A regular journaling/soul writing practice can be one of the MOST beneficial practices for supporting and maintaining an active creative life. I’ve been a dedicated journaler for well over a decade. It’s a practice that sustains me emotionally, mentally, and creatively. Listen in to learn how you can begin your own regular, journaling practice.
Here’s what you’ll learn in this episode:
- Why a regular journaling practice is important
- What you need to begin your practice, including my favorite tools
- What do write each day on the page – my thoughts on this are a bit different than some of what people teach (that didn’t work for me)
Links Mentioned in the Show
- My favorite journal – a basic, blank, unruled composition book
- My favorite pens for journaling and writing quickly
- Writing Down Your Soul by Janet Conner
- Opening Up by Writing it Down by Dr. James Pennebaker
- Episode #25 where I interviewed Janet Conner about deep soul writing.
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Ep 53 - How to Start Journaling
Hi - welcome to the Dear Creativity Let’s Play Podcast. I’m Amy Isaman, an author and book coach and also the host of this podcast. We are kicking off 2021 with an episode on a foundational creative practice, that of sitting down in a chair with a pen and a notebook and writing, every day. Most people call this journaling, but it’s also called doing your morning pages, or freewriting, expressive writing, deep soul writing, keeping a diary - whatever you name it doesn’t really matter. It’s the intention that matters.
What does matter, is actually doing it and having the intention to connect with yourself, with your soul, at a deeper level. And the beautiful thing is that this happens almost automatically once you’ve established a regular practice. I’ve been a dedicated journaler/soul writer at times in my life. At other times, I’ve let it go and haven’t touched the page for months., but as I’ve grown older, it’s become more and more important, I would say a vital, part of my day.
In this episode, I’m going to share why keeping a journal is so important, especially if you’re a creative and developing and accessing ideas for your work, what you need, how to get started, and what the heck to even write about. If you’ve ever sat and stared at the blank page of your notebook and thought, what now? I’ve got some good tips toward the end of this episode. I’ll also be sharing some of them over on Instagram, so you can follow me over there @amyisamancreative.
Before we get started, I’d like to share this episode’s sponsor which is Scrivener. Scrivener is a tool that I’ve used for years and years - I think I bought it way back in 2013 or 2014, and it’s where I write and organize all of my novels. You can also use it to format all ofyour work and get it ready for publication. It’s SO big and useful. I’ve used it for years and am still learning about some of it’s amazingness. But not only do I use it for my novels, I also organize the content for my workshops and programs that I teach. It’s available for both Mac and Windows, and they also have a free trial available if you want to check it out before you invest. But the investment isn’t super big. It’s $49, one time which is amazing! No yearly fees to keep up with. Ifyou’d like to learn more, head on over to htttps://amyisaman.com/scrivener. And you can check it all out.
Now, onward to the first episode of 2021.
As I mentioned, I’ve been a journaler for years and years.
I started a dedicated practice sometime in the mid-late 2000’s. I’d started journaling but wanted to go deeper. I found the book Writing Down Your Soul on Amazon, got into Janet Conner’s world, and she helped me to build a super-strong foundation. Janet was on the podcast in episode 25 in the spring of 2020 if you'd like to hear her story. Over the past decade, she has become not only a mentor but a friend - she’s one of the wise women in my life. Her work has been foundational to me finding my own way in the world of daily writing in my notebook.
Before we start on the how, I’d like to share a bit about WHY I write in my notebook each day.
First, it’s foundational to my own mental health. It’s seriously my own therapy sessions. If you’d like o read more on that, there’s a book called Opening Up by Writing it Down that shares study after study on both the physical and mental health benefits of just writing about your struggles or the conflicts in your life. It somehow gets difficulty to move through you rather than getting stuck in you.
My soul writing practice is also foundational to my creative work. Ideas often start to flow during sessions. I get sparks of inspiration or I can find the solution to a problem in my own life or in a story I’m working on. This doesn’t happen in every single writing session, but most days ideas come up for me.
It grounds me. It’s a great start to the day, to sort of clear my brain of the whirling and whirring that starts when I wake up. I tend to be pretty high energy, so it’s a good way for me to settle myself before I dive into the day. It’s almost like a daily prayer ritual, but on the page.
Starting the day in this way feels good. I like it. And that’s enough for me.
I try to write every day, and most days it happens, some days it doesn’t. On those days, I have compassion for myself. I don’t beat myself up for missing a day or two. I just get started again as soon as I can.
