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Exploring, experimenting, expressing: The value of journaling for writers

Stack of journals, tied with stringI’ll admit I may be a bit biased about this. For almost six years now, since July 2010, I have written every day in my journal. I didn’t necessarily intend for this to happen, and nor do I claim it as some special achievement. It does, however, demonstrate the value I place on journaling. Somewhere along the way, it has become essential to me. I cannot imagine my life without writing about it and I do not know who I would be if I did not write.

The rewards of journaling are plentiful and varied, offering everything from personal development and healing to stress reduction and a scrupulous reckoning of life. For writers in particular, keeping a journal has definite benefits. Many eminent authors, including Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, John Steinbeck, Anaïs Nin and Henry David Thoreau, are well known as dedicated diarists. Despite being originally penned in private, the published versions of their journals afford interesting glimpses into the writing life and the minds behind some great works of literature.

Whether or not we aspire to the heights reached by these authors, journaling can be useful to all of us as writers. Among its gifts are exploration, experimentation and expression.

Exploration

The times we write about may be difficult or delightful. In either case, journaling allows us to explore our experience. Collected and contained in a journal, our perceptions, reflections and questions can be examined more thoughtfully. We can begin to recognise aspects of our personality and become more aware of our preferences, both as people and as writers. Fascinations and frustrations are revealed in the words we pour onto the pages of our journals, sometimes resulting in insights and sometimes not.

Many of us learn who we are through what we write.

This is an important aspect of journaling, yet our explorations can and should extend beyond ourselves. The ability to observe and describe the world around us can be enriched through journal writing. People who write journals may find themselves developing an attitude of curiosity towards circumstances and events, with impressions that are usually fleeting finding form in words. In this way, a journal can be a safe space in which to refine our awareness, deepen our discernment and cultivate our craft.

Experimentation

One of the most significant distinctions between journaling and other forms of writing is that a journal is usually kept confidential. Released from the pressure of writing for an anticipated reader, we are free to frolic, make mistakes, experiment and invent. The words in our journals are for our eyes only. This means we can write whatever truth or fiction we like in whatever form we desire. We can give ourselves the rare grace of writing without judgement or expectation.

What we put in our journal doesn’t have to be ‘good’. There is no need for it to be grammatical or even comprehensible. The act of writing itself and a readiness to engage in the process is what matters, rather than any notion of a finished product.

In your journal, you can try on different styles, test out techniques, set yourself challenges, and delve into discomfort if you wish. No one is watching. Writing purely and playfully for yourself allows you appreciate the writer you are, but it also lets you apprehend the kind of writer you might become. Most likely, that exists somewhere beyond your current vision, but you may discover hints of it through your journaling practice.

Expression

The gem at the heart of journaling is expression. The opportunity to vent or reflect, rejoice or recriminate, describe or define, and to enclose our own vital but otherwise incoherent experiences in words is truly invaluable. By letting out our thoughts and feelings, we can (perhaps) also let them go and clear some space inside. A journal can be a confidante, a mirror, a companion and a guide. Into it we can write our deepest truths and our truest depths, expressing ourselves fully, openly, intimately and creatively.

I believe we all need a place to do this, and that writers especially require a private space to inscribe the words that converge in their minds. This capacity to translate all the chaos and splendour of life into language through journaling makes us, in my view, not only better writers, but better human beings too.

Now it’s your turn…

Do you write a journal? What benefits and challenges have you found in your journaling practice? What have you learned about writing or yourself through journaling?

“We never finish books”:
Wise words from Dani Shapiro

Detail of a white flower against a pale skyIt is a reminder I gave to the research students who I advised at university. It’s an assurance I give to the writers I work with today. And it’s something I heard author and memoirist Dani Shapiro say recently.

“We never finish books.”

She doesn’t mean that we never read all the way to the final page (although sometimes that can be the case too.) Rather, it is the books we write that we never really finish. What happens instead, according to Dani, is this:

“We reach a point where we have made them as good as we can with the tools we have at the moment we have them. And so could any book benefit from being put in a drawer for another year and then pulled out again and looked at with cold eyes? Probably. But at a certain point you say, ‘It’s time for this to go into the world. I’ve taken it as far as I can.’”

Writing can turn into a endless process if we let it. There are always more tweaks to make, more details we could add, and more words we might shuffle, shift or discard. It is devastatingly easy to come up with reasons why our manuscript is still not yet ready and to justify our inability to finish it. If we just had a bit more time, if we just did a little more research, if we just keep working on it then surely we will get it right. Eventually. Won’t we?

Allow me to tell you, as gently as I can, that your book will never be perfect.

Despite your heartfelt efforts, it will never be definitive, never conclusive nor complete. All it ever can be, and all it really needs to be, is a reflection of a moment in time, crafted with the best tools you have.

Of course you will do everything you can to make your book as good as possible. Yet even so, you may find that after taking the brave step of sharing it with the world, you will suddenly see a whole other way you could have done it. There’s a decent, if disappointing, chance that after all your labours, you may still look back on it someday with a sense of dissatisfaction or even embarrassment.

Friends, that happens. It is part of being a writer. Sure, it’s not the best part. But neither is it a compelling enough excuse for us to not to write and not to publish.

We are never really ready. Or we are already ready. Either way, at some point we must just trust – closing our eyes first if necessary – that we have taken our writing as far as we can and to realise that it is time to let it go into the world.

That can be a scary moment for any writer, yet it is one that we must face and embrace again and again, for it is only in the world and in the minds of our readers that our words truly come alive.

Now it’s your turn…

Do you struggle to finish writing your books? Is it hard for you to send them into the world? What holds you back from sharing your writing and what helps you decide when it is ready?