I have a crate filled with old journals. Even though I can remember journaling as early as seven -- in a pink book covered with hearts that came with its own locket -- I didn’t start journaling consistently (or saving my journals) until I was in high school. My rationale was simple: When they make a movie about my life someday, I want them to get the details right. Fast forward some nineteen years, and I’m still journaling. Though my reasons are far less egotistical these days. I journal now because I believe in the benefits of journaling both for writers and nonwriters alike.
I’ve spoken with people who want to journal but don’t know where to start or feel intimidated by the need to pen incredibly poised and profound thoughts. But the truth is, journaling is not meant to be an opus. It’s an outlet. Journaling is a practice to help spark and maintain creativity, to reflect and explore. It can be purely creative, strictly utilitarian, or deeply spiritual. Whatever your reasons for journaling, you’ll likely find it to be enriching in some way.
I had a writing professor who once said, “Write even if it’s bad, and eventually it will turn into something good.” Writing, like any talent or skill, must be exercised. Journaling is one way to maintain a writing habit without the pressures of increasing word count or driving plot. More than a summary of the day's activities, a journal entry can be a reflection on the beauty and graces and heartaches of your present circumstances. In journaling, we release and wrestle with ourselves; it is writing first to uncover and then to create.
Here is Virginia Woolf’s self-instruction regarding her own journaling habit: "Never mind the misses and the stumbles [. . .] I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, driving material of life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to [. . . ] What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind.”
What starts as a journal entry/angry rant could turn into an essay or the defining monologue in a character’s development. Creativity increases creativity and writing leads to more writing.
Mental and Emotional Health
Another benefit to journaling, also known as expressive writing (writing without regard for conventions) is that it promotes mental and physical health. Numerous studies found connections between journaling and physical and mental health. Toni Morrison once said, “Writing is about putting things together.”
Journal writing is one way we put ourselves together or back together in the midst of trauma or stress or depression. On the occasions I find myself re-reading my old journals, what stands out more than the idealistic and angsty ramblings of a college student are the difficult times, the times I wrote my way through a broken soul. Healing begins by telling the truth of one’s trauma. Journaling is one way we can reflect on and release what needs to be removed from our lives.
From practicing awareness and tracking gratitude to writing out prayers to God (like Flannery O’Connor), journaling can also have spiritual benefits. Often the minutiae and monotony of life can distract us from seeing the good. Taking time to slow down and process where we’ve been and where we are allows us to see trajectories and patterns that we otherwise may have missed. Without needing to understand or explain every circumstance, journaling can allow us to sit in our situations and attend to our minds and spirits where they are.
While these are just three benefits of journaling (and there may be more), I have only one rule in journaling: there are no rules. Don’t get hung up on where you keep your writing -- a yellow legal pad works just as well as a notes app, which works just as well as a $20 Moleskine®. Some people like to start their day with journaling and laying out their goals. Others might want to end the day with a reflective journal entry.
The only objective is to write. Write what you’ve seen. Write what you know. Write what you think. Write what you feel. Write for yourself, and that will be enough.
About Karla Derus
Karla Derus is a lifelong reader and writer. She has a B.A. in English and a Master's in Afro-American studies from UCLA. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and Gawker. Originally from Seattle, she loves rainy days, strong coffee, and finely sharpened pencils. She is perpetually at work on her first novel and lives in Los Angeles with her husband. You can find her on Instagram @loveplantsandpages.