More than you know: Why and how to start journaling

treasure chestThis is an edited version of my “All Write!” column in the Rutland Herald, published January 29, 2016

The most compelling reason to write as far I’m concerned is the ability to access a great wealth of knowledge about yourself.

Dr. Ira Progoff, who is considered the grandfather of personal journaling due to his development of the Intensive Journal method in the 1950s which he introduced to the world in the book, “At a Journal Workshop,” in 1975, wrote:

(Wo)Man does indeed know more than (s)he rationally understands. … (journaling) is a way to connect with the knowledge beyond understanding.

In other words, we’re smarter than we may think! Any artist, writer, designer, inventor, entrepreneur or anyone who has ever had an idea, an inspired thought, an intuition or a gut feeling float or jump into their consciousness from seemingly nowhere knows there are deeper depths than our intellect — knowledge that is beyond what we knew we knew.

prompt bookmark single_Page_2Journaling, or free-flow writing, that is not focused on a perfectly structured sentence, nice handwriting, or even “nice” language, allows the writer to access creativity and intuitive knowledge that thinking too much — i.e. self-censoring — can block.

I believe, as Dr. Progoff did, that we have all the answers inside us and writing is a way to access those answers. When you start writing from a prompt, such as “I am feeling…” things will come out that may be unexpected. Journal workshop attendees invariably say, “I didn’t know I was going to write that,” or “I don’t know where that came from!”

In our technological, left-brained, prove-it-to-me society, intuition and connection with our inner self has been lost. We are not taught to trust self. However, writing (as well as other creative activities such as drawing, dancing, etc.) allows us to discover our inner workings. Through “thoughtless” writing (quickly without thinking) we can write down things we did not know that we knew.

Kay Adams, founder of Center for Journal Therapy, writes that her journal is the “.79 cent therapist” in which you can “scream, whimper, thrash, wail, rage, exult, foam, celebrate.” And if that isn’t enough, in a study by Dr. J.W. Pennebaker it was proven through blood tests that writing for only 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days increases your immunity for six weeks! The writers also reported fewer visits to the doctor for stress-related illnesses. Now that’s impressive!

So you want to start a journal? But you’re not sure how to begin? Or what you would write? Or afraid it will become just another unchecked item on your to-do list?

You don’t have to be a “writer” to journal. This isn’t the writing you learned in school — no one will be grading or judging you. Spelling, handwriting and grammar have nothing to do with it. It is purely the action of putting pen to paper and letting your subconscious flow.

Writing a journal need not be a huge time commitment. You can write for as little as five minutes (your gratitude, for example) once a day, week, month, year.

Journaling does not have to be one particular style of writing; it can be anything from lists to doodles to mind-maps to poems to stream-of-consciousness flow writing. There are no rules on what constitutes a journal.

“But what do I write?” you ask. Start with who you are. That should be easy! Here’s your prompt to get started:

I am…

So, if you want to begin expressing your private thoughts and accessing your internal dialogue, do not be afraid of the page. Just let your pen go — don’t think, just write. For five minutes. That’s all it takes to get you started. Find yourself a new notebook, blank book, even a cocktail napkin, and a smooth flowing pen and a comfy place to sit (your car in the carpool line?) and just begin.

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A Path to Publication, pt 15: An editor is your friend

I try to shake loose my mind, so something fresh can fall out… This process acts like a sifter—sand falls through and bright nuggets come to light.

–Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning

In my last post I wrote about the struggle I was having with a particular essay. Every tweak made it seem even more hopeless—it was still crap. This Facebook post sums up how I was feeling at that time:

If I didn’t know I’d regret it highly, I’d figuratively rip this essay into a million pieces and forget submitting anything, anywhere, ever.

Well, I am happy and extremely relieved to say, after finally letting it sit percolating for almost two weeks, the essay is finished and submitted to the magazine. And I am also beyond happy to say: It was good.

Yes, eventually, it got good. I could claim to be a writer again. Phew.

How did this happen? Well, Anne LaMott was right (of course), you really do need to let it sit. But, as Anne also says, it is essential to write that “shitty first draft” and, believe me, my first (and second and third…) draft was incredibly shitty. (And reeeeaaaally long.)

