Whether we realize it or not, we create and communicate stories about ourselves all the time. It’s in everything from how we answer people when they ask, “How was your day?” to how we remember past events to how we interpret different social situations and interactions. These stories we create reveal things about how we understand ourselves and our larger world, how we justify or blame or inflate ourselves without ever realizing it.
The challenge comes in when these everyday stories remain “unrealized,” or unedited. Left unexamined, these stories can become distorted in our minds until we’re believing things about ourselves and others that are hurtful, unhealthy, and even sometimes blatantly untrue. Because of this, a lot of people turn to writing as a means of pinning these stories down and taking control of them in a place where we can be honest with ourselves about where we are currently and where we’d actually like to be.
Now, I’m sure that, to some, this sounds fluffy or like so many other self-help quick-fixes. But there’s actually an impressive amount of research that suggests that expressive writing exercises and journals can do everything from “improve mood disorders to help reduce symptoms among cancer patients to improve a person’s health after a heart attack to … even boosting memory” (Parker-Pope, New York Times).
In one 2014 study from the University of Texas, it was found that “expressive writing may reduce cancer-related symptoms and improve physical functioning” for patients. They explained that “Expressive Writing”—that is, writing about one’s deepest thoughts, fears, hopes, and feelings—is a simple way to help patients better cognitively and emotionally process the experience of their illness. In other words, this transformation of feelings and fears into coherent, written narratives helped patients create some meaning out of all their pain and stress and chaos. It helped them exert some power over a situation that can make a person feel powerless. And regaining some power in situations like this can help not only reduce stress, but can help you gain a more optimistic outlook about the situation, can help relieve feelings of guilt or resentment that can come from needing help and care, and can even help you better communicate your feelings and needs to those around you.
Another study that was conducted in 2003, this time out of the University of Southern Mississippi, researchers took undergrad students who were suffering from PTSD and had them take up some regular expressive writing exercises where they wrote either about their trauma or on trivial topics. Surprisingly, it was found that “at follow-up, everyone reported less severe PTSD symptoms, impact, and dissociation, and fewer health visits to the clinic”—no matter if they were writing directly about their trauma or not. All that mattered was that they were making a regular effort to reflect honestly about themselves and their day-to-day lives.
In yet another study, married couples were asked to write about their most significant conflicts with their partner and then were prompted to revisit what they’d written with new prompts like this one:
Think about the specific disagreement that you just wrote about having with your partner. Think about this disagreement with your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved; a person who sees things from a neutral point of view. How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it?
“Among 120 couples, those who explored their problems through writing showed greater improvement in marital happiness than those who did not write about their problems” (Parker-Pope, New York Times).
Now, this isn’t to say that writing about ourselves and personal experiences is some kind of panacea. Multiple studies have suggested that expressive writing isn’t particularly helpful in lessening suicidal thoughts and feelings, for example. However, the research is piling up to suggest that expressing writing, in many cases, can in fact “change our perceptions of ourselves” and help us to better “identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health” and happiness (Parker-Pope, New York Times).
These benefits may come in part from the fact that by creating an intentional personal narrative, we’re actually engaging with one of humanity’s oldest and most unique instincts—an instinct to understand ourselves and our relation to the rest of the world. This desire was first made clear in the creation of cave paintings (thank you to Kate Thompson for pointing this out in her wonderful book, Therapeutic Journal Writing)—the earliest examples we’ve got of humans using art as a means of reimagining their world. Think about what a typical caving painting consists of: animals, people, landscape elements—things vital to people’s everyday experiences and lives. So why draw an animal when they could’ve just gone outside and looked at one for themselves?—it’s because there is some piece of us, some primitive call to use a written or visual medium as a way of making sense of our lives.
If this is starting to sound a bit fluffy again, consider why it is that we go to the trouble of making lists in our planners and calendars every week.
These are types of writing—building blocks of expressive writing and journaling—aimed at improving memory, lowering stress, and boosting our confidence about where we’re going and what we want to accomplish each day. List-making and calendar-keeping provide a solid framework for helping people approach goals of a single day, week, or month, and often help make those goals feel easier or more real in the act of writing them down, crossing them off, and so on. I imagine most people understand the odd feeling of accomplishment that can come from—not just accomplishing a particular task—but in crossing off a written reminder of said task.
Now, for a lot of people, the joys and benefits of keeping a journal comes up against a major roadblock: the fear of the act of writing itself. For a lot of people—even for members of my monthly Writing Group—writing is a nerve-wracking exercise no matter what it’s for. The fear of writing is a very common and very powerful obstacle.
The simple truth is, however, that when you’re writing in a journal or diary, you are entirely free of all rules and regulations around “good writing”—whatever that is. Good News: Your writing doesn’t have to use proper grammar or even have to make sense! And the details you choose don’t have to be “important.”
