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Friday 30 May 2014

Reflections on writing: the value of keeping a journal

I’ve kept journals on and off during most of my life. Usually journals have appeared at times when I’m stressed or unhappy, and I’ve used them to help me make sense of what I’m feeling and put things into context. I’ve kept a writer’s journal before too, using it to jot down my thoughts about stories or poems I wanted to write, or writing snippets of prose or observations. I’ve never been particularly obsessive about it, but there’s usually a notebook to hand and now and then I’ll write something in it and that’s been about it.

When I read Dorothea Brande’s book ‘Becoming a Writer’ one of the exercises she poses is this, designed to help you access your ‘unconscious’:

“The best way to do this is to rise half an hour, or a full hour, earlier than you customarily rise. Just as soon as you can – and without talking, without reading the morning’s papers, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before – begin to write.”

Sounds easy right? I thought I’d give it a go and over the course of several days began to realise how impractical this was for me. Firstly, I don’t ‘rise’ alone. My husband ‘rises’ with me, so getting up 30 minutes or an hour earlier than usual completely wrecks the morning routine. Secondly, I don’t ‘rise’ alone so the whole ‘without talking’ business is virtually impossible without seeming sulky or ignorant. Plus I like talking to my husband in the morning. Then there’s the terrible habit I’ve developed of checking my e-mail before I get out of bed in the morning. Yes, I know, it’s a terrible, rotten habit, but I’ve found it helps me wake up more quickly. So the whole not talking, not reading business just doesn’t work for me.

So I adapted the exercise (okay, yes, I cheated) and instead I decided to write in my journal during my train journey to work in the week, and first thing after getting up on a weekend. I’ve found this habit much easier to develop and, surprisingly, I’ve found it highly beneficial. It has taught me a lot about me. For example, one of the first things I noticed was how hard it was to actually write anything in the morning, when little had happened. I realised that often I write in response to something. That writing is often a reaction. Consequently for the first few mornings I had very little to say. The more frequently I wrote, however, the easier it became and now I find my pen flowing freely as my thoughts unwind and my ideas slip from my mind onto the page. Now I am generating thoughts rather than reacting to external stimulus. I have become sentient (at last).

Another discovery was that writing helps me to sort and organise my thoughts. I already kind of knew this, but writing regularly has cemented that understanding. If something is troubling me, or if I can’t work out how I think or feel about something, writing it down brings sense to it. Perhaps it is the effort of attempting to cage my thoughts in the structure of language that helps me draw them into a more ordered form.

Writing regularly also aids the flow of ideas. I have found myself uncovering a number of ideas through the random, unformed ramblings of my morning thoughts. As a result I have more ideas than time to write them (or skill, for that matter). In the course of my reading of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, I have noticed a similar trend coming through her own thoughts. It is almost as though allowing the mind to wander, to follow its own path, helps you to uncover the bright spots swamped beneath the daily mundanities.

More importantly, writing in my journal has enabled me to write, generally, more freely. Making an effort to write every day makes it easier to write every day, weird as that sounds. Practice makes perfect. And it’s had other beneficial effects too: I find it easier to concentrate in the morning, easier to focus on my work. I have got into the habit of making myself little ‘pledges’ each day, simple things like: I will write today, I will go for a walk, I will meditate. Nothing too ambitious. Writing it in my book, pledging it to myself, makes it much more likely that I will deliver on my pledge.

When I’ve been sad before, or stressed, when I’ve been using a journal to help me find my way through a thorny patch of life, I’ve always found it useful. When I’ve felt miserable, I’ve found that writing the good things that have happened in my day a great way of turning my thoughts around to a more positive view. That writing in a journal every day helps to train the mind towards writing shouldn’t be that surprising, yet it is. And the only way to understand how much it could help is to do it. Go on, try it. It might surprise you too. Just remember to do it every day. 

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