The answer to this is – almost certainly more than you think. If you’ve ever written in a diary – you’ve written a journal. If you’ve ever written down an account of a day or an event, either for yourself or someone else – that was a journal entry. Even a dated to-do list with items ticked off could be seen as journal, of sorts.
The usual definition of journaling is that it is some kind of regular informal writing, whether to keep a record of events, to keep track of feelings or thoughts, or as a creative outlet. Of course, many different types of writing fall under this wide umbrella – including blogging – and as a practice it offers a number of benefits and can be used in many different ways. As well as the more prosaic purposes it is used as a practice in certain types of therapy, and it can be used for self-exploration, mental health treatment, wellbeing and many other areas.
For a writer, keeping a journal is often described as an indispensable part of the creative process. Regular entries in a notebook kept with you for recording plot ideas, descriptions, character sketches, snippets of dialogue, random connections – all the stuff than Neil Gaiman calls ‘the compost heap’ – can form the foundation of a productive writing practice.
I don’t know how many times I’ve had an idea, not recorded it and then been unable to recapture it later; this happens to all writers, indeed to all thinking people. In fact, I think I believe that the ideas may not be truly ‘lost’, but may be percolating somewhere in the unconscious, perhaps awaiting the right time to resurface and demand one’s attention. However, in that later moment when I want it, the idea is not there – and that’s where my writer’s journal is useful, serving as an external dump for my random brain-mumblings that might one day turn out to be helpful.
Or, rather, that’s one of the places a writer’s journal is useful. As well as being an aide memoire and a repository for unfiltered ideas, a journal can also be a powerful practical tool.
Hands up, writers, if you’ve ever experienced writer’s block. The terror of the empty page. The complete inability to add anything to your work-in-progress, or to kick off something new, or even to sit down and think about writing.
If writers are honest, we have all experienced this at some point – sometimes at the most inopportune moments (“Really, Muse? You’re deserting me now, when our deadline is next week?”), and sometimes for long periods of time. In those dusty, barren days, weeks, sometimes months, a journal might be the only place where it is possible to put pen to paper – and it might just save your creativity. (And that deadline.)
Again, there are different ways to use journaling here. Julia Cameron recommends the regular (daily) practice of Morning Pages – every morning, three pages written by hand without stopping, stream of consciousness, an outpouring of whatever is in your mind at that moment, with the intention of unblocking creativity and stimulating artistic growth. Others might write for a set period of time (say, 20 minutes) or at a specific time of day (mornings or evenings are common), and yet others use prompts for guided journaling – short exercises designed to be easy to access and quick to complete, but which can prime the brain for writing and trick you into forgetting the terror of putting that first word on the page.
There are certain features of journaling which make this type of writing different and uniquely suited for use as a writing tool. The first – and, I think, the most important – is that journals are private, read by no one else (and sometimes not even by oneself, until weeks or months later). The pages must be a safe space for the expression of ideas, unfiltered and unedited, without worrying about grammar, spelling or censorious eyes. This is a space for exploration, kicking ideas about, diving into emotions or situations than might be difficult and need some distance or processing to fully work through. There is no pressure to be perfect, or to provide a finished piece; the expectation is only that you show up.
Some will tell you that the journals need to be handwritten. Indeed, Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages practice lays great stress on this aspect, suggesting that the physical action of pen on paper is an important part of the unblocking process. I think I disagree with this; in the same way that if one writes then one is a writer, I feel that if one puts words down in a journal-type activity, then one is journaling, whatever that means. Handwritten in a beautiful notebook, typed on your desktop computer, on a tablet, on a phone, on scraps of paper scavenged from the kids’ toybox while they’re asleep – if that’s what journaling looks like to you, then that’s what it is.
Friends, I’m working on a thing. I want to work with writers to journal, to unblock, and to be creative – and I’m starting here. This is my initial exploration of what journaling means to me – but please, if you feel moved to comment, tell me what journaling looks or feels like to you, and why you do it. And if you don’t do it (yet), what might you need to help you start?