A box of spiral-bound notebooks and colorful journals collected dust in my closet for years, most of their pages blank. Whenever I faced one of life’s inevitable turning points — relationship turmoil, career burnout, another birthday — I bought a new one. I would spill my emotions onto the clean white pages nightly at first, until I inevitably skipped a day, then a week, and eventually lost interest. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking,” the best-selling author Joan Didion said in her 1976 New York Times essay, “Why I Write.” So do I.
When I retired from my business career, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do or who I wanted to become. I plucked a faded red cloth-bound diary from the box and began to write my next chapter.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron outlines a process she calls “morning pages.” I followed her advice to write three pages in longhand every morning. I wrote without editing or self-judgment. I wrote about what I saw from my window as the sun rose or the rain fell. I captured the strange dreams I’d had the night before. I pulled the pen across the page and complained about my partner or the news headlines. I wrote endless lists of what I could or should be doing and the many things I would have done differently.
I completed Cameron’s 12-week program, and then I kept writing. With every page, I felt better about my present and more confident about my future. The “woulds,” “coulds” and “shoulds” became fewer and farther between. My mind grew calmer, and perhaps my body benefitted too.
Several studies have demonstrated that a writing practice can help us cope with the health impacts of stress. In 2005, research published in the Journal of Health Psychology linked “expressive writing” to decreases in blood pressure. A 2012 study in The Irish Journal of Psychology followed a group of recovering heart attack patients who wrote about their thoughts and feelings for 20 minutes, three days a week. After three months, the patients showed a “positive impact on [their] health-related quality of life.”
I can attest to that. Whether I write from a cozy chair by a crackling fire or scribble ideas while waiting in line at the DMV, getting my thoughts onto a page lightens the load of carrying them on my mind — or in my heart.
It’s easy to start a writing practice but more challenging to maintain it over time. Here are a few tips to keep you going.
- Use a pen and notebook you love. The tactile, expressive, sloppy nature of writing longhand is excellent for expressing emotions. Nothing matches the forceful scratch of a pen underlining a phrase and adding three exclamation points!!!
- Write first thing in the morning. Your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which drives willpower and creativity, fires best during and immediately after sleep. The part of us that wants to judge and criticize is still drowsy and more easily avoided.
- Reward yourself. End every entry with an affirmation, give yourself a sweet treat, or do what I do: Add a pretty sticker to your calendar for every completed entry. It’s silly, but it works.
- Write freely. Don’t stop to edit. Keep the hand going. Explore. Try poetry. Draw a little sketch. Use colored pencils to illustrate your mood. Write about what joy feels like, or describe the last time you cried.
- Connect with other writers. Journaling is for your eyes only. But if you enjoy the practice of writing and would like to share your work and learn from others, join a writing group. Science teaches us that social connections help boost brain power as we age and can even improve longevity. Research published by the British Association of Counseling and Psychotherapy in 2020 showed that creative writing groups supported well-being in adults 65 and over “by providing a unique space in which participants feel acknowledged, accepted, challenged and inspired.” At the age of 60, I already feel the benefits.
Anne Lamott sums up this benefit perfectly in her bestseller on writing, Bird by Bird. As she observes: “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored.”
I signed up for a women’s writing workshop, wanting to learn more about the craft. There were lessons on narrative arc and dialogue, but what I found most valuable was the profound feeling of connection in writing, and sharing our work, with a group. I was late for my first writing workshop. Tiptoeing across creaky pine floorboards to an empty chair, I whispered an apology. The other women kept tapping and scribbling furiously, heads bent over laptops and notebooks. I expected a long day of quiet, solo writing.
Instead, the hours flew by. The workshop leader gave us prompts, and we’d write for 30 minutes. Then we shared what we’d just written. As each of us read aloud, we nodded, chuckled, wiped away tears and applauded ourselves and each other for the effort it takes to voice our feelings, to share what Lamott calls “the absurdity of life.” All of us writers do feel better for having put our emotions into words.
Do any of you keep a journal? How long have you kept one? Let us know in the comments below.