Overview

On Journaling

Posted on Mon 23 March 2015 in Dispatches • 3 min read

Do you keep a journal? I often wonder.

It’s something we’re told we should do. Any simple search on the internet, or any self-help book you care to pick up, will suggest that there are numerous mental health benefits to journaling. Yet, when doing informal polls of the people around me, it seems that few do, at least not as a discipline.

The Practice in Question

I’ve written before about the practice of morning pages, and how I think they are an important writing discipline. However, morning pages may contain a much broader swath of material than I’m focusing on today. I am talking about the specific act of maintaining a personal journal, whether you write in it once a day or once a week.

I find that it is a discipline that is harder to keep than producing 750 words a day on anything. It requires a willingness to look internally and write about what you are feeling. That’s not always easy to do.

Honesty is Key

Of course, journaling without honesty is not completely helpful. It’s better than nothing, but it is artifice. In that scenario, you are performing, but for which audience? That’s part of the reason it’s so important to keep your journal completely private. Your journal needs to be a safe place where you can express whatever is on your mind, and you will not be able to do that with multiple readers.

When I was a teenager, myself and my other writerly friends all maintained handwritten journals. However, we also had an ongoing agreement that we could each open each other’s journals and read at will. Does that sound like a bad idea? It was, but not as bad as it could have been. We managed to avoid the most passive-aggressive scenarios,1 but we also were less honest. I know I certainly left large chunks of my thoughts out of those books. I can only assume the others did the same.

Being honest with yourself can be hard, but given a disciplined schedule and complete privacy it tends to become the default. With no other pressures than your schedule, I find ongoing self-directed deceit tends to be worn away. When you’re honest with yourself, you get more out of each entry, and you deepen your own understanding of your mental state.

The Schedule

It doesn’t matter what your schedule is as long as you stick to it. But I think it is important that you do pick one. This is where I fail most often.

When I am feeling down, I’m most likely to journal since it is a convenient release. I’m also likely to journal milestones, such as my daughter transitioning to a toddler bed. That’s all well and good, but that means that my journal can quickly become a depressing place to visit, because with the exception of the aforementioned milestones, the content is skewed towards the negative.

That’s problematic because the journal, both the act of writing, as well as that of reading, is reflective. Your journal will be the most promising if you make sure you write on the good days just as often as the bad, and vice versa. A schedule will help you do that.

While I’m sure there are some that would disagree with me, I don’t think it even matters how much you write per entry, so long as you do write.

Tools

They don’t matter. Use a paper journal, use a text file, or a desktop wiki; it doesn’t matter as long as it works for you. Personally, I like Day One, but your mileage may vary.

Back to the Question

So, do you keep a journal? Do you use it to reflect? I hope so.

We all have challenges in our lives. Every person lives their own story filled with both tragedy and joy. If it is true that we are the sum of the tales that we tell ourselves about ourselves, I think it’s valuable to know which yarns we are spinning.

After all, sometimes we can even find a way to change them for the better.


  1. Or at least we managed to hide them in obscure poetry.