5 Reasons Writers Should Keep a Journal

In another article, 3 Reasons Everyone Should Keep a Journal, I’m talking very generally about the benefits of keeping a journal and is geared towards anyone that wants to put pen to paper. This article, however, goes one step further and discusses a few reasons why writers should be keeping a journal as part of their daily writing habit/obsession.

Dreams

The first thing I am going to mention is dreams. I included dreams in the aforementioned sister article, and my claim was that writing down your dreams can help you see deeper into yourself, and I think that’s true and beneficial for everyone.

For writers, there is something else that recording your dreams can provide you: the possibility to plumb the depths for poetry and plot.

If you are a fiction writer, you can use your dreams to spark anything from narratives to plot twists. That shady character whose face you never quite see: wouldn’t he make a great antagonist? Creepy location? Perfect for that scene you’d just been tinkering with the other day.

I often find myself drifting off to sleep with a story question floating around in my noodle and more often than not, I wake up in the morning with the answer. But there is a warning. Dreamstuff doesn’t always make sense and sometimes needs a bit of tweaking, but the seed grows into a plant, right?

If you are a poet, you might compose a set of surrealist poems based on your dream-worldly experiences like so many talented poets have done. See John Berryman, Sara Arvio, and Sinead Morrissey, to name a few.

Our dreams inspire us. Many cultures believe dreams are sacred/holy/messages from above/below/somewhere/is that you, uncle Jim? But I’m happy enough to settle on dreams being the way our brain re-sets itself to be ready for another day of being furiously human.

Side Note

I just want interrupt myself to say that you don’t have to journal the way I journal. I think it’s obvious that journaling is an extremely personal process and you can journal any way that you deem fit. But just in case you’re just starting out, or are drawing a blank, I wanted to throw a few ideas out there for those the might need them, and you can tailor your practice to your particular needs.

Okay, to return.

Lines for Poems Past

Oh, these. Even if I have convinced myself that a poem is finished, my brain doesn’t always think so. It sometimes knocks on the door and asks, “Do you have a pen handy? Because BLART!” Blart, of course, being the line of poetry as suggested by brain. I’m pretty sure that’s the technical term for it.

So then you decide to dig up that poem and its resurfacing means much more editing, self-doubt, nail-biting, over-caffeination, and a resulting lack of sleep. Sigh. It’s tough, but that line could change the face of the earth—! And if not the earth, the poem, which is important enough in its own right.

Lines for Poems Future

How many times have I had a great line that I swore to myself that I would remember only to forget it literally seconds later? So. Many. Times. Remember those lines guys. Your future poem-spawn depend on you keeping the fantastic lines that sneak up behind you and hit you in the forehead, or the ones you painstakingly compose in your mind while you’re elbow-deep in dishwater. Make sure it gets into your notebook, even if you write it on a pad and tap it in later.

Alternatively, you could write those random lines onto cue cards, stick them in a bowl, and fish one out when the well is dry. It’s a guarantee you’ll always have a little spark to work with, and sometimes that little spark is all you need.

Mundane to Metaphor

You know, sometimes it’s good to note simple things, things you notice in your daily life that could seem trivial, but if looked at differently, are actually huge. You can craft a wicked poem from the mundane and provide your readers with a revelatory and mind-blowing experience. I’ve seen it done—and maybe have even done it myself. See poems like Cut by Sylvia Plath and Mending Wall by Robert Frost.

Anything and Nothing

I don’t have this one as part of my personal practice, but mention it because I recently had a sneak peek into a friend’s notebook and he had been doing some automatic writing—AKA psychography—which is where a person would hold a pen and move it around a page, but actually let their unconscious/spirits/something else provide content. I like the idea and contemplate trying it, but anticipate getting spooked. (I get spooked.) For more info, read this Wikipedia page.

Journal Entry Brainstorm

I’m going to go into list mode. Here are some things you might find in my notebook.

