Journaling as a Writing Exercise

CC image by Joel Montes de Oca

Journaling has a wide definition, and it can take as many forms as there are reasons for keeping a journal. I want to look at ways journaling can be used as a writing exercise, specifically for creative nonfiction writers. While journaling takes many forms, its one consistent characteristic is that it is a writing activity that happens regularly.

CC image by Barry Silver

CC image by Barry Silver

When writing creative nonfiction, many of the writing exercises go something like: write about a family tradition that you love/hate, think back to all of your job interviews and write about any common threads, look back at your childhood to your favorite childhood toy and describe it. The list could go on indefinitely, but you get the idea. Some of these can be useful, maybe jumpstarting an idea. Sometimes they are less useful, and you’d rather just keep working on your current project. If you look at this list of exercises, and most lists of nonfiction exercises, they ask you to do two things. They ask you to look back at your life to a specific time, and they ask you to remember it in as much detail as you can. The definition of creative nonfiction is broad, but a substantial part of it includes remembering life events and writing about them. This is where journaling comes in.

Perhaps you have an eidetic memory, but I know that I don’t. I find trying to remember events from my past a difficult and frustrating exercise. Journaling keeps a record of your life and important events in more detail than most of us would ever remember. We can look back and read journal entries whenever we need. It speeds up our writing process and adds more life and color to our stories. Journaling also gives us a cache of ideas to refer to and pull from when we’re not sure what to write about or where to start on a story. I know many people carry a notebook with them as well, either their journal itself or a small notebook to quickly jot things down to remember and flesh out later in their journal.

A bonus of using journaling as a writing exercise is that even though your focus is on the writing, you reap the other benefits of journaling at the same time, which can also help with your writing. Journaling can help clear your mind and focus your thoughts. It helps you solve problems by laying them out and bringing clarity to them. Some people use journals to record their dreams, remember the books they’ve read, or as prayer journals.

One of the main uses of journaling is as a cathartic activity, which can pair nicely with journaling as a writing exercise. Noelle Sterne wrote an article Twenty-Two Reasons to Turn to Your Journal for Catharsis and Creativity where she talks about journaling as a solution to writer’s block. Journaling can sometimes be referred to as free writing. It allows you to write without thinking of grammar, spelling, or quality, and it’s an exercise that can help you write without censoring or judging what appears on the page. In my experience, journaling allows me to rant about my day, think through things I’ve been struggling with, or list things that I need to do or think about. Writing all of that down frees up the space it was taking in my brain and allows ideas to flow more freely.

CC image by Mycatkins

CC image by Mycatkins

Even as a writing exercise, journaling can take many forms. Just as there are prompts for exercises, there are prompts for journaling; again, some are more useful than others. If you’re having trouble getting started or are not sure what to write about, here’s a list of ideas from Sheila Bender’s Keeping A Writer’s Journal: 21 Ideas to Keep You Writing. Her list includes things from choosing a word and meditating on it, writing a letter to someone that you would never actually send, to writing book reviews.

Whatever approach you choose to take in journaling, be it an account of books you’ve read, daily activities, or thoughts on the people around you I hope it reaps rewards in your future writing.

By Melissa Blakely