A lot of people avoid moments of quiet contemplation for fear they’ll get stuck in them. They don’t see the therapeutic value in journaling. Some writers even discourage the practice, saying that an abstract record of your thoughts won’t enhance your ability to write narrative fiction, but what if journaling could benefit your writing and your state of mind with the right direction?
When I started journaling it looked like I was transcribing the ravings of dizzy man pacing a bus station. I switched from the past tense to the present tense without sensing a disturbance in the time space continuum. I switched from the first person to the second without warning. I started sentences with confusing modifiers. I left my particles to dangle. I was less concerned with good sentence structure as I was with getting my free floating feelings out there.
I was trying to exhaust my mind more than I was trying to get it on paper. These entries read more fatalistically than I’d intend. I used too many hyperboles to describe my situation. It was hard to tell when I was exaggerating. I left the page feeling more scattered brained then when I’d started. It felt like I was pouring my thoughts into a bucket with a hole in it.
I realized I’d need to come up with some strategies if I was going to write anything worth rereading.
I’ve written a lot about how chaos in a writer’s personal life can negatively impact their fiction, but I’ve yet to write about how writing can improve your state of mind. The best way to keep your imagination from turning on you is to give it something to do. The more structured the thought process the better. Here are some of my tricks.
How to Journal to Enhance Memory
If I’m journaling in the immediate aftermath of a life event I write like a police reporter jotting down the facts first and the artistic observations second. I’m less concerned with setting up the atmosphere or capturing the subtle nuances of interpersonal interactions.
I’m not ashamed to use exposition to skim over things. This type of writing is less about telling a narrative as it is keeping my recollection intact. I don’t clog these stories with commentary is because I know I have tendency to get lost in a tangent before capturing the event.
If I want to turn one of these entries into something worth publishing, I’d have to go back, fill in the details, choose more evocative language, and hone my voice.
How to Journal to Draw Out Tangible Emotional Conclusions
If I’m journaling to understand a complex emotion I ground my thoughts by attaching them to a theme. This means I have to do a little bit of work before I put pen to paper, but that work makes all the difference between a destructive journal entry and a productive one.
For instance, if I were to write about how negative influences trounce my artistic ambitions I could open with a story about swimmers at the beach walking through sand castles because they don’t see the point of them. This image gives me something to go back to when I get stuck. It gives me a palate of beach-centric metaphors to draw from.
By following this through line I can use all of the flowery language I want so long as what I’m listing is consistent with the theme.
Maybe these emotional revelations weren’t triggered by a life event, but I might draw from one of my experiences as a metaphor for the emotion. I’ll recall a story about the first time I was bullied and how that forced me to see the world differently. I’ll build on that by talking about how negative influences can set my worldview askew.
Wrap around stories are excellent tools for directing complex cognition and ensuring you remember your late night revelations. They also make your journals worthier of publication.
How to Use a Journal to Settle an Argument about a Major Life Event
If you don’t feel like getting poetic take your journal in the opposite direction. Open with a thesis statement. Make a claim that’s focused and debatable. If your claim is too broad you’re just going to go off on a tangent. If your claim is too certain then it’s going to be a very short journal entry.
You’re going to be both the affirmative and the negative in this debate. Lay out the key terms associated with your claim. This will be the palette you draw from throughout the document.
Present why the claim could be true. What data has life experience given you to support it? Present why the thesis might not be true. What are the flaws in your argument Rather than editing your logical fallacies, call them out as they come. Poke holes in your reasoning.
Try to figure out if the affirmative and negative sides of the claim are arguing more from reason or emotion. Then ask yourself which matters more to you in that moment. If you’re journaling about a major life decision weigh the costs, the benefits, and the short term rewards against your long term goals.
Now present your closing arguments. It’s important that you don’t just write until you’re exhausted. Write with the intention of completing your thought. This will make this document something worthy of rereading or maybe even sharing.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have too much time to think and your daydreams turn destructive try using composition as a form of meditation. If the devil on your shoulder keeps questioning your self worth write his argument down and debate it. If you’re haunted by a life event jot it down and deconstruct it. If you’re tired of having the same thought on the tip of your tongue try spitting it out on paper. You might just give yourself a metaphor worth using later.
A journal shouldn’t just be a list of “I want” statements, like a text based wish board, nor should it be a dumping ground for rhetorical questions like, “Why is this happening to me?” or “What was I thinking?” It should be a tool for self organization, a way to advance the plot of your life. With just a little bit of structure and direction you’ll be able to write yourself a map worth following.
This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.