  • all manner of lists, to do lists, grocery lists, writing supply lists (need those pens!)
  • recipes for things
  • quotes I find helpful
  • cat stickers Emily gave me
  • weird pieces of paper or bits of stuff I don’t know why I like
  • washi tape to hold said weird bits
  • if I made a connection between things I’ve written that share subject matter or tone, and could therefore end up collected into a zine or chapbook, and notes on how each would change each
  • poems
  • doodles of random stuff
  • memories that got triggered for one reason or another
  • words that I like or find curious
  • words to look up to see if I invented them or if they’re real (surprisingly often are real)
  • words in Danish as I’m (slowly) learning the language
  • titles for poems; existing ones or some yet to be written (sometimes the egg comes first)
  • lines of dialogue I have heard/imagined/imagined I heard
  • ideas for fiction; settings, plot points, themes, aristotelean trinities
  • scenes for fiction pieces in progress
  • scenes for fiction pieces that have yet to be fleshed out/written
  • lots about The Story Grid as I’m studying it
  • birthdays I don’t want to forget
  • books to research/borrow/purchase
  • things people say or do that ring, one might call synchronicities (thanks, Jung)
  • notes about novels I am reading (beats, devices, tricks, things I like/dislike, etc)
  • notes on poetic craft/metre and rhyme schemes I’m working on
  • things I don’t understand but want to (stuff to research)
  • something one of the cats did, like yarking on the heater (What is that smell? It’s hot cat yark.)
  • really anything. What did you do today? Do your pants have spots or stripes?

In the End, it’s About Habit…

We humans are creatures of habit and I think by making a conscious decision to write, the more second-nature writing will become until it’s a necessity for some semblance of internal wellbeing. Studies have been done to discover how long it takes to form a habit, and the results are varied and all depends on the type of person you are, which makes perfect sense.

I have gotten to a point that if I don’t do some kind of writing or writing-based activity every single day, I feel off, unbalanced, and not like myself. A journal entry, a blog post, a scene in a fiction piece, a poem, even typing up a scribble. It all counts as far as the habit is concerned.

…But it’s Also About Time and Place

Some writers decide on a specific time to do their work because that is what fits into their schedule. Some—like myself—jot things down on a fairly regular basis and keep their journal on hand throughout their day. Others have been able to detect what time of day they’re at their most performant and work the rest of their lives around that. Are you an early bird, a night owl, or a midday fowl? Find out and use it to your advantage. Also, don’t discredit the possibility that your optimal working time can change. Before I went to university, I was undoubtedly a night owl. I’m finding that after, and as I get older, I have my moments of clarity earlier in the morning, usually while walking or doing something mundane and usual, like making tea and toast.

Wasn’t it William Wordsworth that took long walks in the Grasmere moors to get his mind to the place he needed to be to write? You need two places then; the place your body can physically do the writing, and the place your mind needs to be to do the writing.  I know it sounds complicated, but don’t be intimidated. You can do this.

You might have a specific and cozy location in your home designated for this purpose. You might have a local library or coffee shop that suits the mood. and even when you have what you think is the perfect location, you have to do something to get to “the place”. Read a favourite passage, recite a mantra, doodle on the page to get your pen ready, pretend to play a piano scale, crack your knuckles. Have a thing—and do it. Writers of all levels are going to keep telling you this—DO IT! Do the work.

Find what is best for you. Then—repeat.

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3 Reasons Everyone Should Keep a Journal

In a heated moment of self-reflection, I asked myself a simple question—why do I write in my journal?

This simple question became an inquisition. More questions flooded in—is my drive to write in my journal related to my being human, or with my being a human trying to live the writing life?

It’s a complicated question to be sure, but I think I’ve come up with a decent set of answers. I write in my journal for different reasons that come from different places. If you are reading this article, it must be because you’re thinking about keeping a journal or you already do and are looking for a little inspiration.

This article is going to underline the reasons I think everyone should keep a journal.

Stigma

To some, journaling seems like a silly, useless, or embarrassing thing to do. Others simply say “it’s not for me” or claim that they can’t think of anything to write about.

These excuses don’t work for me, and they shouldn’t work for you, either.

Can’t think of anything to write about?

I would like to think that what people mean when they say this is that they don’t believe that they can think of anything of consequence to write about. Must all your writings be of consequence?

Write about the birds you saw that day, what you’re planning to do at the weekend, or a phrase you heard your co-worker whisper. It doesn’t matter what you write and it doesn’t have to be deep/earth-shattering/completely brilliant. Though that would be nice, wouldn’t it?

“It’s Not For Me”

To contradict the “it’s not for me” argument, writing in a journal is for absolutely everybody, no exclusions. Cats even, but good luck getting that lot to do anything but eat, sleep, get cuddles, and be adorable.

It’s Silly

To speak to the silliness factor, for sure, the things we write in our journals have the potential to be silly, but surely you can allow yourself that freedom? Worst case scenario, there’s always fire. And paper shredders. Or paper shredders and then fire. But not the reverse, that would be an unholy mess.

It’s Embarrassing

If you feel embarrassed writing to a Dear Diary entity, you can write to yourself, to your future self, to your past self, to a friend, to a relative, or to an imaginary person. Or to a dead one. You can write to the universe. You can write to the turtle the world may or may not be balanced upon. You can write to no one. Even the sky is not the limit here. Write to your favourite planet or a star that strikes your fancy.