Why? If I’m a good writer shouldn’t I just know what constitutes should be in a piece and what needs to be left out? How things best flow and what theme should run throughout? No, not at first. That’s what revising and editing are for. First drafts are for just getting it out. Getting out of your head and heart what you need to express. Some of these things may never see light of day beyond your journal or computer screen but out they must come. As Shrek says, “Better out than in…”

Here’s how one of my friend-editors put it:

By writing this piece over and over again, you finally got out of your system how you wanted it to go, and let it tell you why you were writing it and what it was really about.

Which brings me to the subject of editors.

I knew someone a long time ago, an artist who struggled with self-confidence issues. This person was a good artist but, as is the case for anyone practicing a craft (even if it’s practicing the “craft” of living) having a mentor could have been helpful. My friend wanted nothing to do with it, I believe because he felt it implied he wasn’t good enough to do it alone.

There are writers like this, those who think their natural talent is enough. But let me tell you, having a mentor/editor or a group of such, is essential to your growth as a writer.

My main editor-friend is a gift to me. She is honest in her critique but generous in her praise. She willingly plowed through version after version I sent her, gently coaching and coaxing me. With her guidance I dug through the dirt to find the gems.

At times I didn’t take particular suggestions because they didn’t sit right with me intuitively–when I felt it was straying too far from what I knew was my truth. Together with an editor, you get to sift through all the unneeded “stuff.” And ultimately, after letting the essay rest for a while, my full truth flowed far easier and authentically because I’d already played with the muck around the edges and the gems were more obvious.

I also sent my work-in-progress to two other writerly friends to have it seen by other eyes and new perspectives. Their feedback was invaluable too. They too were honest in their comments when something didn’t quite work for them and supportive with their positive feedback. Their joyful (almost proud-motherish) reactions to the final draft was validating and humbling.

Writing this particular essay was difficult. It was a personal narrative about a painful part of my past. Bringing it to fruition was akin to a hard labor and birth. But my main midwife-editor and assistant doula-readers guided me through it, not undermining my ability with their presence and advice, but supporting and fostering it.

Once again, I thank you, Jen, Gabriella, and Jennifer!

Yes! I Will Speak

From http://sensualblissvoyager.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/throat-vishuddha-chakra/

I stumbled across this poem today that I wrote two years ago during grad school. I don’t remember writing it and it’s far from the best poetry ever written. But it’s fierce, and I like it.

Yes, I will speak my truth although you tell me it’s not true
Yes, I will cry even though it forces you to touch your own frozen tears
Yes, I will yell when my chest hurts from holding on too tight
Yes, I will breathe into my belly and find my own creation there
Yes, I will tell you how I feel even when it doesn’t fit the shape you have molded for me
Yes, I will say what I need and I will do it even if sometimes it is not best for those I love
Yes, I will allow my body to speak to me not just to yours
Yes, I will move with rhythms of the earth not your man-made march
Yes, I will love with my presence as well as my body
Yes, I will be fierce when I, or others, are wronged
Yes, I will sing when I am sad, full of joy, and searching for inner peace
No, I will not be silent to ease your dis-ease
Yes, I will release the wisdom caught in the web of your lies, told to centuries of my mothers
Yes, I will shout the words lodged in my throat
Yes, I will speak
And, yes, and you will hear.

Prompt: “Yes, I will…”

Stop striving. Start listening.

This is a follow-up to this post: On a mission (statement)
credit: Joanna Tebbs Young

credit: Joanna Tebbs Young

I’ve written of Serendipity and Synchronicity before. There have been many examples of it in my life, such as the time two women showed up to one of my workshops out of the blue. It “just happened” that these two women were from the very organization I had been trying to connect with the previous week but from whom I had, frustratingly, received no response. Turned out they had never received my email, but had picked up one of my brochures and felt my work was perfect for their organization.

These occurrences always seem to happen right after I have had an emotional break-down of epic proportions. Crying. Blubbering about giving up. Despairing. Wondering how I will ever make things work.

You see, I forget. Every. Single. Time: I can’t make things work. I get caught up in trying too hard, striving, driving to do and be more. Without even realizing it I do this. It’s an unconscious thing.

Instead, I have to remember to allow things to happen organically. I have to be open to possibilities. And above all, I must be authentic and truthful with myself.

So, here is the latest series of synchronous events.

