Writing a Diary Saved My Life
Imagine getting to the end of your life and there's no record of who you are, where you've been, no trace of the range of emotions, feelings you've experienced at various points or stages of your life. What if your memory slowly melted into candy floss, too soft to recall the intricate, sometimes simple and other times significant details of your past life? Leaving you without hard evidence and data of what you've lived through, the obstacles you'd overcome and the success you'd achieved over the years? A point brought home in an advert I clipped out of a magazine for an arts programme, which read, "every time a woman dies a library of books goes up in flames."
Diary writing and journal keeping has been a practice that has survived across centuries and generations. From the royal courtesans of the Japanese courts in the 10 th century, explorers, writers, homemakers and politicians have been fascinated with the idea of keeping regular accounts of their lives from internal and external observational points of view.
A factor also evidenced in the famous diaries of the French writer Anais Nin and the historian and archivist Samuel Pepys - who preserved some of the best first-hand accounts of the fire of London in 1666. Also, less well known diaries and slave narratives which humanized the slaves through the political act of writing their own life-affirming narratives of surviving the humilities of slavery.
I'm a member of the growing tribe of journal writers and have kept a journal for the last 26 years and at the last count I had almost 100 journals and notebooks in my archives. Writing in my journals has staved off a deep descent into depression, repaired and healed the raw pieces of a broken heart and helped to curb several encounters with addictions. It's also a practice that offers reflection and illumination into my work as a coach, trainer and facilitator. Several studies cite how handwriting generates creative ideas and helps to get to what's important. My motto and belief is that, “writing changes lives and lives are changed by writing."
Journals can be used in many different creative ways and forms, from venting about the rage you may have felt about a past or present experience, siphoning off feelings that may well get spilled and leaked onto the wrong individuals and often at inappropriate times. We know from the schools of therapy and psychology that unresolved feelings from our pasts can have a negative impact in the present. A factor highlighted in a seminal piece of research carried out by professor James Pennebaker at the University of Texas. His research in 1987 and subsequent research found that writing about a traumatic event for 15 minutes for four consecutive days generated improved psychological, physical and emotional benefit on a range of different levels. It was also found to have an influence on how we behave towards and around other people.
There's a freedom associated with keeping a personal journal – no need to censor or worry about spelling, grammar or punctuation. Every thought, feeling and emotion is permitted.
I refer to my journal writing practice as a concept I'm now introducing into my work. As a new therapeutic tool, it's inexpensive, affordable and accessible in terms of it's easiness to perform in just about in any location as well as being accessible across class, race, age, gender and even disability.
Writing in a journal is no longer reliant on a particular standard and command of literacy. For those whom English is not a first language writing in your first language is positively encouraged. It's a space to explore dreams and aspirations. Artists, entrepreneurs, business people fill notebooks and journals with ideas and concepts with many coming to fruition. British designer Paul Smith writes in one, and so does business mogul Richard Branson.
For others journals evolve into a paper museum of images, objects and encounters of daily life; recipes, clippings, photos, snatched quotes and sketches all find a home amongst the journal or notebook pages. We are literally creating our own recorded histories or (her)stories on the page.
One writer I interviewed explained how she blue tacs small exquisite paintings that she calls "visual medicine" into the pages of her large A4 journals and uses the painting as prompts for writing about what she is noticing and feels. Journals can help crystallize ideas, clarify thoughts, generate new ideas and perspectives and be a safe space to siphon off difficult and negative emotions and feelings.
If you're new to journal writing getting started might feel overwhelming. Writing prompts, which are either one word or a sentence are designed to entice to you onto the page and give you something to write about.
Try these out:
What am I feeling right now?
What have I discovered about myself this last month?
What do I really, really want?
What am I not saying, or paying attention to right now?
Writing and reflecting about an event or an experience
Drawing or doodling as you think and make connections
Starting with a prompt and writing for as little as 5 minutes will often lead to you naturally writing for longer
One technique is to write as fast as you can without stopping that way your inner censor won't keep up with you. And once you've started feel free to write off topic. One would have expected that with the rise of the Internet and the digital online world that keeping paper journals or diaries would be on a decline. In fact recent research has found that a whopping 83 per cent of girls aged 16-19 archive their lives in a private notebook.
One could argue that with the rise of social media and the public declaration of our lives online has intensified the need to protect and safeguard the private space and sanctuary a journal or notebook offers. A journal or notebook is a safe space to be yourself away from the prying eyes of the rest of the world. Consider your journal your own private library with twenty-four hour access, filled with words of your own making, where only you may enter.