Monday, February 18, 2008

Keeping a Journal

Blog v.s. Journal

A blog is a lot like a journal of sorts but there is, or should be in my mind, a huge separation between the two. There are things you just shouldn't share with the world such as where your kids go to school and other tidbits of personal information that could end up causing part of your life to be remade into a Hollywood suspense/drama movie in ten years. Blogs are nice but when it comes to self inspection they really just don't cut it.
The importance of keeping a journal isn't always up front and in your face. "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." That's how the phrase goes, right? How about, "If you can't learn from someone else's mistakes, at least learn from your own. " A journal captures the raw emotions we feel as we go through life's ups and downs. The bad thing about those situations that upset us and have us on nerves is that we don't have all the information yet. We don't know the cause of certain events, we don't know the outcome. Later, when we look back on these events we find that there are lessons to be learned. We find out more about ourselves simply be rereading a few journal entries than we might expect. Have you ever had a conversation with someone where your thoughts all sort of string together and the junk that comes out of your mouth actually makes more sense than the junk that's in your head? Writing in a journal helps to facilitate this sort of process of working things out. Sometimes it just makes more sense when it hits the paper because you're tricking your mind into letting go.

How do I begin?

The first thing you want to do is to get a journal that you feel comfortable with. If you feel comfortable writing in a hardbound book with a leather cover, so be it. If you don't like leather you may choose another style of hard bound journal. If money is tight or you prefer something more simple, a notebook works well enough, even a 3 ring binder can do the trick. The important thing is to feel comfortable with the journal that you've chosen.
Whenever I start a new journal I like to introduce myself. In this introduction I try to write about where I am in life, how I see myself. I also write about where I want to be or what I would like to change. Basically we're starting off with a resounding, "This is ME, this is WHO I AM! And this is where I've been and where I would like to go." Be honest with yourself. This first entry will set the tone for how you feel about your journal and will give you a purpose for continuing to write even when it gets tough.

Do all journal entries have to be about something?

Definitely not! Grab yourself a cup of coffee or tea or crack open a nice cold soda or beer and just start writing. If your writer's block is so severe that you just can't think of anything to write in your journal then thumb back a few weeks or months and re-read a previous entry. You can always write about what you've learned or provide an update on events. Some days it seems like I have so much on my mind that nothing I'm currently thinking about comes out with any clarity. During these times I just try to reflect on something else. Writing in my journal helps with this. You don't always have to write about what's bothering you. Your journal is there to listen to the thoughts that you share with it, nothing more. It won't scold you for leaving parts out, it isn't there for vindication against someone else. It's just there. It's like a silent friend that will never tell you that you're talking too much or ask you what point you're trying to make.

What to avoid?


This is really going to depend on you and the more you write in your journal the more you will know about what helps and what doesn't. I've written in journals off and on since I was in High School. Obviously, the advice in this post would have helped me greatly when it comes to what to put into my journal. The result of my writing pretty much came out to me being a goof and not writing anything of substance at all. I took the avoidance approach to the extreme but unfortunately that leaves me with little life lessons to take from those years. Though I do know that writing something for the equivalent of hearing my own voice was a serious pitfall in my writing. Throwing in lofty words just for the sound of them doesn't help you in the long run, a journal is the place where you should be focussed on being honest with yourself. I was just so wrapped up in being someone I wasn't that it spilled over to my journal. That's the breaks, it's a part of growing up. Rule #1, Be yourself.
Another thing from my early years of journal writing was the lovesick phase. Though I don't specifically remember it, one of my early entries discussed a conversation I had with my mom. She had told me, I wrote, "don't write about relationships in your journal because later it just seems silly." Right after I entered that I wrote that I was going to write about it anyway and then we spill right into I love so-and-so and not even twenty pages later my love was devoted to someone else. Rule #2, Don't stress it. Write what you feel comfortable writing. My mom obviously didn't stop me from doing it and if that's what you feel like writing about, by all means, do so. It seems so cold hearted to me to ignore those feelings when you're young because someone tells you that all relationships at that age are terminal. Your feelings of elation and disappointment are all a part of who you are. In time you may look back at those entries and mock your own foolishness but if you can get past your own self-loathing and embarrassment for being in the situation and not outside of it then there are valuable lessons to be learned.
Do not write your journal for anyone else to read. Journals can contain very personal information. If you want someone to read what you've written then write a memoir. Likewise, do not write a deliberately brutal entry and then leave it out on purpose for someone to stumble across. A journal is not a weapon. Rule #3, Write for yourself and keep it that way.

Where should I write? How Often?


This, of course, is all up to personal preference. Some people may enjoy closing the door to their bedroom and taking a few minutes to write in their journal. Others my have to get out of their surroundings to feel comfortable writing what they need to get off their chest. Some people like quiet, others enjoy the hustle and bustle of public places. The where isn't all that important as long as you are comfortable, it doesn't even have to be consistent as long as you are actually doing it.
How often? Well let's just say that the world won't end if you don't get your daily entry in. I would be lying to you if I told you I wrote in my journal every day. At best I would say that you should write whenever you feel like it but as a minimum you should write at least once a week. Also, and I've found myself doing this as well, if you've already made an entry one day but later feel like you're ready to enter more, don't let the previous daily entry stop you from writing what's on your mind.

Is there any other reason to keep a journal?


Sure there is! If you write in your journal you're writing something. You don't have to be canny or coy, you don't have to attribute what you write to any kind of stylistic approach. It's your own personal world that's yours alone. Sometimes it's frustrating trying to fight writer's block by trying to write a story or an article. Writing in your journal doesn't have to meet any specific expectations so we can feel good about the gunk that comes out while working through the block. Sometimes writing something, anything, can be a big confidence booster. Feel free to get creative. I doodle in my journal and often draw cartoon pictures of myself to go along with my entries. I most often spend a little time at the beginning of my entry to decorate the date. This helps prepare me for my writing session and eases me into it. It's a way of slowing down and clearing my mind before I begin. Over time it gets more and more comfortable and easier to write for longer periods of time. This can help even the most blocked writer feel more comfortable writing again given enough time. Think of it as a form of subterfuge against the block monster.

Writing Exercise:
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