I have a very dear friend who constantly starts new journals, in all different styles, but never manages to commit to one for any extended period of time because every time she sits down to actually start writing, her stress around the act of communicating an idea as perfectly and lyrically as possible just paralyzes her. And when she finally manages to get past this first obstacle, when she finally gets that first perfect, beautiful sentence buttoned up—she faces whole new kinds of stress because, not only is the quest for perfection exhausting, uninspiring, and demoralizing, but she ends up struck with fears about whether or not her journal has any worth or value to begin with. All the time she says to me, “What if someone finds my journal one day, decades after I’m dead, and they can’t believe how boring I was?”
Fear of judgement is something nearly all people are prone to, I think, so the very act of maintaining a space where we try and lay fears of cosmic and social judgement behind can be particularly difficult.
Just know that writing down a mean or cruel or boring thought in a journal, doesn’t make you a mean or cruel or boring person—it only shows an acknowledgement of this feeling’s existence, and allows you to exert some control over it, allows you to maybe see the flaws in it, or perhaps simply reminds you to consider the good about whatever person or situation you’re writing about.
These fears certainly make their own sense—fears of inadequacy, fears of worthlessness, fears of failure—but they all also represent fears of the self rather than accurate fears about writing. But then these fears get conflated and confused and soon you’re anxious about writing instead of just anxious about yourself. And, in fact, it’s these very kinds of fears and anxieties that keeping a journal can help you challenge and overcome.
I know that for me—when I begin to get a panicky feeling about all the things I have to do, all the things I haven’t done, all the things I seem to only be doing poorly or failing at—as soon as I force myself to sit down and trap all of these fears and petty feelings in a written list or a journal entry, I’m able to see just how manageable it really is. I’m able to see how I was letting my panicked and negative, self-deprecating feelings get the better of me and put their own spin on my story, when, in reality, seeing them written down so small and in my own handwriting, it’s clear that it’s not as bad as it seemed before when it was all just swirling around unchecked in my brain.
But still, these journaling benefits necessitate people pushing through that initial moment of writing anxiety and get to the actual act of writing. And there are several journaling tricks that can help you do just that:
First, scrap the idea that every journal entry needs to begin with a date and then go on to tell a short, cohesive story. This is a complete myth. Then go ahead and also scrap the idea that a “successful” journal is one that you manage to write in every single day. The truth is: there’s no such thing as a “successful” journal or a “failure” of a journal. There is no success or failure when it comes to the world of your private, personal writing. There is simply writing or not writing.
As comedy writer David Sedaris explains of his diary writing habits:
“I’ve been keeping a diary for thirty-three years and write in it every morning. Most of it’s just whining, but every so often there’ll be something I can use later: a joke, a description, a quote. …” (New Yorker interview)
“Also, it helps to abandon hope. If I sit at my computer, determined to write a New Yorker story I won’t get beyond the first sentence. It’s better to put no pressure on it.” (New Yorker interview)
“… in my diary I’m not afraid to be boring. It’s not my job to entertain anyone in my diary.” (NPR)
And, the simple truth is, what makes a journal special, useful, and beneficial is what makes it unique to you. This means your own unique style of writing, this means your own unique writing schedule, this means your being really honest with yourself no matter if it seems important or petty or boring or mean.
Sedaris actually leads us into my next writing trick, and that’s using his diary-writing method of keeping two different kinds of journals at once: a list-making journal and a long-form journal.
Sedaris writes religiously in his diaries, keeping pocket-sized notebooks on him at all times, jotting down details throughout the day, and then returns to these lists the next morning when he sits down to write something in long-form about the previous day. Journaling in this way enables the writer to make meaning out of each day, to parse through the complexities of things, and see what there is to be grateful for and what petty things are better forgotten and forgiven.
Now, Sedaris’ journaling method doesn’t work for everyone, but it can have a twofold benefit: First, it can help you get into the habit of writing and thinking like a writer every day, and second, it will give you concrete things to look to when you go into your long-form journaling space, sort of like an anchor that keeps you from feeling overwhelmed or adrift in a sea of possible writing topics.
This detail-oriented technique may also be particularly useful for newer writers since it capitalizes on skills like list-making, which most people already engage in every day without ever thinking of it as “writing.”
Another technique—one that’s come in particular handy for me over the years—is written prayer. As a kid, I often found prayer difficult. It seemed to lack substance or weight no matter how hard I focused or tried. But then a friend of mine suggested that I keep a separate journal dedicated solely to prayer, and I found that not only was my prayer time enhanced, but so was my journaling.
I think this is in part because, when I approached a journal entry as a prayer, it felt automatically imbued with meaning and purpose and worth. It seemed to suddenly have more weight than all my previous journals had had and gave me a renewed sense of purpose and focus in my writing. This new, innate sense of worth also helped me better justify to myself the setting aside of time each day to sit and write in my journal.
