Library staff member Deanna Larson recently caught up with Australian author Stephanie Dowrick. The following is their fascinating conversation:
Do you remember the first journal you ever wrote in? What did it look like? Did you ever read back over it and what were your feelings about the person you were then?
Like many journal writers, I began writing when I was a teenage girl. I do still have that first journal – a “Dear Diary” kind of book – and am aware of what’s in it without wanting to re-read it I feel great compassion for the girl I was – so unsure despite seeming rather loud and confident on the outside! In retrospect, I am grateful that I was able to pour out some of my true feelings into the accepting space of a journal.
Journaling is an intimate activity, and while we have ultimate control over who will read our journals (if anyone), it can still be difficult to reveal ourselves on the page. Why is that, do you think?
Many people have real difficulty trusting the value of what they write – or genuinely valuing who they are. They may be afraid that the “self” they will discover is not someone they can like. But this is never the case. The distance that journal writing gives allows for compassion as well as insight. And writing ABOUT those fears in your journal, as well as in the face of them, is almost magically helpful.
Often, too, people have been given constraining and misinformed messages about writing at school or college. “Is my writing ‘good enough’?” Journal writing truly can change that also. All the exercises in Creative Journal Writing are designed to silence or address that limiting “inner critic” and to loosen up how the person writes and especially how she or he thinks ABOUT writing so that it becomes a fail-safe and rewarding activity.
The book’s exercises give the new or the experienced journal writer all kinds of opportunities to look at things from a different angle and to ask fresh, sense-focused questions that “wake up” memories or current observations in new and often very surprising ways. This means the journal’s blank pages are not any longer daunting; they can literally become a place of welcome.
It helps a great deal in this “loosening up” phase to draw on the experiences also of other journal writers and that’s also what I am offering here: my own experiences and some wonderful snapshots from others’ experiences. It was so delightful to gather up those stories from a wide range of keen journal writers. I did that through my Universal Heart Network – sending out an S.O. S and getting amazing stories back.
The variety of stories also affirms that there is no “one right way” to write a journal. As I say in the book, discovering YOUR way, is immensely rewarding and very much where the liberation of your creativity comes in. Writing a journal in this way is fresh and original. That always lifts your spirits. It is certainly not the equivalent of painting by numbers or writing to a formula; it is genuinely freeing – even of the way you think.
Why do you think so many people find it difficult to accept the non-judgmental possibility in that “empty page” invitation of a journal? Writing about “nothing” seems the biggest challenge of all! Is it contradictory to give a journal a theme or structure of some kind, like sketches for a short story or essays or other writing forms? If it functions as a “rehearsal” for other writing, does that change or negate its benefits?
Most people are truly unused to situations that are non-judgmental. Even within the privacy of their minds, they may be on 24-hour “watch” from a highly critical point of view. This is a profound issue that has inevitable and often very painful effects on the ways that people think about themselves and connect with other people.
Discovering that it is possible to be observant and self-encouraging rather than ceaselessly judgmental, critical (and anxious), is literally life-changing. It makes a huge difference also to how people perceive and relate to others. You see, with obsessive judgment comes so much painful competitiveness and also a hyper-vigilance about what is wrong, rather than what is right. Gradually this becomes a way of life, rather than living more co-operatively and compassionately with ourselves and others.
These are such big social as well as psychological issues in contemporary life, so it is wonderful to discover that journal writing lets us deal with them gently and with real interest, rather than piling yet more self-criticism on top of those old habits of unhelpful judgement.
I am aware that sometimes people think in rather black and white ways, as though softening their vigilance for what’s wrong will result in non-judgement. In fact, that’s impossible (we are always “judging”) but the question is HOW we do it. We can shift from anxious, critical judgement to lively interest. Rather than finding fault, criticizing, putting down or comparing unfavorably we can instead let ourselves explore, discern, observe deeply, gain insight. This means that rather than endlessly focusing on what is not working or what is not pleasing we look for what’s going well or what we can learn. In other words, we shift from a “putting down” frame of mind to a “building up” frame of mind. This builds gratitude as well as confidence and strength. It is authentically empowering to think and live this way – and journal writing can be your great ally in these discoveries.
“Nothing” is always an illusion, a defense! In the book I offer an explicit exercise that invites the journal writer to give shape, form, memory to “nothing”. This is one of the most powerful exercises the book offers. I have written this book out of many years of experience as a psychotherapist as well as being a writer – and a journal writer – so I am confident how people literally light up when they discover how to move around those usual mind-blocks in positive and inwardly friendly ways.
Some journal writers will choose to focus on the exercises for many months. There are others who use journal writing as a rehearsal or support for more public writing and yet others who use it purely to “vent”. The crucial thing is to understand that journal writing can mean many different things – even at changing times in our own lives. For example, someone may start to write at a time of grief or loss – and then as life becomes less bleak they may want to do more than vent; they may also want to explore relationships, dreams, ideals, or use their journal for left-brain strategic planning. That’s all possible.
You write that “Journal writing will help make you much more actively aware of what underpins your life–and the ceaselessly dynamic relationship between your inner and outer worlds.” How does the activity of journal writing achieve that?
One of the greatest gifts of journal writing is that it allows you to see clearly what is pre-occupying you. Out of countless events “out there” you are choosing to reflect on and write about…what? Many people are astonished to see how narrow their pre-occupations are and how straightforward it can be to use your journal as a means to broaden your horizons, making your life, as well as your reflections on life, so much more interesting.
Do you advocate reading back over a journal, or is the benefit just getting feelings and thoughts down on paper, then letting them go?
Whether someone re-reads their journals is a totally personal choice. This is a “no-rule” zone – and I suggest writing about it in the pages of your journal. Here is an example:
‘I really do want to re-read my journal and what I most want to discover is….”
“I really don’t want to re-read my journal and I suspect it is because….”
Who is your favorite writer and/or journal writer? Why?
I have a number of favorites when it comes to journal writing – but people should remember that published journals are always edited and “tidied up” and will not much resemble your own efforts. Please do not compare – just enjoy the inspiration. I particularly love the journals of May Sarton and Thomas Merton – very different writers but both poets as well as writers, and both capable of observing the exquisite details of everyday life and giving them the same respect and fascination as the literary, political or social questions that they also ponder on the page. Both beautifully exemplify how infinitely rich this modest art (journal writing) really is!
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