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5 Reasons Why Every Author Should Start a Journal

Considered one of the most important 20th-century writers and a master of the stream of consciousness narrative device, Virginia Woolf was an avid diarist. Having experienced a traumatic childhood—including the death of her mother when Woolf was only 13 years old, a mental breakdown, and sexual abuse—the diaries she left behind give us an extraordinary glimpse into the life and mind of one of the most influential authors in 20th century British literature. Without these journals, much of Woolf's influence on narrative style, particularly stream of consciousness as a narrative device and early feminist thought, would not have happened.

Woolf was also aware of how much the process of journaling affected her life as a writer. From a diary entry dated April 20th, 1919, she writes:

I got out this diary and read, as one always does read one's own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough and random style of it, often so ungrammatical, and crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whichever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; and take no time over this; and forbid her to let the eye of man behold it. And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash and vigour and sometimes hits an unexpected bull's eye. But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink.

From A Writer's Diary by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was not the only writer who developed much of her writing style via journaling. Before her and after her, writers have used the process of keeping a journal as a way to develop their craft and look deeply into themselves as creatives. Simply put, if you are a writer and do not keep a journal, you are missing out on a valuable tool that can help you in your personal and creative life.

Let's discuss some of the many ways keeping a journal can help you as a writer.

Every author should keep a journal
Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

You learn your personal thought and behavior patterns

When we journal as writers and authors, we take a moment to get to know ourselves on a deeper level. Thoughts that might be otherwise fleeting (if not written down) are saved and kept, to be revisited later—whether as self-reflection or measuring the changes that have occurred in one's mind and life.

In the process of journaling, we find ourselves looking at our own nature. We examine the things that make us afraid, the things we try to hide from the rest of the world and our families, and even the things we have thought that would never make it past our lips in words to someone else. A journal, in this sense, is like a dear, nonjudgmental friend—someone to whom we can tell anything and everything and not feel as if the words will be held against us in any way.

It is free therapy

If you're a writer, you already know that along with the ability to craft a great poem or story is a disposition that leans toward feeling too much. The same trait that makes you the writer you are can also make you struggle in a world that weighs heavy on the creative soul. Journaling, in this sense, becomes a form of free therapy in which you can explore the traits you've carried that you'd like to be rid of, or the reoccurring problems in your life that you'd like to move past.

Consider this entry, taken from The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913

One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer and which in a general way are naturally believed, surmised, and admitted by you, but which you'll unconsciously deny when it comes to the point of gaining hope or peace from such an admission. In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.

The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913

It helps you develop your voice

The simple act of writing daily will do wonders for developing your voice as a writer. Accessing your thoughts, feelings, trepidations and memories—then putting them in written form—allows you to practice a narrative voice that is uniquely yours. This daily practice will develop into a clear, distinct, voice that can then be used in your fiction, even though it is rooted in a nonfiction world.

Anaïs Nin, a French-American essayist, short-story writer, and diarist, put it like this: The diary taught me that it is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately. I learned to choose the heightened moments because they are the moments of revelation.

A journal helps you to develop your voice
Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

There is an emphasis on process over product

When you journal, you don't do it with the intention of it being read by an audience. Although, let's face it—if you ever become a famous writer, your journals are likely to be published (think…Anaïs Nin, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Wolf, etc.) Since it's not written for an audience and there is no one to judge what is being written as good or bad (or just mediocre), the emphasis then is on the process of writing versus the product that results.

As with anything—the more you practice, the better you become at whatever you are practicing. While journaling might be different than writing a novel, it is still practice in the process of writing. You are still putting words on the page and finding your voice through a wide spectrum of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. This adds to your experience as a writer, even if the product (or journal) is never published.

Joan Didion, an American journalist, novelist, and screenplay writer, puts it like this:

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

"On Keeping a Notebook" by Joan Didion

It encourages personal growth

In much the same way journaling makes space for therapeutic self-discovery, it also creates room for personal growth. In the process of writing down the events of your life—whether insignificant or significant—and analyzing those events (as well as your reaction to them), you'll start to see patterns emerge. If those patterns continue to bring toxic people or thoughts into your life, it will become clear eventually, and you'll begin to see the necessity of breaking them. If those patterns bring positive relationships and events to your life, you'll see the necessity of keeping them. In doing so, this part of journaling encourages personal growth and the removal of negativity from your life.

Jonathan Franzen, an American novelist and essayist, explains the process like this:

I had started keeping a journal, and I was discovering that I didn't need school in order to experience the misery of appearances. I could manufacture excruciating embarrassment in the privacy of my bedroom, simply by reading what I'd written in the journal the day before. Its pages faithfully mirrored by fraudulence and pomposity and immaturity. Reading it made me desperate to change myself, to sound less idiotic. As George Benson had stressed in Then Joy Breaks Through, the experiences of growth and self-realization, even of ecstatic joy, were natural processes available to believers and nonbelievers alike. And so I declared private war on stagnation and committed myself privately to personal growth. The Authentic Relationship I wanted now was with the written page.

From The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History
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