First, I have been trying to find work in a particular industry for a while. Reason being: it seemed the only possibility for any real money. However, even as I was pursuing it my gut was saying to my brain, “Hey, up there! I’m not so sure about this!” But I kept pushing anyway.

One meeting that made me feel a little ill, then another. But still I put together proposals and hoped for the best.

Then, one day, during a writing exercise (as described here), I realized I had it all wrong. This wasn’t what I wanted to do. Instead I created a new mission statement.

As soon as I did that, I felt clearer.

And things began to happen.

1. The director of an art center asked me if I’d like to teach a summer workshop for teen girls. As my graduate research was focused on the loss of voice experienced by girls at adolescence and how expressive writing can help reclaim it, this is a perfect fit for me. I put together a proposal (one that didn’t prompt my stomach to yell at my brain).

2. During a conversation around this same time, someone pondered if my work might be a good fit for enrichment classes in independent schools, for which this person had quite a few connections. I thought “That sounds exciting. Maybe so…” and filed the idea away. Until…

3. While putting together the art center’s summer class proposal I was asking for some wording input from parents of teen girls. This prompted one mother to suggest I put in a proposal for an enrichment class at her daughter’s independent school. Because I already had a proposal in the works, I was able to tweak it and send it off immediately.

4. Because I now had a proposal specific to an enrichment class I could now contact the person who had suggested enrichment classes to me the previous weekend and say, “Hey, hook me up with your connections!” That person asked if I had a flier she could give out. Well…

5. I had that very day been designing one. As soon as I created my new mission statement a couple of weeks ago, I had decided I needed to put together a new flier. With this additional, potential audience in mind I re-worked it slightly and soon it will go to print.

6. Meanwhile, I discovered a conference, for which I registered, is coming to a neighboring town focused on mentoring young women, and I was just asked, thanks to a recommendation from a wellness director at one college, to run my intro to journaling workshop for students at another college.

Trust. It is a difficult, difficult thing to do, especially when the bills are piling up and walls seem more numerous than open doors. But I believe it is these walls and road blocks that signal you’re not on quite the right path, often it’s close to the right one, but if it’s slightly off, you will get the message. The Universe likes focused aim with the target being your authentic passion.

Eve Ensler said in one video (I apologize I’m not sure which one), and I paraphrase: Happiness is action… and giving away what you want the most.

I felt silenced as a young girl (and not so young) woman/person. I want to be heard. I want a voice. This is what I want to give to other people. Once I articulated what it was I wanted and needed and really heard myself say it then things began to click into place.

I have no idea where, if anywhere, any of these recent events will lead, but it feels like a step forward through an open door, instead of trying to smash through a wall.

Prompt: I’m trying too hard to… What I really want to do is…

On a mission (statement)

Recently I met with a career coach. My intention was to see how my (rather unorthodox) skills and experience might translate into the “real” world and a “real” job. Well, you know that saying, “Physician, heal thyself”? My session with her was a clear example of how we can be blind to our own needs even while helping others.

Although she used different terminology and visual examples, the ways she suggested I figure out what I wanted to do when I grow up was practically the same as what I have my clients do with journaling techniques. In one word: visualization.

After our session I went home and go out my journal and wrote what was, in Journal to the Self parlance, a Perspective. That is, I wrote about my ideal day, my ideal life — I visualized myself already living the life I wanted. When you give yourself permission to imagine in this way, you allow for things not probable, but possible.

First, after you have acknowledged the things about your current life and career that are not what you want, you can dream about how those things would look different. You can ignore the realities of your present life and the supposed inevitabilities of future bills and car break downs and frozen pipes, and, if one is of an artistic bent like me, the “starving artist” syndrome must also be pushed aside.

This wasn’t a difficult exercise for me; I know exactly what my ideal life looks like. On paper I’m great at ignoring “realities” and “probabilities.” (I say “on paper” because in my real life, the one in which I am married to an idealist dreamer-type, I have to be the realist, you know the one who considers that we might actually need plates to eat off when we go camping or that moving across the country requires careful planning and lots of boxes, not just a truck in which to throw all your belongings in a big pile… )

Yup, on paper and in my head my perfect life trips along happily without toothaches or empty oil tanks or kids home from school due to snow for the fourth time in two weeks, bored and fighting and apathetic of my looming deadlines.