And I believe it was this written prayer approach that eventually led me into the style of journaling that I use most regularly today: letter writing. For me, it was never useful to begin journal entries with “Dear Diary”; the idea of writing to an inanimate object just never worked for me. But writing an entry as if I were writing it to a fictional person—or even sometimes to real people, though they will never see said writing—I find tremendously helpful. My journals are now packed with entries that begin as letters to fictional people, and then transform into basically just letters written to myself, to different parts of me.
You can see this style of writing used as a device all the time, actually. It’s what James Baldwin used when he wrote The Fire Next Time as a letter to his nephew.
Ta-Nehisi Coates also uses this method in his most recent book, Between the World and Me, which is written as a letter to his son.
In this way, a letter transforms into a meditation, into a story about and by the author—a story about how the author sees themselves and the world, and how they wish to see themselves and/or the world transformed. And if we still lived in a world where long-form letters were regularly written and sent to others, we’d see that virtually all such letters are forms of storytelling, forms of meaning-making and experience interpretation.
Of course, sometimes this kind of expressive writing and story-editing can be its most beneficial and therapeutic when you find yourself in an emotional place that makes mustering the energy to write at all (let alone with purpose or intention) feel all but impossible. Writing during these painful times, however—times of anger or illness or grief or confusion—these are when expressive writing can sometimes be at its most powerful, its most useful. Writing during these kinds of times, often manifests as what Thompson calls Cathartic Writing.
“A scream on the page,” Thompson calls it. A cathartic “dump”—“venting, ranting, and emotional purging,” sort of like sucking poison out of a wound without the risk of unleashing that poison on others.
I haven’t been sincerely, deeply depressed or furious or sick often in my life—thank God—but when I revisit journal entries from the few times that I have experienced these debilitating situations, they’re often no more than one or two lines long: Why can’t I stop crying? Why can’t I stop hurting?
But I know that these are the entries that—along with a slew of other support systems, of course—helped me find the strength to eventually break free of these unhealthy circumstances. By simply getting out that raw scream on the page, I was able to pin down to a piece of paper something that had before felt too overwhelming to even think about, let alone recover from. It gave me a clear path to answer my own questions and realize that I could stop crying, or would be able to soon.
Of course, as Thompson is also quick to point out, cathartic writing can’t be the Be All-End All of a journal. Cathartic writing can be a great crutch in times of need, but eventually it must be transformed into longer and more thoughtful writing if the personal narrative is ever to move beyond all that poison and panic and rage. If cathartic writing becomes the focus of an entire journal, it can become its own kind of poison—trapping you in an old, hurtful story rather than ever actually helping you to rewrite the situation and move forward from it.
Natalie Goldberg—another author to check out, her poetry is simply fantastic—writes about a funny saying in her book, Writing Down the Bones: “fighting the tofu.”
“Tofu is cheese made out of soybeans. It is dense, bland, white. It is fruitless to wrestle with it; you get nowhere. If those characters”—problems, fears, anxieties, or personal conflicts—“in you want to fight, let them fight. Meanwhile, the sane part of you should quietly get up, go over to your notebook, and begin to write from a deeper, more peaceful place.”
Don’t waste your time fighting the tofu. Let it go on the page, and then let it go in real life.
Alright, now, let’s get on to some actual journaling with a prompt to help get you started. The bottom line again is: Don’t be afraid. Don’t hesitate. And don’t lie to yourself. Be as shameless, fearless, and honest with yourself as possible.
There’s an old parable about two monks who are out walking one day when they come upon a stream and find a woman standing on the bank who needs help getting to the other side. Seeing her need, one of the monks picks her up and bears her safely across the stream. The monks keep walking after that, but the monk who stood by and didn’t help the woman is really agitated and upset, and he only seems to get more frustrated the longer they walk on. Finally the monk turns to his friend and says, “How could you do such a thing? You know it violates the tenants of our order for you to have carried a woman like that.” To this, his friend simply replies, “I may have carried her across the stream, but you’ve been carrying her ever since.”
- Write about something that you’ve been carrying with you and then try writing about how you might set it down.
Happy Writing, everyone!
Sources Referenced & Further Reading:
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Kate Thompson, Therapeutic Journal Writing
Tara Parker-Pope, “Writing Your Way to Happiness,” The New York Times
Kathrin Milbury, Amy Spelman, Christopher Wood, Surena F. Matin, Nizar Tannir, Eric Jonasch, Louis Pisters, Qi Wei, and Lorenzo Cohen, “Randomized Controlled Trial of Expressive Writing for Patients With Renal Cell Carcinoma,” Journal of Clinical Oncology, DOI :10.1200/JCO.2013.50.3532
Eli J. Finkel, Erica B. Slotter, Laura B. Luchies, Gregory M. Walton, and James J. Gross, “A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time,” Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797612474938
PB Deters and LM Range, “Does Writing Reduce Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms?” Violence Victims
“‘Let’s Explore’: David Sedaris on His Public Private Life,” NPR
“Ask the Author Live: David Sedaris,” The New Yorker
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time