I don’t know if there is any more important tip I can offer than this. It has been nothing short of pivotal in my evolution as a writer.
Every day, for nearly 20 years, I have written in my journal. I say every day and that’s not much of an exaggeration. There have been only a handful of times in all these years that I have not been able to write three pages. On vacation, during an emergency situation or when I can’t get the alone time I need, I might get in one or two pages. I rarely have missed more than two days in a row. On those occasions when I have not been able to make to the journal, I have felt it palpably. So I don’t let that feeling happen if I can help it. Perhaps one might say I’m addicted to journalling. If you are around me when I have missed a day, you will likely ask me what’s wrong.
Taught by two of my favorite writing teachers, Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron, I think it’s a safe addiction. Natalie sees it as writing practice, Julia calls them morning pages. Natalie’s are more directly for writers, whereas Julia’s cover artists of every stripe.
Natalie’s instructions are just to fill up a notebook a month with anything. She explains her process, “In my notebooks I don’t bother with the side margin or the one at the top. I fill the whole page. I am not writing anymore for a teacher or for school. I am writing for myself first and don’t have to stay within my limits, not even margins. This gives me a psychological freedom and permission. And when my writing is on and I’m really cooking, I usually forget about punctuation, spelling, etc. I also notice that my handwriting changes. It becomes larger and looser.”
Julia’s description is thus, “Put simply, the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of consciousness. They might also, more ingloriously, be called brain drain, since that is one of their main functions.” She goes on to say, “There is no wrong way to do morning pages. These daily meanderings are not meant be art. Or even writing . . . Pages are meant to be, simply the act of moving the hand across the page and writing down whatever comes to mind. Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included.”
Here’s my take on it – Find a quiet space and time to sit down and write, by hand, as Julia prescribes, 3 full pages every day. As per Natalie’s instructions, I use cheap coil bound notebooks (usually around a dollar a piece). You can write anything at all. I have given you some starters below. Just whatever is traipsing through your mind at the time. Remember that there are no limits.
I need a good 45 minutes to properly do it. Tea is incorporated in my routine. I will add a half a page of gratitudes (or fill in for my three, if need be.) I am willing to get up earlier to have that time. But for most people, a good ½ hour should do it.
Choose a regular time that fits into your schedule. I believe both teachers prefer that they be done in the morning, first thing. That’s worked for me. But I think the discipline is more important than the time. If it’s easy for you to do, you’ll be more likely to do it. Stick to that assigned time for as many days as you can. Experts often advise three weeks to develop a new habit. If you miss a day, take it up again the next. Once it’s habit, you’ll be into it like I am. You won’t want to miss a day.
I find a good way to begin is to talk about how you feel. If you struggle with emotions, you can try the twitch in your knee or the tension in your arm. Best-selling author Cheryl Richardson offers some questions to get you going: (I keep this list with my pens so I have it if I get stuck.)
This morning I feel –
I’m always (or I have been) daydreaming about –
My nagging inner voice keeps telling me –
The thoughts that roll around in my heard are –
My soul longs to –
What I’m most afraid of is –
What I’m most grateful for is –
My inner critic tells me –
You can make up your own. If you prefer, go for something more practical like three things I wish to do today, or three ways I’d like to improve or change how I feel, maybe three things I’d like to give away today.
The daily practice of journalling has created a ballast in my life. No matter where my life takes me, how many hours I work, how much money I have, how I feel, I always have my journal (or some paper) and a pen with me. I take it on vacation and get up a little earlier so I have quiet time with the journal. I am always happier for it and feel it keeps me grounded.
Journalling helped me find my voice ~ whether my writing works or not, touches you or not, I strive to make it true to My Voice. (My voice, maybe, on its best behavior.) That came from journalling endlessly in any voice, with any words in whatever order.
Oh how I love using the journal for fleshing out and experimenting with dialog and scenes! I have had to copy many pages out of my journal where I just got into it and it flowed so well, I had to lift the whole thing. Journalling is also a fine venue for getting to know characters and playing out scenes with different endings.
In journalling there is no one looking over your shoulder, no one waiting to judge it. You can try on ideas about why you do things or how you could do them better. It’s a wide open playground.
Journalling has provided an amazing mirror for me. It is where I can examine all my thoughts – good and bad. To muse on how I feel and what I think about this and that, provides a wonderful outlet. I can have a fight with my best friend for whatever it was she did to me. I can yell and scream and ask, how could she do such a thing! All without upsetting a hair on her head. And truthfully, when I’m done spewing in the journal, I’m rarely left with those negative feelings. Very often, being able to release all the nasties, I come around to understanding and forgiveness. I see things from a fresh perspective.
In Conversations with God, which I like to quote heavily, God tells us that the purpose of life is to remember who you are and discover who you choose to be. In the journal, as you write day after day, you come to know who you are. It becomes a wide open field to stretch your mind around who you’d like to be. The journal provides a safe haven to be as honest as you can.
You can have amazing discoveries when you journal. You never know what might happen. People you haven’t thought about in years can pop up. Or a poem will spring out on the page in front of you. You don’t have to stop and wonder if it’s good enough. You’re just journalling. And what a forum for dreaming it is! In the journal you can imagine how things could be. If only ~ and a few sentences allowed to flow in this direction might reveal untapped hopes and desires. There is much to find in this treasure chest!
If you can, read them back. Julia Cameron advises this. Give it eight weeks, she says and then take a look at what you wrote. I admit, I’m not good at that. But when I stop to do it, I find all kinds of things: insightful passages, incredible ideas, and illustrative narrative. If I were to mine them more often, I’d have a lot of material I could use elsewhere.
Journalling is worth the time. It can add up quickly. (I have so many coil notebooks I could build a separate dwelling!) It is seriously good writing practice. When you journal regularly you can develop writing chops, sharpen critical thinking, build descriptive skills, and open new vistas . . . and find yourself at the same time!
I believe the more you know yourself, the truer and more honest your writing will be.