And it was on this paper that it became clear the “real” job I’ve been pursuing isn’t what I really want, but rather a desperate attempt to squeeze myself into a box, the only box I could see as a potential paycheck-producing one. On paper, the grim realization dawned that my most passion-driven, authentic life has no (immediate) guaranteed financial advantage. Crap.

However, one other thing rang out loud and clear as my words flowed across the paper: I had a mission.

Now, I thought I already had established this a long time ago. I knew that I wanted to help others find their authentic life through writing (see, it says that in the header of this blog). What I didn’t realize was that I was being too vague and that I hadn’t yet established a niche or focused in on what I know best.

I have presented journaling and expressive writing workshops and talks to business women, teen moms, tween girls, teachers, guidance counselors, stressed people, spiritual-seekers, and aspiring writers. I have written thousands upon thousands of words for my local paper about my city’s people, events, and businesses. But my personal life, my experiences, my graduate research, and above all, my own wounds all point to my greatest strength and deepest passion: Finding Voice through Writing.

I knew this but yet I have skirted around it, creating workshops of a more general nature, pursuing work that I thought I “should,” and landing myself a freelance job writing about things I care about but aren’t my expertise or passion, and for which I do a lot of brain-wearying head-writing instead of my beloved heart-writing.

The upshot of all this is, while I still don’t know my next exact step(s), I know I must keep writing, researching, and facilitating. And now I can focus — focus on the exact path I want to be on. When an opportunity arises I can ask myself if it fits my personal mission and as time and finances allow I will be able to let those things go which don’t.

And as coaches and inspirational speakers love to tell us, it is when, and only when, we focus on what we are called to do — which is usually, painfully where our own deepest wounds lie — that the people who need us and the money will find us.

So, here, dear readers, is my personal mission (most likely to get tweaked as time goes on):

To help the silenced heal their voice through story, creating new narratives to live by.

Now to stay open to the opportunities wherein I can be the most helpful and find the most meaning and fulfillment… and money; can’t ignore that very basic necessity of life!

For more information on writing mission statements, please read my Examiner article.

Prompts: In my ideal day I would be…

It is my mission in life to…

A Path to Publication, part 12: When the silence descends

manda4Silence. My yearning for it is as strong as my need for sleep. At least eight hours of sleep and almost as much silence. Otherwise, don’t expect too much from me.

Today I have silence. For an entire day. It’s a different kind of silence than I experience weekly once the kids are off to school and I sit in my office to write my articles. It’s a silence where I get to think and write what I need to. For me.

The last time I wrote a post here, it was high summer and my children were away visiting family. I lived in daily, sometimes empty, silence for many weeks. It was wondrous. It was enlightening. Rejuvenating. Inspiring.

During that time I worked on my memoir manuscript to send it off to an agent who had requested it (see previous posts). Other than these blog posts and those in my journal, I didn’t write copiously during that time, I’d even taken some time off from my weekly newspaper columns. All my creative energy was thrown into editing, which I thoroughly enjoy.

But since that time, when I hit send and watched (in my mind) the .pdf snapshot of my life shooting through cyberspace to an office, and hopefully appreciative agent in New York City, a new silence has descended.

In August my children returned, and I reveled in their energy, yes, even in their noise. For a while. When they went back to school, I, thankfully, once again fell deeply into the softness of a quiet house, the calmness of  solitude, and into the love of writing. And I was writing almost every day, producing 3,000 words a week for my columns, and who knows how many more scribbled in my journal.

But I wasn’t writing what I wanted to write. Besides in my journal where I anguished and cried and pep-rallied my way through a difficult personal situation, I began to feel my voice was silenced. Of course, my writing voice came through in every article I wrote; every turn of phrase, every angle, every theme was mine and a reflection of my authentic self, but it wasn’t quite right. Writing had become my job. I was doing it for a paycheck. Deadlines were almost daily, interviews frequent, and topic brainstorming endless. I had lost the joy. It felt as if I was talking a lot without saying a word.

The busy-ness of my freelance life took over from everything else. This blog became silent, and the urge to write after my deadlines were met was gone.

It has been almost five months since I sent off my manuscript, and I didn’t hear a word — silence. And that’s OK (well, it’s not exactly OK, at least a “no, thank you” note would have nice). It’s mostly OK because I feel freed up to move on. And move on not necessarily with that piece of work. It called me over the summer and I responded with a passion that wouldn’t let me quit despite the emotional chaos of those few weeks (in fact, it probably helped get me through it), and now I feel satiated for a while.

