bought a new fancy journal, but I think I'm too boring to put anything in it! I should have just made it a scribble book!

  • They're actually full of angst, too.

  • I've kept a journal for nearly 20 years. Wish I had started as a teen. Just a page a day. It's a simple process. A 5×7 journal, a jet black waterproof pen, maybe a small glass of merlot and I'm good. In the last three years I've been keeping an illustrated journal. It too is a page a day but it includes a simple sketch and some words around the illustration of the day.


    I journal not to remember later but to remember now.