A clinical psychologist looks at this free, under-rated creative practice
I started writing this “BC” (Before Covid), with the intent of exploring how writing can influence our personal development. It has since taken on a different shape and significance.
I’ve found journaling to be an invaluable tool during these exceptional times, particularly in processing the changes that are rapidly unfolding around us, and reflecting on my own learnings from these challenges.
Journaling is a vastly under-rated practice. Absolutely free, it can be done almost anywhere. It’s been one of my top tools as a psychologist over the years. I started doing my own morning journaling after it was assigned as a task during a writing course. It is a practice that was made popular after Julia Cameron included it in her book The Artist’s Way, where she called it the Morning Pages. According to Cameron, it is an activity that can help with artist’s or writer’s block, but journaling has also been prescribed by therapists and coaches for many years.
Benefits of journaling … why we need it now.
Of course, this is the main way writing serves as a therapeutic tool. Sometimes people aren’t around to help us talk through an issue, and sometimes we face problems we don’t even like to admit to people. Writing gives us the ability to create a private space for these thoughts, and having the space to write about them and perhaps analyse them from a different angle can give us some clarity. Frustrations related to working at home, worry about vulnerable friends or family still going to the shops, or even concern regarding the larger situation may be things you wish to keep private, but they are still there all the same. Think of writing as venting or even “sweating out” your worries or concerns.
By getting them on paper, it can help us process these thoughts or feelings and “stare them down”. In this way, these issues are less likely to manifest as obstacles down the line.
It helps problem-solve
Building on the above, sometimes the very act of writing something down can help us see a way through. Some find it helpful to write the pros and cons of a situation, or list out potential solutions to navigating an obstacle or difficult situation. It can also helpful to “map out” what personal attributes you’d like to exude in the face of the problem. Who would you like to be in this situation that is true to your authentic self? What values can serve as a compass in the situation, and what strengths can you draw from?
The ritual of writing can be very grounding, relaxing and comforting, particularly during times of uncertainty. It can also become a habit that is incorporated into a routine or even help to bookend your schedule. Make it into a ritual that you really love — perhaps journal with your favourite mug and a really good coffee, or buy yourself some beautiful notebooks. You could do it in bed in the morning, luxuriating a little longer before hitting the day, or unwinding before you go to sleep. It really is an activity that you can tailor to suit you, and one that can stay with you throughout your life, perhaps helping you chart how your own personal development changes with your age and experiences.
It takes a little time, but as you write daily you may notice themes, patterns, habits, and values emerging in your writing. It could be that your thoughts continuously turn to a certain situation or person, or that you notice that you are harbouring resentments but never able to say them out loud. This type of noticing also gives us insight into our own habits and patterns, for example if we are drinking more than we’d like or spending too much time on social media. Certain values might also emerge; the things are important to us — like fairness or creativity — might be important sides to our personal brand. Even if you don’t go back and read your journal you can often pick these themes up by noticing “oh I’m writing about that again.”
“Morning pages map our own interior.
Without them our creative dreams may remain terra incognita.” Julia Cameron
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron cites many stories of people who have changed their lives by writing the Morning Pages, such as a man who took up the guitar after years of not playing.
Even if you’ve never thought of yourself as creative, you may notice that a little creativity starts trickling in. You might start off by writing about mundane things like downloading all the bits and pieces you are going to do that week, but end up writing a little narrative, or a silly poem about the bloke you fancy. Just roll with it and have some fun.
Of course, if you are being deliberately creative, like writing a book, journaling activities like the Morning Pages can be a great way to “warm up” your creative muscle, and even create content without even trying. As I prefer to write in Word, I sometimes cut and paste anything I think has merit and relevance into my book document. And presto, I may have written another couple of hundred words I could use in my manuscript before the day has really begun (this is more of a by-product than an intention!).
Journaling How Tos:
There are no hard and fast rules, apart from following what feels right for you.
As mentioned, I personally prefer journaling in a Word document, however others prefer a notebook or plain paper, with pens, pencils, fell pens, etc. Julia Cameron’s suggestion is that the Morning Pages be written by hand as she believes the very physical act of the hand on the page helps unleash creativity. Others might prefer using journaling Apps, of which there are a number: Momento, Daylio, Grid Diary, Moodnotes, Penzu and Five Minute Journal, and even one called Morning Pages!
You can save it (and read at a later date if you desire), or you can just do it and chuck it away.
You can journal in the morning, like me, which gives you space to contemplate the day, process events the day before, or even process dreams. I find it helpful to avoid news, email or social media before writing. I write off the top of my head, downloading any brain chatter in more of a “stream of consciousness” approach.
You can just as easily journal in the evening, as a reflection on your day, or midday when you have some fee time during your lunch break.
Some like to start writing for a set amount of time, words, or pages, and don’t stop until they reach their goal. This is a helpful guideline, but not a hard and fast rule.
Lastly, it doesn’t matter if you write utter garbage, as this is meant for your eyes only — and it’s the process that’s valuable, not necessarily the output. Don’t worry about spelling mistakes, formatting or grammar if you don’t want to. You can do what you like, perhaps even doodling in your notebook, adding illustrations or a mind-map if you like.
Exercise: Trying on the Morning Pages
Write as close to waking up as you can manage, preferably before you engage with the outside world through news, emails, or social media. Decide beforehand how and where you are going to do your writing and what your measure or target is going to be, if you have one. Scribble down (or type out) whatever comes to your mind, even if you think it’s just dribble. Try not to go back and re-read or edit your work.
If needed, some writing prompts might include:
- What can you observe around you in the present moment?
- What are you feeling and/or thinking?
- What are you worried about?
- What did you dream last night?
- What are you grateful for?
- What did you do yesterday?
- What are you planning to do today?
- What are you looking forward to?
Commit to doing it for at least a week. You may be surprised by the results!
Whatever shape your writing takes at the moment, you might find that it not only becomes a great coping tool, for the present, but also a real gift to yourself for the future.
So keep calm and write on, everyone!