Some folks get blocked by the very word Diary. My instinct is to call it a journal. You can call it a notebook, and fill it with concert tickets; a grimoire, and fill it with pungent herbs and the blood of your enemies. (Joke. Don’t do the blood of the enemy thing. Do do the writing bit, though).

  • diary
  • journal
  • notebook
  • grimoire
  • logbook
  • notes
  • workbook
  • scrapbook
  • sketchbook (prerequisite: that you can at least draw a stick figure)
  • daybook
  • book
  • booklet
  • book of things
  • Margaret
  • Philadelphia
  • pancake
  • homunculus

Pick a name that doesn’t offend you and get comfortable with it. Hold your notebook. Carry it with you wherever you go. Use it to discreetly scratch your backside while standing on the tube.

It’s Useless

Just no. I can think of many entirely useful reasons why you should be keeping a journal, and I’m not just talking about bum-scratching.

THE REASONS

Self-therapy

The most basic and general reason for keeping a journal is that it’s deeply therapeutic. I believe this so hard that I don’t even know if it’s a cliché. Maybe it is, but bear with me.

Airing of Grievances

Writing in your journal can serve to vent private thoughts that you would rather keep to yourself, whether it be forever or for the time being. Nothing prevents you from talking about them later. Sometimes we have secrets from friends, family, and from the ether of the internet. You’re allowed to have thoughts and feelings that are just for you and no one else. Writing them down releases the tension of the secret and better prepares us for talking and expressing ourselves on the subject in the future if the need should arise.

WE FORGET THINGS

Mediocre Memory

We want to think that our ability to remember things is flawless but the truth is that our brains are not wired to record data like a computer does. Sad but true. But who knows what the future holds for us. (Looking at you, Borg.)

Scientists have done incredible studies to see how and why our memories work the way they do. If I have understood the things I have read on the subject correctly, the idea is that keeping notes is a tool to—not remember things completely mind you—but to improve our ability and capacity to remember things. The act of writing about something you’re listening to or reading provokes a reaction in your brain that can mean you will have an improved remembrance. Having a brain (it helps) + having a language (also helps) + listening/reading + performing an action like writing = strong memories being formed because more centres of your brain are being used in the creation of that memory. I think. I’m not a neuroscientist. Fact-check at your own leisure, but I’m pretty confident about it being accurate.

Life Lessons Through Dreams

Dreams. What are they, even? Do our complicated brains use them as a way to deal with anxieties we would usually repress in waking life? Are our unconscious minds trying to speak to us? Are our Shadow-selves trying to bust in with their two cents? Is someone else? Something else? (Creepy.)

I despise the recurring phenomenon of having an epic dream only to forget it halfway through my porridge, then be really cranky that I didn’t write it down when I had it, then remembering it again in a flash at some other inopportune moment where I am without my writing gear. Moral of the story—write! Keep that memory! Because reading through past dreams can help you think a little bit deeper about yourself, what drives you, and how do deal with myriad joys and anxieties. The path the selfhood is definitely a strange one.

Reflect on Past Thoughts

Reading a notebook you kept once-upon-a-time seems to be a fair way to map personal growth. Did you believe something last year that still holds true? Have you changed since then, and in what way? Is there a thought that you can now recognise as erroneous?

Reflect on Memories

They say long term memory fades with each subsequent recall. That’s a scary thought, yes? There are things that I’ve experienced that I never want to lose, so I write them down. There are things that family members tell me that I want to record, funny stories and anecdotes about things I did as a kid, like that time I broke a really expensive teapot that set off a teapot curse, and that other time I threw up a green apple. (Still can’t eat green apples. Still have teapot curse.)

BECAUSE IT’S COOL

If I can’t convince you that writing in a journal is good for you both emotionally and physically, then I’ll have to resort to peer pressure.

Cool people write in their notebooks. Here is a list of really cool people that keep/have kept notebooks.

  • Einstein
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Isaac Newton
  • Hemingway
  • Emily Dickinson
  • basically every writer in history
  • Marie Curie
  • Hildegard von Bingen
  • basically every musician in history
  • Leonardo Da Vinci
  • Frida Kahlo
  • Emily Carr
  • Picasso
  • basically every artist in history
  • moody babes in films like The Virgin Suicides
  • these celebrities
  • other people that own pens and notebooks

Conclusion—go forth and do the thing.

Also, see this follow-up article—5 Reasons Writers Should Keep a Journal