Getting Started with Journaling

by Kathie Collins

What is a journal and why do so many people keep one, or want to keep one?

The word “journal” comes from old French and Latin words for “day”. The word has the same root as the word “journey.” So, at its simplest, a journal is a record of the journey we make through our days. When we were kids, a lot of us were given diaries where we recorded what happened at school, fights with our friends or parents, secret crushes. A journal can be the adult version of that—a simple log or record of events in our outer lives. More often, though, a journal is a way of reflecting on those events. It’s a way of exploring and recording deeper thoughts and feelings. It’s one of the best ways I know of paying attention to and bringing more intention to life.

What are some different methods for keeping a journal?

We’re wired and express ourselves differently. You don’t have to be a writer to journal.

Written journal: A written reflection is probably the most common type of journal. You can start the morning with a stream of consciousness dialogue (sometimes called “morning pages,” as coined by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way”) or by simply planning and setting goals and intentions for the day. Or, you might wrap up your day by reflecting on the most important parts. And you don’t have to write daily. You can pick up your journal whenever you have the need—a gripe or gratitude, or to figure out something you’re confused about.

Visual journal: Using images is a powerful way of exploring what’s going on inside us. Images often take us more quickly and directly to deeper layers of consciousness. If you like to paint and draw, this is an obvious choice. But you don’t have to be an artist. I can’t even draw stick figures, but I love making collages with unique images and phrases I find in magazines or old books. We’ve brought a few pages from the visual journal of a Charlotte Lit member as an example of the kind of reflection you can do with found images.

Dream Journal: If you’re an avid dreamer—or if you’d just like to better remember your dreams—writing or sketching them is a fabulous way to get into even deeper layers of awareness.

Reading Logs: We also learn a ton about ourselves by engaging the words of other writers. Take an inspiring quote or idea from whatever book you’re reading and start writing. You’ll uncover thoughts you didn’t know you had. You can also develop a rewarding practice by responding to prompts from a journaling book. One of my favorites is “Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest.”

How does someone new to journaling get started?

First, gather your materials. For writers, a journal and pen that feels good to you. Some people like to use a computer. This is great if you’re never- ever a paper person, but I find writing by hand is a richer experience. It slows you down, so you can access deeper thoughts. You can find really beautiful, inspiring journals in local bookstores. But any old notebook will do. I’ve found I prefer the consistency of simple lined Moleskin notebooks.

For visual journaling, you’ll want to get a spiral bound art journal with pages thick enough to stand up to paint, markers, and glue. These aren’t expensive, so don’t feel like you have to invest in a bunch of art supplies before you get started.

Then find a quiet, distraction-free spot where you won’t be disturbed, pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea, and sit down to write. Make your journal session short. Fifteen to thirty minutes each day is a good goal. You want this to be a pleasant ritual, not a duty. If you need a quiet, comfy journaling spot, check out Charlotte Lit’s Open Studio program.

You can also get started with a journaling class (we have a visual journaling class coming up at Charlotte Lit, and our good friend Catherine Anderson has even more offerings) or by starting your own small group. It’s amazing how meeting regularly with a group of like-minded writers can keep you inspired and motivated.

What kinds of things can you do with the writing or art you’ve created?

The answer is anything—or nothing. For some, writing is enough on its own. Others find they want to go deeper by expanding or combining entries into essays or poems. Some people even discover the beginnings of a novel or memoir in their journal pages.