It’s like last year when I became obsessed with making mandalas. manda1I knew I needed to do something meditative to pull me and my mind from my ever-open laptop. Over a period of three months I made over 100 mandalas, one or two a day, and I loved every second of it.

Then I stopped. Just stopped. I was done. And that was OK.

I’ve been a singer since childhood — solos, small groups, choirs, voice lessons — and I continued until my first child was born. After that my singing activity was sporadic at best. And that was OK.

I was an avid artist from my senior year of high school through college and a little beyond. Then I started writing and it took over my imagination and my life. And that was OK, too. Very OK.

I always knew I would get back to singing (I have) and to my art (more than mandalas) which I will when the time is right. I feel similarly about my book right now. Like the mandalas, which served a valuable purpose when I needed them, working on my book was necessary at that time. I don’t feel the drive for now, and that too is OK.

What worries me — as in, it is causing me discontentment with my good fortune of having such stable freelance work — is that something is beginning to bubble in my depths. Something else needs to be written. I’m not sure what it is, I get only a vague glimmer of it once in a while. I try to get it to focus in my mind, but it won’t.

I also re-experience the joy of writing once in a while when I decide to write one of my columns free from the constraints of interviews and profiles and event promotions. It is when I write these pieces that I remember why I love to write, and it verifies that I have more to give, more to experience, more to say. That I need to free myself from the confines of freelance work. That I need my “talking” to say something more authentic and more — dare I say? — important.

Ideas and questions I discovered during graduate school and am learning in life right now need further exploration as only writing can do; things that need to be shared and offered to others to (hopefully) help them on their own journey. I need to do more but I can’t quite grab hold of what it is and how I might do it.

So, in the unexpected silence of today while my family is off playing in the snow, I ponder the silence of words not written, the silence that is caused when what one really wants and needs to say is not said.

But acknowledgement is a first step. Yes, I know I have more to say, but it might not quite be the right time to say it. But it will be. And so, that is OK.

The Path to Publication, part 7: Brewing questions

What is it ABOUT?

It’s been almost exactly a year since my graduate thesis and creative project was approved by my advisors. It has had time to mellow. Or ferment?

Was I afraid it had fermented so much that it would explode when I took it from its box buried in the closet? What on earth had me so afraid that I would rather do anything — I mean, anything; I even went out and scooped up the dog’s piles of do-do — than sit down and start on this project? You know, the one I am so ready to do? “That’s what I want to do!” I said.

Well, I know, really: FEAR OF FAILURE (perfectionism) and/or SUCCESS (imposter syndrome or “What if that’s all I had in me? What then?”) But that’s a topic for another day… (although I have written a lot about fear before as well as little about the fear of success.)

But finally after a lot of procrastination in the form of house-cleaning, binge Orange is the New Black watching, and justified-as-research memoir reading, and yes, dog-poop-clearing, I finally picked up my manuscript. (And then I wrote this blog post as an additional justifiable procrastination method.)

So far I have only read the memoir section. I have to admit I’m pretty happy with what I read. That is, in Part I. It’s more complete than I remembered and I don’t think it will need a whole lot of editing. Part II, however, is a different story. Literally.

In that section I am telling a very different story than I was in the first part, which is the telling of certain childhood memories. Part II is an existential exploration into the ineffable. It has no structure as it was a recording of what I was experiencing while I was writing my memoir and doing research into the worlds of myth, women’s development and spirituality, and psychology. It is as fragmented as I felt at that time as I was attempting to connect of the dots of ME.

So, in order to gain some focus for my next steps I have challenged myself to answer some questions about my book.

1. What is my story about? What is the question I am asking?

2. In my story, what do I (the author, main character) want/need?

3. What is the obstacle to what I want/need?

4. How do I get over this obstacle?

5. How do I change in the process? What do I learn?

6. What am I teaching others through my story? What information do I hope to relay? What personal learning speaks to the universal? WHY am I telling this story?

I am hoping that as I answer these questions, I will gain insight into the true reason for my story; what it needs to say, not what I think I want it to say.

 

To read snippets of my memoir, “Leaving Fundamentalism in Search of  Voice,” click here.