If you’ve decided you’d like to try establishing a regular soul writing practice, here’s what you need:
First, you need a commitment to yourself and a belief in the value of sitting down with a blank page each day to really explore your voice, to break through creative blocks, to generate ideas, to work through difficulties in your life.
I would recommend committing to write every day for a minimum of thirty days to set the habit and make it a part of your creative life. Like anything that you want to do to make a habit you need to commit to yourself to actually follow through and do the thing. If you need support with this, recommend James Clear’s book Atomic Habits if you need help setting up habits for yourself in such a way that you can follow through with them.
So making a commitment to creating a regular practice is the first thing you need.
Second, you need time to do this on a SCHEDULE. A writing session can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour or longer depending on how deep you may go on the page on any given day. Sometimes ideas and thoughts or emotions are just flowing out of your pen and it might be a longer session.
Think about when you can fit it into your day. I usually do my pages in the morning, but sometimes I’ll do evening pages right before bed, and it’s interesting that the feel of what I write is often different by the end of the day when I’m tired and ready for sleep. So try different times of day to see what works for you.
Janet Conner who I already mentioned earlier, advocates for writing first thing in the morning, right when you get up.
Julia Cameron, who wrote the artists way, advocates for morning pages, which is three pages of freewriting done first thing in the morning.
Both of these wise women are highly prolific writers and creators and teach the value of writing first thing in the morning. That’s also when I find it’s most effective for me.
Think about what will work for you and put it on your calendar. Schedule it in. Let your brain know that you will be journaling each day at whatever time in whatever place. This will help solidify your practice. So write down, I will write in my journal each day at 7:00 am, in my chair in my office with a cup of coffee. Whatever it is, be specific and commit.
Okay, so you’ve got a commitment and a schedule for your practice.
Next, you need your supplies!
Here are mine: a cup of coffee or tea, my chair in my office, my journal, and my favorite pen.
For the journal itself, I used to use a sketchbook, hardback. They’re big which is great for writing but they’re not super easy to cart around if you travel or like to take your journal with you places. But I do like a notebook with a hardcover, so I can easily write on my lap. I now use basic composition books - do you remember those black and white books you used to use for school? THat’s my not so fancy journal. In the early fall before school starts, you can get them for .88 cents apiece. I like the unlined ones which you might have to order if you can’t find them at the store because sometimes I write big, sometimes small, sometimes I end up sketching out a diagram or image of something that comes to me. Lines feel somehow constraining.
Think about the features you might like - lined or unlined pages, hard or soft cover, size of pages. If you write daily, you’ll fill journals fairly quickly so there’s no need to purchase expensive leather-covered super fancy journals. You can try comp books, sketchbooks or pads, plain old spiral-bound notebooks, or even loose-leaf pages that you write on a clipboard and then put in a 3-ring binder. There are many many options, so play with a few and see what feels right.
Next is your pen. And yes, this matters! It needs to flow well so you can write fast - my favorite is the black pilot G2 with the extra fine tip. I buy these by the pack and love them! I discovered these pens when I was coaching speech and debate years ago and you have to write super fast to take notes on what the kids are saying - these pens are built for flow and speed which is idea when you’re journaling.
And a pen is crucial because writing by hand is crucial. It just is. They’ve done studies and different areas related to memory and emotion light up when you’re writing by hand than when you’re typing so it's important. Grab the pen and write. Even if you have terrible penmanship like I do. I’ll share a tip on that a little later.
I’ll put links to all of my fav supplies in the show notes.
Okay, so far we’ve got a commitment to write, we’ve got it scheduled, and we’ve got our supplies.
Now, what the heck do you write?
As a long-time journaler/deep soul writer, I’ve got some beliefs on this one which are a bit different than what others teach.
Many teach that you should use prompts to get started. I disagree. Your own creative beautiful soul will provide whatever prompts you need. I also find that when I start with a prompt or even a question, I somehow get stifled, like there’s a “right” answer I need to put down and I get all caught up in writing the “right” thing whatever that might be. However, I will share the one question that I sometimes ask on the page that works wonders.
Here’s my method which is a combination of Janet Conner’s Deep Soul Writing and Julia Cameron’s morning pages.
