The Power of Observation & More: 5 Reasons to Keep a Journal
Yesterday my daughter had a pumpkin-carving party, complete with home-brewed Nut Brown Ale from her boyfriend and all kinds of delicious pot luck treats. We carved the jack-o-lanterns in the backyard with leaves falling all around us in the autumn breeze and ladybugs landing on everyone.
I got up this morning and wrote down all the details in my journal.
I write in my journal nearly every day, usually first thing in the morning. It is actually a bit of a compulsion with me. Over the years I've filled up dozens, if not hundreds, of journals in all kinds of spirals and composition books and diaries. They fill crates in various closets, all neatly labeled with the appropriate dates. I'm not entirely sure why I save them, because lord knows even I can't read my own handwriting. But something compels me to do so. And I know that when our house caught on fire and the upstairs burned many years ago, the thing I was most grateful to find unscathed was my journals.
(Brief aside: you know how you always hear people say what they'd save if their house was on fire? Let me just tell you, when you are fleeing a burning house with children and pets you do not for one minute stop to worry about saving all the family photos or the Grandma's antiques. All you think about is getting the living creatures out.)
Sometimes I think journal writing is a distraction. It's a choice I constantly make: write in the journal or work on the novel? Make notes about what I did last night or get some work done on a ghost-writing project? When I'm fully engaged in a book project, I tell myself I shouldn't waste time on my journal. And then I find myself reaching for it and before I know it, I'm writing away.
However, I'm also aware of how valuable journal writing is. Honestly? I'm constantly in awe of people who make it through life without one. I process everything on the page, saving my friends and family hours of drama and myself years of therapy. But beyond the emotional benefits, there are clear advantages to keeping a journal for writing, too. To wit:
1. It gets the crap out. If all your worries about your day are clogging up your brain, how are you going to write? Get it out on the page and get rid of it.
2. It encourages the practice of observation. There's no better way to start remembering details than writing them down. The more you write what you've seen and experienced, the better you get at it. And the better you get at writing it in your journal, the better you get at writing on your novel or whatever creative project is dear to your heart.
3. It is a place to make notes on projects. Sometimes–often–I start a journal entry by writing about what I did the day before and soon I'm writing a scene for my novel or figuring out how to write an article. I actually wrote this whole blog post as a journal entry this morning.
4. Regular attention to a journal can be life altering. Sounds grandiose, doesn't it? But it is true. When you commit to writing in your journal every day, suddenly you start to see patterns in the desires and goals you note. Hmmm, day after day you write about the creative non-fiction book you want to start. Is this a clue to what you should be doing? Or perhaps every day you write about how miserable you are in your job or marriage. Is it time to make a change?
5. You can track your writing goals. Writing down your word count on a long project can be a powerful motivator. Writing about that project can help you get clear on it, too. John Steinbeck wrote journals about the writing of his novels.
Bonus point: It is a spiritual practice. People always talk about their spiritual practices, such as prayer, or ritual, or meditation and I always pouted because I wanted a spiritual practice, too. But I don't seem to have a lot of patience for those kinds of spiritual practices. One day, however, it hit me–hot damn, I already have a spiritual practice. It is writing in my journal, which I do as regularly as anyone who meditates or practices yoga.
One last thing. Michael Masterson has an article on writing journals in his weekly newsletter today. He looks at it from a manly, business point of view, but I'm a huge fan of Masterson and I like what he has to say about writing a journal. Read it here.