This evening I am taking a class on “Mindful Living” from my friend Shawna Michels, and I get to talk for a few minutes about keeping a journal.
I think I can credit Heather Sellers with the denigration of that phrase “keeping a journal.” She said (somewhere) that she didn’t want a “kept journal,” that it reminded her too much of a “kept woman.” Personally, I like the idea of keeping a journal — it makes me think of keeping it close, keeping it with me, keeping it daily…even being kept by it.
I keep two journals. One is a big, bound book that I buy (several at a time) from Lee Valley. I write in it every morning, usually for 20 minutes or so.
I also like to pack around a smaller journal, one that will fit in whatever bag I’m carrying that day. And if you find yourself at all resistant to the idea of keeping your own journal, this is the one I want to especially recommend.
Because, in truth, there’s nothing magic about writing in the early morning. I know people who keep a notebook beside the bed so they can write when they first wake — so they can get their dreams down, I guess. These people would disapprove of my lazier — or at least less disciplined — habit of getting coffee first, maybe reading first, sometimes doing my “real” writing first. In my opinion, there’s no one right way to do this. Being in a liminal state is a good idea (like the threshold state between sleep and waking), but I find I can slip into that state pretty easily — I’ve had decades of practice, after all!
But how do you establish a journal writing habit, when you don’t have one, and perhaps can’t even imagine one? If you’re still with me, here are my five suggestions for getting a journal habit underway.
1. Buy a journal that you will enjoy writing in. While you’re at it, pick up a pen you’ll like, too. They don’t have to be expensive to be pleasurable. A spiral bound notebook with a tiger on the cover is just as good as the fancy leather ones. But make it special to you.
2. Write every day. Really. If you’re just getting a habit underway, you want to get it underway. Later you might cut back to 4 or 5 days per week, but just for now, try for a daily habit. Like brushing your teeth or combing your hair, it will soon feel intrinsic to your routine. Writing more than once a day is okay, too, by the way. It will help you establish a habit of beginning to write.
3. You do not have to write for a long time. In fact, if you’re feeling considerable resistance, you can fight it by reducing your expectations. Write for 15 minutes — or 5! (I predict that your 5 minutes will quickly turn into more. You can read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way for inspiration to write more…but here I just want to open up a little space.)
4. If you don’t know what to write, try writing down your questions about the process. You can even write a numbered list of them and challenge yourself to write as many as you can. (Lists are my go-to strategy when I’m feeling balky.) If you don’t know what to write, try describing what’s in front of you. Five minutes of description, how hard can that be?
5. I know that computers are here to stay; I will even admit to liking computers. But I have my limits. (The last time I taught my Creative Nonfiction class, a student wrote her first freewrite on her I-Phone!) Let’s agree, however, that technology, while useful, can also be a tad bit overwhelming; there’s just so much of it. Your writing can get lost in there. Please, please, please give writing in a cool notebook, with a pen, with your hand a try. If you don’t believe me, take an experimental approach and see what happens.
If you’re still wondering what to write, there are lots and lots and lots of books with writing prompts. One of my current favorites is The Pen and the Bell by Holly Hughes and Brenda Miller. Another (especially for fiction writers) is The 3 a.m. Epiphany by Brian Kitely. The old standard, however, is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. (There are lots of websites and blogs with prompts, too.)
You can keep a food journal with a five-minute a day habit.
Still dragging your feet? One more word about resistance. Okay, two more words.
One) There is a neat little book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield that in brief (and humorous) chapters may help you conquer your resistance to writing (or anything).
Two) The poet Rilke said that the fiercest dragons guard the most precious treasures — in other words, if you are over-the-top resistant to the idea of keeping a journal, it may very well be because there is something magical awaiting you.
And now, I won’t need to print a handout for Shawna’s class. (See, technology really is useful!)