IS JOURNAL WRITING THERAPEUTIC? Part II

I have been a passionate advocate of writing a personal journal for a long time. I have tried many of the techniques suggested in books or learnt in workshops: unsent letters; lists; dialogues with my Self, my body, my favourite writers, and my mother; daily entries and accounts of my dreams—and many others. I also spent much of my time writing rants, vehement outbursts from a young woman struggling with motherhood, a career and the results of a difficult childhood. Positive entries followed these passages: testimonies of the good times and quotations from the books I was reading, but positive entries were interspersed with passages relating my guilt and despair. I wanted to know why I wasn’t a better mother, teacher, daughter, wife and friend.

I did not realise, during my twenties, thirties and forties, that what I was trying to do was write myself into being.

My journals also contained attempts at short stories, outlines for novels and endless poems that would never progress beyond adolescent, angst ridden embarrassments. Was it me? Was I doing something wrong?

Several weeks ago I opened the boxes containing my journals. I placed the notebooks on the dining table and surveyed them. I remember thinking, ‘What am I going to do with these versions of me?’ They sat on the table, my tatty corpus, and glared at me, mocking me with what lay behind their gaudy faux-leather covers.

I was reminded, as I glared back at them, of a day, about six years ago, when I was a brand new post-graduate student. At the time I was living alone in a one bedroom unit that, despite having seen better days, I loved from the moment I moved in. The first storey unit overlooked the gulf waters that lap gently at the beaches of my home city. It was a cool afternoon, the sea breeze had arrived and because the unit was draughty I had shut all my windows and was sitting on my sofa reading my journals. I was writing an early draft of the creative section of my thesis, and I hoped to find material in my journals to use in my memoir. When a sound from my bedroom distracted me, I laid the journal I was reading on my sofa and went to investigate. A bee had crawled through a bee-sized crack in the rotting, shrunken rubber seal surrounding the window frame. Having found its way into my eyrie, the bee was trying to escape, buzzing and pushing itself against the glass it could feel but not understand. It had crawled into captivity but was unable to find its way out. I sat on my bed and watched it, trying to imagine what it might be feeling. It could see the world beyond the hard invisible barrier, it could remember the smells and sounds of that world but, with each frantic flap of its wings, those memories were fading. The bee dropped to the windowsill, gathered its strength, rose up and pushed once more against the merciless glass. I knew it would continue to do so until it died on the sill and I knew it would take a long time to die.

The woman in my journals was like the bee. She had crawled into a space she called her life but she could see a world beyond, a world she thought might have been her world. Like the bee, she pressed against barriers real and imagined, barriers that stood between her and the smells, sounds and sensations of a world she longed for. She had almost worn herself out, writing her journals, staying trapped in an endless cycle of visualising change but never really changing. Even her eyrie could, if she let it, turn into a trap. Unlike the bee, however, she didn’t have to wait for someone to open the window. She could open it herself.

I returned to the sofa and packed my journals away, leaving the woman I had been to languish between their scabrous pages. I had confronted the whining, melodramatic creature I’d found trapped in the entrails of those journals and decided to become a writer instead.

I wrote my memoir, leaning on my memories, and not my journals, to substantiate who I was … after all, what memoir contains every single truth, and every scurrilous lie, about a life? While I was researching therapeutic writing I discovered reflective writing, and realised my journals lacked reflection, the art of analysing, rethinking and criticising what I wrote (not how I wrote it, which is the concern of a writer who wishes to publish her work).

Journal writing is, of course, a form of reflection but writing about a stressful situation, as I often did in my journals, can add to the stress. When we record an experience and reflect on it, we are reflecting on the experience. When we are stressed, our reactions to, and assumptions about, an experience might be wrong. I believe this is what happened to me and is one of the reasons why re-reading my journals was so unsettling. Would my life have been different if, thirty years earlier, I jotted brief notes about the situation and returned to the entry when I felt calmer, stronger and more likely to think clearly?

Recording and bemoaning an experience does not change anything, and may stop us learning about, or healing from, a situation. I am not recommending we exhaustively examine every journal entry, censor ourselves or give ourselves a hard time. I am suggesting we can gain fresh insights and change our perceptions of life by confronting our assumptions, our prejudices, and our oppression. By casting a cool objective eye across the pages of our journal we separate the person from the record of an experience. The words on the pages of my journal represent me, but they are not me (which is where journal writing and creative writing do dovetail).

It is not just experience that teaches us about life; interpreting and examining the meaning of an experience enhances our learning.

Whether we write a journal entry, an office memo, a letter to a sick friend, a term paper, a dissertation or a blog post, one of the easiest ways to reflect on what we write, is to stop, sit back and ask ourselves:

  • ‘What?’
  • ‘So what?’
  • ‘Now what?’
  • ‘What if?’

What do you think? If you try reflecting on a journal entry, I would be interested in your reaction.

References

David Boud,  ‘Using journal writing to enhance reflective practice’, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 2001.90 (2001), pp. 9-18.

