I opened my notebook to find a sticky note to myself: “Free write about the benefits of journaling.” I left it the other day when I read a chapter in the Little, Brown Handbook about journaling and felt a thrum of excitement about what I learned there. Until I read this chapter, I’d felt like journaling is the easy way out for me for writing. It’s comfortable and private and I don’t have to worry about how I write or whether the structure makes sense or if there are too many words. So journaling almost feels like cheating.
And then Little, Brown gave me this:
Indeed, journal keepers often become dependent on the process for the writing practice it gives them, the concentrated thought it encourages, and the connection it fosters between personal, private experience and public information and events.– H. Ramsey Fowler and Jane E. Aaron, The Little, Brown Handbook
I’ve been transcribing my journals from 20 years ago to digitize them. Random entries here and there describe how I’d get mired in my thoughts and feel overwhelmed by them if I didn’t write. I developed a habit of pouring my thoughts onto paper so they wouldn’t confuse me and wrap in on themselves and make a tangled knot in my brain. I developed a habit I’ve become dependent on.
I became dependent on journaling as a way to sift through my thoughts, to express my feelings, to examine my troubles. Journaling has built a way for me to process the world via the written word. I remember when my brain scared me because it was such a mess in there. It made me feel panicky, and I wish I could go back and give 25 year-old me a hug. I rarely feel those snarls in my brain anymore, and I credit my journal for that. It’s almost like a part of my hygiene routine: I brush my teeth, wash and comb my hair, and journal.
If unsnarling the thoughts in my head was where the benefits of journaling ended, it would be enough. I’m that grateful to it. But it goes deeper than that. Writing doesn’t just untangle the thoughts in my brain to keep things a little smoother in there. Processing my thoughts through a pen helps me connect ideas, dissect thoughts, examine the world and myself. I learn through journaling. I learn about myself and what I think. I grow as a result.
Recently I realized I’ve been telling myself a story that I think may not be true. The story I’ve been telling myself for years is that I don’t have ideas, and specifically that I don’t have ideas to write about. As I read Little, Brown‘s tips for generating writing topics, I realized I have a lot more ideas than I give myself credit for. I need to change the story I tell myself. I do have ideas and thoughts and feelings to write about. I do it every day if I’m not worried about what someone else would think.
Journal writing frees me to just write. Whatever and however I want. It’s liberating because nobody is going to read it. It frees me from the analysis if “Is this clear? How do I say this with fewer words? Am I getting my intention across?”
Instead of stopping to rethink, edit, revise, and interrupt my thoughts like happens when writing for readers, with a journal I can write whatever comes. I can brain dump or heart dump or soul dump, and I can write a thought five different ways if I struggle to articulate it to my satisfaction. It can all go onto the page, I don’t have to stop anything to check and recheck, I can just pour it out in words. After years of journaling I like to spice things up by experimenting with sentences, verbs, exercises, or tips I get from writing books, but even that is just play.
And that leads to the final, unintended benefit of journaling for me. Journaling has built a way for me to process the world via the written word. And what this does is give me practice. I do like to communicate via writing. I do want to actually publish on my blog and write meaningful and useful stuff at work. I’ve been beating myself up that I write secreted away in ink on paper, in my own bubble. That for journaling I don’t need ideas, I can just write. I’ve been telling myself that journaling is the easy way out because I don’t have to think about all the stuff that needs to happen when you’re using words to actually communicate with others.
That’s another story I can now change. Journaling is not a cheat; its ease does not diminish its value. Journaling keeps the machinery oiled. It maintains my writing engine, and that makes it easier to transition to writing for my blog and writing for work. And I love that. So very much.