Keeping a journal is one way we make friends with our writing. It can take the edge off our perfectionism when we do sit down to work on a piece that requires thoughtfulness and craft. For me, it’s right-brain practice for left-brain work. Done with a loose hand and a free mind, keeping a journal teaches us to write without editors putting in their 2 cents every few seconds. You can rant, rave, rhyme, remember without fear of outside criticism.
A journal should be a map of your inward journey. It’s not a high school diary that simply records everything you did yesterday or are going to do today. I suggest writing in your journal the same way Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way advises keeping what she calls “morning pages.” Pick any subject at all, then dive in and dive deep. Write for 20 minutes without lifting your hand from the page, without stopping to think about how you actually felt or what really happened. Let your heart and your hand lead the way. This is not record-keeping. It’s creative writing. Your life is that of a creative person. It’s crazy, unpredictable, hilarious, heartbreaking, beautiful, ugly, and risky and it’s worth writing how you feel about this.
Keeping a journal also keeps me sane(r). I put on the page what I would rather not do or say in public. If I can just get to the page before I open my big mouth or send that friggin’ email I wish I could get back one minute later. That’s why I try to have a notebook close at hand at all times. Losing my journal is not an option. What I write there is my business. If I’m putting it on the page, I’m not throwing it in someone’s face. At my house, we are two writers living together. The rule is: If you sneak a read, you deserve what you get. We can’t go crying to one another. As far as I know, neither of us has ever risked it. If so, we kept our mouths shut, as agreed.
So many poems, essays, and ideas come from the pages of my daily writing. Quite often, my best work begins on a typical Tuesday morning when I’m doing nothing more than chatting with my confidant and friend, my personal journal. Of course, there’s plenty of trash there, too. Yet, if I write 20 pages of proof that I am indeed mentally and emotionally challenged, then I may come up with one idea that transfers into an award-winning screenplay like “Men Only.” Almost all the poems in my book, “A Little Lazarus” began in my journal.
When I recognize something is happening in my writing that is more than just the daily la-la-la, I star it. I take a highlighter to it. I fold down the page. I don’t want to forget where it is. When I’m ready, I move it to the computer where editing can begin; where right brain meets left brain and, hopefully, shake lobes.
The excuse I hear most often is, “But what I write is so negative.” The page isn’t negative. The pen isn’t negative. It’s we, ourselves, who are negative, and in order to change that, there is no faster way than to complain to the page over and over and over until you are sick of it and create the needed change. Otherwise, whether you write about it or not, it will remain stuck in your craw. Visible or invisible, your attitude, positive or negative, will affect your life.
Pay a therapist $100 an hour to get your relief, but even that won’t work if you don’t practice at home. And be forwarned, a lot of shrinks are now using writing as a way of getting down to the bone more quickly. Pen and paper are cheap. The advice you get will be your own. It won’t yawn in your face and it can’t leave you either. Besides, somewhere in all that angst lies a creative answer.
So, go ahead and try it. Give it a month anyway. Write 20 minutes a day as fast as you can. Don’t stop to think or get the chronology right. Oh, don’t even tell me, “I could be exercising.” Look, if you can’t move a pen across a page for 20 minutes a day, you can forget about a regular exercise program. Just set a timer and go. See what happens. I’m no math major, but if I figured this out correctly, you’ll spend a total of 10 hours in one month at 20 minutes a day writing. That leaves you 710 hours to do everything else. I know you can squeeze it in. Surely you deserve an unconditional friend.