Journaling through hard times

Diana M. RaabOur contributor this week, award-winning writer and teacher Diana Raab, shares her thoughts on how journaling can help one get through tough times. I found her column inspiring and uplifting. I particularly liked her suggestions for getting started.

Diana M. Raab, MFA, RN is the editor of Writers and Their Notebooks, a collection of essays by distinguished writers who journal, including Sue Grafton, Kim Stafford, Dorianne Laux, John DuFresne, James Brown and Michael Steinberg, to name a few. We recently read, enjoyed, and revisited it. She is also the author of the critically-acclaimed memoir Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal. Her second memoir, Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey  is a self-help book that also offers journaling exercises for other survivors. It is being published this month by Loving Healing Press. Diana’s work has also been published in numerous literary magazines and is widely anthologized. She has one poetry book, My Muse Undresses Me, and two poetry collections, Dear Anais: My Life in Poems For You, the winner of the 2009 Next Generation Indie Award for Poetry, and the newly-released The Guilt Gene.
Here’s Diana’s essay:
When life takes an unexpected turn, writing can become your best friend. Journaling is a process of self-discovery and a cathartic way to spill your feelings onto the page.
In the journaling classes I teach, I remind students that their journal entries are not graded content for style. What they write is for their eyes only, and they should write whatever comes to mind. I also stress there is no “right” or “wrong” way to journal.
As a professional writer, all my story and book ideas began on the pages of my journal. My most recent book, Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey, describes in a wry and inspirational tone, my breast cancer experience and then five years later being diagnosed with a rare form of bone marrow cancer, multiple myeloma. Writing was my lifeline then and during other difficult times in my life. My journal became my best friend and confidant. In my book, I was thrilled to include blank journaling pages and prompts to inspire my readers to do their own writing. Being given a health diagnosis doesn’t have to turn your life black. Chronicling your experience can turn a negative into a positive, and in my book I emphasize to my readers that negative experiences, although overwhelming at first, can rivet you to make positive changes in your life.
It’s important to know that unless you are a professorial writer or have plans to publish, your journal is for your eyes only. When teaching high-risk teens, I remind them that, when they write in their journals or private notebooks, it’s not like doing a school assignment where you’re penalized for incorrect spelling and grammar. It’s your place and you can write about wherever your heart is pulled to. Writing without parameters is very liberating and allows creative juices to flow freely and honestly.
James Pennebaker, the author of Writing to Heal, once said in a seminar: “Writing dissolves some of the barriers between you and others. If you write, it’s easier to communicate with others.”
Some people write their observations of the world in journals. Alexandra Johnson, in her book Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal, says, “If I could keep only two journals, it would be the ‘observing the world’ journal and a journal of gratitude.”
In the tradition of Quaker diaries, Oprah Winfrey has long kept a daily gratitude journal. “I have kept a journal since I was 15 years old,” she has said. “As I’ve grown older, I have learned to appreciate living in the moment.” At night, she lists a minimum of five things she’s grateful for – no matter how small. She says it’s been instrumental in her success: “What it will begin to do is change your perspective of your day and your life. I believe that if you can learn to focus on what you have, you will always see that the universe is abundant.”
Whether you’re affected by loss or pain or simply want to write because it makes you feel better, finding the time to write is critical to your mental health. Turning to journaling during difficult times is a healthy alternative, and it could inspire you to enjoy the lifelong habit of journaling. But you can also journal during good times and on an as-needed basis. Writing from a deep place is often about your relationship with yourself. The more comfortable you are with yourself, the easier it will be. Part of this involves trusting your wisdom, intuition, and heart. If you do this, your true inner voice will emerge.
It’s also important you don’t feel pressure to journal when you really don’t want to. If you find that a set routine is not for you, you can always carry your journal with you, and write when inspiration strikes. No matter when you decide to journal, you’ll soon find out what an empowering and healthy habit it can be. Try it, and you’ll see!
How to Start:
Buy a journal which resonates with you
Buy a pen which is comfortable in your hand
Date your entries
Find a safe and quiet place to journal
Start writing for 15 to 20 minutes the same time each day
Write without editing or censoring your thoughts
Some Prompts to Try:
Write about your very earliest memory
Write about a recent emotional upheaval
Write about your obsessions
Write about what you are grateful for
Write about a grandparent
Write about a place you love