How to Keep a Journal, Even if You’ve Never Written Before

‘About to Write a Letter’ by Jack B Yeats

Writing is one of the most life enhancing things you can do. It’s not easy, but it’s free, life changing, and available to everyone. And you don’t need to give it a lot of time to reap the benefits.

Expert studies extol the many health, happiness, and life changing benefits of a regular writing habit but what if you’ve never written before? Or since your school days? Where do you start? How is it done? And how do you keep it up?

I was good at English in school, loved writing essays, and kept diaries as a child. I’ve always worked in creative industries requiring a broad base of writing skills. When it comes to creativity and communication I’m your woman.

And while I stopped keeping diaries in my early teens I never stopped ‘keeping notebooks’ as I call it. These I filled with mostly lists, plans, snippets of this and that, plus the occasional stab at some kind of narrative that somehow just never felt right…

Then in 2012 I started blogging. Soon after which I wrote my first novel. But it wasn’t until I hosted my first Creativity Bootcamp in October 2015 that I started keeping a journal ‘properly.’ I made keeping a journal a condition of taking part in the bootcamp because I wanted to do it myself.

I wanted a space in which I could write freely and explore, with no need to edit, and no plan to share.

Childhood diaries are places in which you write what happened today while avoiding thoughts, feelings, and anything that might give you away, even to you. And this is still what makes it hard later. The looking deeper at yourself.

As I’ve already said writing is hard, but it’s accessible and transformative, a way to know and understand yourself better, a way to be free, in short it’s worth the effort.

So if you’ve decided this is the year here’s my top tips for how, plus the obstacles you’re likely to meet along the way.

Pages from my 2015 journal…

Getting Started…

  • Some people prefer to use pen and paper, and some like to type. I do both. Go with whatever appeals to you most.
  • Aim to write everyday but if you miss a day don’t worry, just pick it up again the next day.
  • A journal is about the day to day feelings, thoughts, happenings, observations. Length doesn’t matter, the time you spend doesn’t matter. One page, five minutes, one minute. Up to you.
  • Some people like to draw/doodle/paint in their journal. That doesn’t have to be good or look like anything either. Personally I like a few splodges in the pages. I let the children draw in mine too.
  • Write first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Whenever is best for you.
  • Give up thoughts of ‘being good‘ as a writer or person, just write.
  • There are no rules.
Pages from my 2016 journal…

What to Write…

  1. Descriptive/Observational Journaling. Write an observational piece using your senses. Describe what you see, how you feel, what you can hear. This was nothing short of a revolutionary discovery for me. A powerful way to get started with creative writing, not to mention extra points for becoming suddenly more aware and mindful. It is a kind of deep meditation but without your conscious participation.

Here’s an example of this kind of writing from poet, novelist, and master journal keeper, May Sarton…

‘September 15th. Begin here. It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange-that friends, even passionate love are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations.’ – May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

I have at times used Mae’s ‘Begin here. It is raining (which it usually is here)….’

When you find yourself going off or being pulled off in a tangent let yourself go along. And if you run out of steam in that direction return to description. The way you’re sitting, the light in the window, your breath, how the grass moves, and the trees look, the sounds of the house.

  1. Free Writing. Let yourself write freely without thought, care for spelling, grammar, or structure. Let your thoughts go where they will and write down anything and everything that comes to mind. This is essentially a brain dump. Mine often end up in verse. Anything can happen, that’s the beauty of it. Staring at a blank page? Not sure where to start? Then start with that. As your mind wanders let your pen follow, simple as that.
  2. Questions. Take something you’re worried, upset, or annoyed over and write about it. See if the act of writing helps you work through the issue and find the answers or at least a different perspective. I often find that it does.
  3. Vignettes. Write a short piece about your latest visit to the hairdressers, the school run, attending a funeral. Describe the weather, the characters, include snippets of overheard conversation, what the atmosphere was like and how you felt.
  4. Random. If you’re at home for a day, keep a notebook open and pen handy to write any and every stray thought that tickles your fancy. The kids say something funny? Write it down. Had a funny thought while getting lunch? Stop and write it down.
Pages from my 2015 journal…

Assuming this is new for you let’s look at some obstacles and other likely discoveries…

  • Feeling awkward.
  • Not knowing what to write.
  • Hating what you write, it sounds childish, plus it’s not good, in fact it’s bad, really bad.
  • Wondering what the point of this is?
  • Realising you are editing yourself and are not telling the truth on the page because (a) someone might read it (b) YOU don’t want to read it/admit these things to yourself/or put it in words.
  • Hitting on truths that hurt and you don’t want to face. This is what my friend Miriam calls the ‘lids flying off saucepans all over the place stage’ of keeping a journal, because you can’t do it for any length of time and not end up with personal truth.
  • Wondering why everything you write is childish, sentimental, and nice, or dark, brooding, and miserable.
  • Discovering that your journal is a good place to go with a question, to work things out for yourself.
  • Aha moments, about yourself, life, love, and the universe.
Pages from Frida Kahlo’s journal…

All of that is normal. Stick with keeping a journal for as little as two weeks, one month is better, and you’ll be amazed at what you discover.

And don’t give up because it’s too hard at first. It’s hard because you haven’t done it before. The writing is poor because you haven’t written in 20 years or however long it’s been, maybe ever.

This is the beginning of a beautiful period ofย  transformation, of self-knowledge, self-trust, change and growth. So trust the process, all of it, and start writing. Have you got your notebook yet?

If you feel inspired by this post take the leap, give it a little time, you won’t ever regret it.

This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming eBook ‘That Curious Love of Green – A Complete Coming Out Guide for Creatives in Hiding.’ Available soon on Amazon for pre-order and download.

My next FREE ‘Creativity Bootcamp’ will take place in March 2017. Keep an eye here on the blog and on the FB page for details.

 

2 Comments

  1. It’s not quite the journal you’re talking about but last November I started a bullet journal (see bulletjournal.com in the unlikely event you haven’t heard of it before ๐Ÿ™‚ ). Wanting to try it out before committing money to actually buying a notebook I used a nice one I already had on hand. It’s almost A4-sized though, so was a bit impractical for carrying around every day. The method was successful enough for me that I decicded to invest in a nice notebook in a more suitable size in the new year. And I bought it just after having read this post so it seemed like a good idea to then dedicate that bigger notebook to being a different kind of journal. I’ve been wanting to and threatening to paint something for years and years. During a recent move I actually found three separate sets of paints and brushes that I’ve bought over the years and never even opened! But the other day, I sat down, opened up my notebook and painted a picture. Thinking about it, I realised that it’s just about 30 years since the last time I did that, when I had to take art as a compulsory subject in 1st year of secondary school (the teacher and I did not take long to decide that it would be best if art was not one of the subjects I continued withe for the inter!). My painting has not improved whatsoever but it made all the difference that I was doing it just for me. You were definitely one of the factors that finally got me to actually picking up a paintbrush, though, so I just wanted to say thank you. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Oh wow! That is so great, thank you for letting me know! I’m thrilled for you, probably because I know what it feels like, the before and the after ๐Ÿ™‚ And sorry I didn’t see or respond to this before now. I’m not here much these days. Happy New Year ๐Ÿ™‚

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