I sit down and open to a fresh page. I date the page in the top right-hand corner, and I start by writing dear beloved. You can write to whoever, but I’m essentially writing to myself, to my muse, so starting this way feels affirming and lovely. I’m valuing myself. You might write to God, or spirit, or source, or muse, or soul, or any name that resonates with you. Starting as a letter gives me a starting place and also sets the intention that I want to connect to myself, my soul, my creativity here on the page. It’s a conversation. I want to connect at a deeper level.
Then, I start writing. And I write about whatever thoughts are coming up, whether that’s something I’m upset about and want to work through, or it’s what I have planned for the day, or it’s whatever random thoughts pop into my head. I just write.
For example, yesterday, I wrote about all kinds of random things. This morning, I woke up feeling annoyed at a loved one, so I wrote about that and by the end, I could see my role in the situation (which was actually super minor but still had me twirling about it a bit), and I felt better. In fact, I woke up stewing over it, wrote it out on the page, and actually forgot about it until this moment. That’s what writing does - we forgive things. We get through things. We release them to the page and they go away.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m done after half a page, but I keep going. To keep going, when I have nothing to say, I’ll sometimes just write affirmations like, I am a writer, Words come to me with ease and joy, I am worthy, or whatever feels good and I just repeat them until the “stoppage” opens up and I’m writing again.
Or, I’ll start a gratitude list of things I’m thankful for on that specific day.
Or, sometimes, I’ll open up a book and read a bit to get going whether that’s a non-fiction book I’m reading or a more inspirational book, or really any book that’s on my bookshelf next to my chair. Sometimes I’ll pull a card from one of the many decks I have and I’ll write about that. These are just starting spots. Once I get going, I generally write more than three pages, and I often come up with ideas related to my own fiction, this podcast, blog posts. Or even my business.
Many many teachers talk about the value of asking questions on the page. But for me, questions can feel like pressure. In writing Down Your Soul, Janet conner has pages and pages and pages of questions to ask on the page and also instructions on how to get into the theta state to find your answers to the questions. While I LOVE this, it can also feel like there’s a “right” way to do this, and if you don’t get all meditative with deep wise answers from beyond for your questions, you’re not journaling right.
For her and many of her students, the questions work to go deeper and discover your own answers. For me, I get stressed because the second I ask a question on the page, I want the “right” answer - which totally comes from my own attachment to praise as a kid for doing things “right.” I was the good student. I learned to equate being right with feeling worthy. Intellectually, I know this, but questions can still throw me. So, I rephrase any questions into fill in the blanks and somehow that works.
So, if you’ve tried asking questions on the page and it just creates stress like it does for me, rework the question until it’s a fill in the blank.
For example, one of the questions I’ve asked through the years and is from Writing down your soul is “What am I unwilling to see?” And I see what comes up. But, again, sometimes even that question format will stifle me because I’m focused on the right answer - which I know intellectually there isn’t one, so I will often rephrase as a fill in the blank which would be I am unwilling to see _____. I have NO idea why, but filling in the blank somehow feels like less pressure than answering questions. It feels more like Mad Libs or something - like there are options.
And again, the best fill in the blank is: When it comes to ______, I am unwilling to see______ . and that’s often how I get my own insights and wisdom. Others might be, I am grateful for ____ or Today, I am feeling _____ because _______.
Okay, so far we’ve got four key things for you to start your journaling practice: you’ve got your commitment, your schedule, your supplies, and you have an idea of how to start writing on that blank page.
The fifth key of journaling for me is capturing and remembering what comes up. And here’s how I do that.
When I’m writing I write on about ¾ of the page and leave a wide margin down the right-hand side of each page. As I’m writing, if something “key” comes up, I’ll put a line there in the margin or I’ll write a word or two as a reminder and keep writing. When the session is over, I’ll go back and write the main points/ideas in the margins there and either flag that page with a post-it or dog-ear it so I can come back to it. If it’s really good, I’ll make a note in my planner or open a google doc and jot down the idea with a reference to the day’s date, so when I go back to expand that idea, I can go directly to the spot in my journal.
Often, I’m writing fast and I have terrible penmanship so I can’t even read what I wrote, so the margin notes really help me to capture my insights.
And that’s it. Commit to at least thirty days, set your time, grab your supplies, and start writing for at least fifteen minutes or three pages a day.
See what happens! I think you’ll find that it’s something you won’t want to do without.
It’s fun and really is a commitment to your own creative practice and giving yourself space which we all need.
Finally, if you’ve enjoyed this episode, I’d be ever so grateful for a rating and review over on iTunes.
Have a super great week, keep on creating, have some fun, and I’’ll see you next time.