Christopher Johns, Becoming a Reflective Practitioner (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.)

9 thoughts on “IS JOURNAL WRITING THERAPEUTIC? Part II

  1. i never kept a journal, my way of dealing with events and experiences as i grew up was to think, endlessly, about them, when i decided, in my mid twenties, to become a writer, it was never to write about myself, i always approached writing as a way of making money, and i didn’t think my experiences, my life, was of interest to a reader, a customer, i found my life and self managed to creep into my writing anyhow, through a character, through a setting or theme, yet when i committed to write a novel based on a real life experience, the whole thing (including my writing career) blew apart, and i don’t know how i got through it, i still wouldn’t be inclined to keep a journal, but i would pepper any work if did do with myself, my life, because a life is a story, after all

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    1. Hi John. Therapeutic writing, writing about ourselves and keeping a journal is not for everyone and I’m glad you point this out. It is interesting, however, that you feel your life crept into your writing. Most writers tend to find this; our lives are, in this sense, a resource. I will disagree with you about people not finding your experiences interesting to others; my inclination is to let my reader decide what will or won’t interest them. I do, however, agree with you that life is a story.
      Thanks for your comment. I hope the blog continues to make you think.
      Cheers
      Janet

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  2. Another thought provoking, powerfully written post Janet. I wonder how many of us identify with that bee, trapped on the wrong side of the glass?
    In answer to your question, I have found journal writing to be beneficial, even without the reflective stage.

    If I write about events that have been joyful, my feelings of wellbeing increase. If I write about pain and suffering, I am less likely to stay stuck with those feelings. Paradoxically, the more we confront our demons on the page, the more we reduce them to paper dragons. We see their transience.

    As with other mindfulness practices, journal writing seems to gently move me from being swamped by my emotions to the position of a more detached observer. This state of more relaxed awareness liberates me to start moving forward to the now what.

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    1. Hi Carol,
      Thanks for your positive comments about the recent post. While I agree with you that writing about pain and suffering can help us avoid becoming stuck in our pain, it can be difficult for some people to detach themselves from their experiences. These folk tend to ruminate; to blame others, or themselves, for the problem, to worry, to look for quick solutions or to sink into despair. I suspect that is what I did for so many years and that is why my last post focussed on this issue. I think reflecting on what we have written could be a form of mindfulness an idea I hope to explore in a future post.
      Thanks again,
      Janet

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  3. Your blog spoke to me. I have neglected keeping a journal although I have always wanted to. I kind of thought I was afraid to be honest with myself in putting on paper what was written in my mind. I also was afraid of being honest with the world out there who might eventually read my journal. While I have started blogging I do not want to call it a journal. I write mainly about ideas that envelop my thinking for a duration long enough to formulate the beginnings of a post, taking it from there when I start writing.

    I just finished reading an ebook about an authors experiences riding a recumbent tricycle from the northern rockies all the way to the Mexican border. While I enjoy reading this genre of writing, I found this work to be extremely unsettling in that the author was constantly complaining or making himself out to be better that those he encountered. When I was finished with the book I had to ask myself if I might also have that propensity. I need to be more conscious of this in future writings that my words would genuinely reflect the experience and not my personality.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Sonny. I like the way you restated my point so succinctly; our words need to reflect the experience and not the personality. It took me a while to discover this, too. I also agree that a blog is not (always) the same as a journal. For a lot of people it is, but it doesn’t have to be. I believe the difference between a blog and a journal is intent. Not all writers want or need a reader so their intent is to record and reflect on their experiences in a private journal. Others want to share those experiences. It’s not a matter of which method is right or wrong, it’s what suits the writer. I’m keeping a journal of this blog. I jot down mostly notes and ideas but I also record my feelings about blogging. I won’t post anything from it, but it does inform my posts.
      Cheers
      Janet

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  4. Reblogged this on Impromptu Promptlings and commented:
    If you’ve read my blog for any length of time you know I’m a devout believer in journaling. I’ve stumbled across the blog Reflective and Therapeutic Writing which I am finding enlightening. If you’re interested at all in journaling, this is a post well worth reading.

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  5. I did not realise, during my twenties, thirties and forties, that what I was trying to do was write myself into being. I totally get that. Now…

    When I discovered Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self after years of journaling, I made a switch from just recording daily activities and whining to actually RESPONDING on paper to what I’d read that day in her book. Journaling through a book became my unique way of journaling.

    We changed churches at about the same time, from a very conservative to a more liberal denomination. The combination of the two things totally changed my focus in my journals. The early ones were so negative about myself, but after that I learned to cut myself some slack and began to perceive what was going on in my life in a different way.

    Great post!

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    1. Thanks for this pertinent and poignant illustration of my last post, calensarial. I’m familiar with Sarah Ban Breathnach but I haven’t read her books. I love the idea of cutting ourselves some slack. We can be so hard on ourselves. I think one of the powerful benefits of journalling is learning to be our own best friend.
      Cheers
      Janet (P.S. Thanks for reblogging the post.)

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