March 10 was the last semi-normal day I remember. After an eye doctor appointment, I went back to work then stopped by the store on the way home because we needed toilet paper and bananas – nothing unusual there. The paper goods shelf was empty and when I checked out with my bananas the cashier wished me luck with the toilet paper search. Then everything got weird.
I’ve spent the last five months of quarantine wishing we had a playbook, or a manual for how to navigate through it. Maybe a hotline would help for those days when I’m wondering if what I’m feeling is normal, and if what I’m doing is sane. Poet Antonio Machado had it right when he said, “There is no path. The path is made by walking.” We’ve all been walking this path, finding ways to not only survive, but thrive. It seems counterintuitive that we could actually come out of this with some tools that might serve us well going forward, but we can actually choose that path.
Journaling has been one of my sanity-savers during the past two years, so I’m sharing some tips that might make this practice less intimidating and more accessible. First, some reasons why journaling is helpful, especially during anxious times. University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker contends that regular journaling strengthens immune cells, called T-lymphocytes. Pennebaker believes that writing about stressful events helps you come to terms with them, acting as a stress management tool thus reducing the impact of these stressors on your physical health. The act of writing accesses your left brain, which is analytical and rational. While your left brain is occupied, your right brain is free to create, intuit and feel. Writing removes mental blocks and allows you to use all of your brainpower to better understand yourself, others and the world around you. But studies have also found that writing in a journal can lead to better sleep, more self-confidence and a higher I.Q. Mostly, I’m in it for the sleep, and I’m happy to report that most of the time it works.
My history with journaling is this: I loved buying journals but rarely filled more than a few pages before I quit. This went on for decades until I finally broke the cycle several years ago. I bought a journal on January 2, 2019 and determined that the hardbound red notebook would be my only journal for the year, even if it had one entry and 60 blank pages. I started with this sentence:
“Day two of 2019. Back to work, but cooped up here in my “office” – the dining room table doing bookkeeping, emails, tracking down a donation that is lost.”
I run a non-profit, so I should update the post by letting you know I found the donation. Moving on, my first tip for journal writing is this:
1. Don’t go deep
At least not at first. Don’t pressure yourself to fill pages with profound insights or revelatory ideas. Most of our days (especially now) are filled with mundane moments in between repetitive tasks. It’s okay to write about them, and I’ve discovered that it’s actually interesting to go back and read the posts that were more diary and less memoir. Self-discovery often comes when we least expect it, and in this case might show up when we’re recapping the weather. I did this quite a bit in my first journal – mostly complaining about the cold, which has shown me that my mood in winter is largely dependent on the thermometer. Re-reading these pages helped me own this fact about myself. It’s helpful when deciding on a winter wardrobe and how many crocheted blankets to keep in each room.
2. Don’t use a screen; find a journaling pen you love
Enough with the screens! At least for this. I tried journaling online, then with an app, but because I’m face-planted in screens most of the time, I need pen and paper. I have one pen that is only for journaling, a Pilot fountain pen. If you haven’t tried using a fountain pen, I highly recommend it. Yes, I have to change the cartridge every 40 pages or so, but I love the smooth feel and my hand isn’t cramped after several pages of writing. I have a friend who uses a Bic four-color pen – the chunky kind with blue, black, red and green ink. She assigns a mood for each color and writes in the corresponding ink, depending on how she is feeling. When she goes back to read her entries, she immediately knows her mood on that day. This is an indulgence, so find a pen you don’t use for any other writing. And yes, gel pens are allowed.
3. Write for yourself, not others
It’s tempting to self-edit or write in a tone that assumes someone besides you will read your journal. Don’t do it. Give yourself permission to vent, worry, work out emotions, daydream and toss out crazy ideas and plans. The more you write in a tone that is reserved for your eyes only, the more natural it will feel. Diaries had locks for a reason, right? Keep your journal in a safe place so that you can write for an audience of one: you.
4. Don’t be legalistic about it
Skip a day. Or a week. It’s fine. Forced daily journal-writing makes your journal just another box to check on your task list. That’s not what it’s about. It’s been interesting to discover the correlation between journaling and my own well-being, and how that sparks an inner motivation to write even one sentence each day. So my practice is daily, but it took about a year to get there. It wasn’t a goal though, so if you are only an occasional journal-writer, that’s enough.
5. Go beyond prose every now and then
If you want to experiment with drawing, sketching, or poetry, then do it and remind yourself that no one will see this but you. If you’re like me and not an artist, don’t worry if your pencil drawing of a Colorado mountain is horrible. You’ve used a part of your brain that might not engage again that day. I also write terrible poems in my journal that won’t see the light of day, but that’s the point, right?
6. Be cautious about a multipurpose journal
I know there are options out there to combine your journal with a planner, goal-setting, or daily prompts. If this is helpful for you, then try it, but I’ve found that I don’t do as well with the “fusion” approach. It makes it feel less like a journal and more like an assignment from someone who doesn’t know me. We could probably debate this, but I think the planner/journal is someone’s idea of a bad joke. My own experience has been that a blank page, lined or unlined, gives me the freedom I need to construct my journal in a way that is true to me.
One last word about journaling. Social media has made many of us overly conscious of our image and not conscious enough about how vital it is to live authentically. We’re not brands, we’re people. And people are complicated beings with vulnerabilities, weaknesses, wild ideas, and secret longings. The more we are in touch with these deep places in ourselves, the more we can live as the same person outside and inside. We need that desperately at this moment in history. So this is your permission slip to order a journal and a pen, and free yourself to fill your pages with rich content that no one else will ever see. Let me know how it goes. I’m cheering you on!
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