Journaling is simply writing down thoughts and feelings, keeping a log of everyday life. We all might have experimented with keeping a diary, and journaling, in all its forms, remains a diary. A way to understand ourselves better through writing.
Nowadays, there are a plethora of journaling types:
My purpose is to present two types of journaling and hopefully, you will get inspired in grabbing a notebook and start writing.
In her 1934 book Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande described a new perspective on the stream of consciousness journaling:
"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 paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before—begin to write."
This technique was later popularized by Julia Cameron that renamed it the Morning Pages in her book The Artist’s Way. Julia Cameron says: “write three pages of whatever crosses your mind — that’s all there is to it”.
She adds that this practice is non-negotiable, “mood doesn’t matter” and she argues that by practising this form of journaling, you “learn how to stop judging and just write”.
“Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included.” You do not stop to edit or correct grammar, you do not think if phrases make sense or not, you just write.
If you run out of ideas, you keep writing, even if it just a page of writing ‘I don’t know what to write. What should I eat today? What’s the point in doing this?’ ”
Why should these pages be done the first thing in the morning?
So that we can identify our thoughts before our mind starts worrying or planning the day.
In Julia Cameron’s words, “to catch yourself before your ego’s defences are in place. We are after candour — that, and specificity. We want to know how you really feel about your life.”
Why three pages? Try writing for three pages only “this is useless. What is the point in this? I do not understand this”. Eventually, things will pop out in your mind, and ideas will spring to life ready to be captured in writing.
Another critical point about this form of journaling is that we are not encouraged to read our own morning pages.
Julia Cameron says that for the first two months, we are not allowed to re-read what we have written.
Writing for 30 - 45 minutes first thing in the morning turned out to be too impractical at this point in my life.
So, I added my own variations.
Before starting work, I journal for 10 – 20 minutes. Other times, after a long, strenuous workout, when my mind is sore and numb, I free write for about 20 minutes. During this time, I do not raise the tip of my pen once, words are shouting, screaming, repeating, making no sense, but I continue to write, enjoying the pure thrill of a proper brain dump.
I deliberately mix Romanian and English in these journal pages. I want to force myself to fire all my brain synapses that deal with imagery by translating expressions from a language into the other mot à mot, or starting one sentence in a language, and finishing in the other.
I plant the seed of a thought and then I let it grow. I water this idea for a few days and after, I go back to my life.
The most significant benefit of the stream of consciousness journaling for me (I can’t call it Morning Pages, as I deviate too much from the rules) is that harsh, ruthless critical voice learned how to keep quiet.
I do no longer wait for inspiration to come. I start writing, knowing this journey will take me eventually to an idea with all kinds of sounds and colours and arms and legs that might make me say “Hmm…”.
It is extremely gratifying to write freely, with no judgement. This act of journaling holds its own reward.
In the Stoic Guide to a Happy Life, Massimo Pigliucci notes that “a typical Stoic exercise is the evening philosophical diary, a way to develop the habit to reflect on where we have gone wrong. What have we done well, and what could we improve.”
"Admit no sleep into your tender eyelids until you have reckoned up each deed of the day—how have I erred, what done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good [ones] be glad.
I make use of this opportunity, daily pleading my case at my own court. When the light has been taken away and my wife has fallen silent, aware as she is of my habit, I examine my entire day, going through what I have done and said. I conceal nothing from myself, I pass nothing by. I have nothing to fear from my errors when I can say: ‘See that you do not do this anymore. For the moment, I excuse you.’
I will keep constant watch over myself and—most usefully—will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil—that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past."
Seneca’s way of thinking that the future descends from the past builds a bridge across millennia to George’s Orwell quote:
"He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past."
Those who know about the Scrum methodology will see the similarities between a sprint retrospective and a daily retrospective through journaling:
Extrapolating, stoic journaling can be combined with growth mindset questions:
I am also careful to recall at least one positive experience. Why?
In his Productivity Project book, Chris Bailey mentions a talk with positive psychologist and bestselling author Shawn Achor. According to Shawn Achor, neurologically speaking, when you journal or talk about a positive experience you had at the end of each day “your brain stamps it as meaningful. The brain can’t tell much difference between visualization and actual experience, so you just doubled the most meaningful experience of your day.
Done over time, your brain connects the dots and realizes you have a trajectory of meaning running throughout your life. It is not the gratitude as much as it the ability to scan your life for positives that make this habit so effective.”
To create lasting, long-term effects, Shawn Achor recommends giving these tactics a few weeks to train your brain to think happier.
I can add here that maybe here lies the reason rumination and negative self-talk can push us inside a vicious cycle. The more we repeat an internal negative monologue, the more the brain stamps those thoughts as meaningful. And yet, a vicious cycle can be reborn as a virtuous cycle and journaling positive experiences can help this process.
It should be no surprise that writing heals. Journaling might become another cathartic relief source for our hardships.
When one can’t talk, one should write. I allow the thoughts I have been too frightened to speak them aloud to leave my fingers on the intimate space of a fresh page.
Keep in mind there are no fixed rules, you can experiment and choose your own setting. Five minutes or ten minutes might suit you better. Write as much or as little as you like and do it as frequently or as infrequently as you want.
Suppose you journal for a day in one week and after two weeks pass, you feel the need to journal for two days in a week. After a while, you might even miss journaling and feel a tingling in your fingers, burning to write.
Do remember these pages are for your own eyes only, so be wary of privacy.
Finally, I make sure that I journal as often as I can because I see journaling as a self-care habit. In my opinion, self-care habits are tiny bricks that help us fight our daily entropy.
Because when, and it is a matter of when, not if, life crashes upon us, it is those tiny unremarkable habits we picked along the way that help us to get back on track.
Parts of this article were previously published on my blog.
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