How to Cultivate a Journaling Practice (and stick to it)
“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.”
-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
I have been journaling off and on and in different forms for most of my life. Ever since I could correctly hold a pencil, I have found some way of documenting both the significant and the seemingly insignificant details of my own life. There are two entire shelves in the closet of my childhood bedroom in Minneapolis completely stuffed with spiral-bound, college-ruled notebooks and the occasional fancy boutique-style diary, holding archives of my past selves and hundreds of intricate yet unfinished stories.
While there may be plenty of stereotypes in movies and series portraying young girls scribbling shallow nothings under the heading “dear diary,” I have always, in fact, found journaling to be the opposite of shallow. It is a way of exploring the depths of ourselves and helps to shape and strengthen our individual voices. I find that there is something about getting thoughts from pen to paper that makes them more tangible and therefore easier to untangle and work through. I write largely in order to fully realize my own feelings and as a way to learn how to express them more clearly and articulately.
For me, the importance of writing every day comes down to gaining a certain kind of awareness. Finding time to jot down just a couple thoughts, moments, or images from the day gives one pause to reflect on the details and tease out the extraordinary from the ordinary. Within this, I often discover new inspiration for projects and choreography or for things that I want to talk about with you all in this space. A journal gives one a personal tool to practice active mindfulness and creative expression, all without the pressure of public presentation. It is a canvas for splattering ideas and notions without any formal structure. Anne Lamott said in her incredible writer’s manifesto, Bird by Bird,
“Clutter and mess show us that life is being lived...Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation... Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist's true friend.”
Journals, diaries, and daily sketch books are all places for us to be our messy selves without anyone else peeking in and judging the clutter- a practice in anti-perfectionism.
The hardest part, however, is forming and keeping the habit of writing every. single. day. I have gone through so many phases of beginning a new journal, cracking open that first page and thinking “this is the one- I am going to stick with this practice forever” and eventually it fizzles out because I feel like I have nothing left to say or my hand cramps up. However, I am currently on a four-month streak (not much I suppose, but longer than a lot of habits I've attempted) and so far, I see no sign of stopping in the near future.
Part of it is simply making the determined decision, I am going to do this every day, and holding yourself accountable. Along with that initial motivation, there are some other tricks and tidbits that I have kept in mind that helped me to cultivate this daily routine and really stick with it this time around. I thought I would pass them on to you, in hopes that it might inspire your own journaling practice:
1. Do not feel like you have to write a lot, or even write at all.
Sometimes a single articulate sentence will do.
Perhaps you create a cloud of words that sums up your current state of mind, a list of random objects around you, a haiku, or maybe a drawing that best expresses the inside of your head. Do not put limits on what you can do, but also don’t feel like you need to overextend. Take the pressure to Write with a capital W off of yourself before you even begin.
2. Pick one journal that looks right to you and keep it somewhere where you will remember to use it.
I usually keep mine on my bedside table so that if by the end of the day I haven’t quite gotten around to it yet, I see it there and remember to scribble some thoughts down before sleeping. I do take my journal with me when I travel, but if I happen to be out and about and want to add something, I jot it onto a piece of paper and later slip it into an envelope that I glued into the back of the book.
3. Use it as an explorational tool.
It doesn’t always have to reveal your deepest, darkest secrets to be considered a diary or journal- feel free to write an equal amount of random fluff along with those earth-shattering revelations.
4. Make it multi-media.
Collage, paint, add old ticket stubs, postcards, or pretty chocolate wrappers (something I do frequently).
Rediscover your inner artistic child and make a beautiful mess. The whole process should be as creative and fun as possible.
5. Create a monthly ritual.
Try setting mini-goals and intentions for yourself once a month or create another kind of regular writing practice that you include in the journal on a regular basis. Whether it is a list of things you want to accomplish, words you would like to embody, or just some self-reminders to hold onto as you move forward. It helps to have a practice within the practice to watch and mark your individual growth.
6. Just start.
Don’t wait until you have a fancy diary, the perfect set of pens, or even the perfect idea.
Dive in, find your own style, and run wild with it.