The Christmas that I was 10 years old, I received my first diary. It was white leather, with gold lettering and its very own lock and key. I remember looking at its lined pages, one for each day of the coming year, with a combination of excitement and dread. I was excited at the possibilities that could fill it. And I dreaded the work involved.
For me, the “work” was a painstaking record of each day, carefully reported in my best penmanship and spelling. I was careful to detail the most mundane aspects of my life: my school assignments and grades; visits from friends and family members; TV shows and books that interested me; the clothes I wore to school. As I look back on it, it isn’t surprising that I found the whole experience a little tedious.
So, when my uncle the practical joker came to visit, found my diary and read it aloud to my mother, I felt strongly justified in giving up on that project and finding a better and less revealing hobby, like stamp collecting.
A Different Experience
It was some time later before I again tried my hand at personal reflection on paper. I was in graduate school and several of my instructors required some form of journal keeping as a class assignment. I can remember the resistance I initially felt to sharing my thoughts with another person. I wasn’t sure I could be completely honest when I knew my instructor was evaluating me. However, this time the experience was different in a very significant way: I was to share my feelings about the things that happened.
After a few awkward attempts at saying the “right” thing, I started to give myself permission to say what I really thought and felt about the topic at hand. I found myself writing things in my journal that I never would have said out loud. Later, as I handed in my completed journals, I reviewed them and felt surprised at the depth of my experiences. Until I took the time to record them, I really didn’t know their impact on me.
It has been many years and many journals since then. While I don’t journal every day (and I admire those who do), I often find times in my life when journaling is particularly useful. Two of those times have occurred during major losses in my life. In the first, I kept a dream journal. After some months of recording what seemed to be dream after disturbing dream, the images began to show a pattern that helped me understand what this loss meant to me. Even now, when I review some of those dreams, I am startled by the clarity that my unconscious was trying to bring to my life. Another time I kept a journal of letters to a person in my life that had died. Those letters helped me express and move through some significant grief.
Journaling in Psychotherapy
Not surprisingly, I often suggest journaling to clients. I have found it to be a particularly effective way of acquiring self-awareness and knowledge. Since I recognize my own initial resistance to writing, I am prepared for the many reasons that people have for not journaling, e.g., not enough time, not being “good” at writing, afraid of someone reading what they write, believing that if they think things through it is just as effective as writing about them. What I have found is that those who do overcome their reluctance to journaling often find that it is an incredibly helpful tool in their own growth and healing.
When journaling is most effective, it brings together a number of different elements. Tristine Rainer, in her book, The New Diary, writes about the process of beginning a diary: “Write fast, write everything, include everything, write from your feelings, write from your body, accept whatever comes. It doesn’t matter whether you have kept a diary in any form before. If you keep one long enough, all the important memories of the past will find their way into the story when it is appropriate for them to do so. You simply begin your diary now, in the middle of the ongoing action of your life.”
Natalie Goldberg, whose books include Writing Down the Bones and The Essential Writer’s Notebook, advises her students to begin their journaling by setting a timer and writing for period of time without stopping, without ever taking their hand from the paper. The idea is to allow what is inside to find its expression without interference from our “internal censor” or “internal critic.” (Our internal censor is that voice inside of us who likes to say things like, “Oh, I shouldn’t say that, it’s not ‘nice’” or “If my friend knew that’s what I really think about her she would never speak to me again.” Our internal critic tells us things like, “Oh, that’s not very interesting or original” or “Gee, I sound really ‘whiny’ here” or “I never was very good at this sort of thing.”)
Forms of Creative Expression
There are many ways to journal or record feelings and experiences. Writing is the form most often used. However, there are other creative ways to access our internal processes. One way is to keep a journal of drawings – noting the themes, colors, feelings evoked. Creating personal mandalas is another way to access our inner life. Some individuals have made collages of different materials as a way to express themselves. Another way to keep a journal or record could involve creating lists such as the things that scare us, the people we love, the choices that we are making in our lives, the times and the places in which we contact our inner strength.
There is no end to the ways in which we can use our creativity to bring us more in touch with our soul’s journey. Keeping a journal can give us a place to release strong feelings and tensions. It can provide us with a powerful adjunct to psychotherapy, increasing self-awareness and self-knowledge. It can help identify patterns and themes in our lives and allow us to live more consciously and intentionally. It can help us be more intimate with ourselves and with others. These are only a few of the ways that journaling and other forms of creativity can enrich our life.
As this year draws to a close and a new one is about to begin, journaling is an especially appropriate way to reflect on the lessons and gifts we have been given, as well as the struggles we have experienced. By taking the time for this reflection, we will be able to greet the New Year with a more intentional and focused approach to our lives.
Journaling books recommended:
The New Diary by Tristine Rainer
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
The Essential Writer’s Notebook by Natalie Goldberg