“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
I didn’t really understand Flannery O’Connor’s wisdom until four years ago when the compound stresses of life nearly silenced me.
At that time I was teaching seven English classes (with seven different preps and countless papers to grade). I was the primary caregiver of my aging mother who was eventually put into hospice and died six weeks later. I became a grandmother for the first time (the birth coincided with Mom’s memorial service). And my youngest graduated high school and moved into her own apartment.
I was so busy taking care of others’ business that I failed to care for myself.
And I snapped.
All family members insisted I see a therapist, with the expectation he would prescribe one (or two or three) anti-anxiety medications. Since I loathe taking pills of any kind, I dreaded the appointment.
Imagine my surprise when at the end of the first session the therapist told me to go home and write.
Write?! Telling an English teacher she “must” write isn’t a prescription but a dream come true.
Since that fateful day, I have filled at least thirty notebooks and countless online journal entries.
I have written in good times and bad. I have journaled dreams and aspirations and reflected upon trials and failures. I have brainstormed, written letters (to myself and others), poured out prayers of thanksgiving and petition, and reconnected with forgotten passions and interests.
Journaling not only allowed me to discover what I think, but it also gave me back my voice. See, I am a rule follower, and I always believed if you follow the rules and do your best, life will be good. That is, life will be free of conflict.
But that is not how life works. So in an effort to create peace, I chose to keep differing opinions to myself. I did not want to rock the boat. But my silence did not prevent the waves of life from crashing in. My silence only served to extinguish me.
Over the past four years, I have discovered journaling is good for our physical, emotional and spiritual health.
Journaling, especially when done by hand with a pen and notebook, causes the mind to quiet and focus. It slows down the frenetic pace of life, which in turn, reduces blood pressure.
Journaling is an opportunity to release spinning thoughts in our heads and give them a place to rest. Mental space is then cleared for more creative endeavors.
Journaling by hand is also a way to connect with the right side of our brain — the spontaneous, creative side. Penmanship is an artistic expression: will we write in block letters or loopy cursive? Even if we scribble, there is still a deep connection between our thoughts and how we represent them on the page.
In addition, journaling can afford us the opportunity for distance: to see a specific event or situation from another vantage point. Often this space helps us see a possible solution where before we saw only hopelessness. Or it can show us how to forgive others even when we were the ones who felt wronged. Harboring resentment squelches creativity, but offering forgiveness opens the mind.
While I enjoy journaling throughout the year, summertime is ideal. The warmer weather offers indoor as well as outdoor possibilities to sit and write. I prefer to journal first thing in the morning when temperatures are cooler and the sun not quite so bright. The back porch is the perfect spot, with a cup of coffee and my favorite notebook and pen. The soft chirps of the songbirds and the quiet summer breeze provide idyllic inspiration.
Of course, there are times when I like to end the day with a journaling session. A glass of iced tea – or perhaps chilled Chardonnay – is the perfect refreshment. I retreat to my Paris room, light an aromatic candle, put on some instrumental music, and begin to write. Sometimes I focus on gratitude journaling, other times I recount the events of the day.
There is no ONE right way to journal. We can journal for five minutes and feel satisfied – or we can journal several pages and feel as though I’ve just started. The important thing is to give yourself time to reconnect with your inner self and allow your voice to be heard.
July is the perfect month to begin (or perhaps begin again) a journaling practice – for July is NaJoWriMo: National Journal Writing Month.
The event is held four times a year, with a specific theme for each session. July’s theme is Places and Journeys – a perfect opportunity to reflect on past or future vacation getaways.
Travel journaling is one of my favorite writing activities. I journal before the trip, making lists of possible itineraries, researching a bit of history, and imagining the sights and culture I will see. This kind of preparation builds anticipation, which increases my enjoyment once there.
While on vacation I keep journaling to a minimum. I want to experience the vacation, and live in the moment. However, I do spend a few minutes each evening jotting notes of the day’s events, focusing on specific sensory details such as the taste of an exotic meal or the smell of the open-air market.
Once I return home, I use these notes as well as my photos to document the trip. I reflect on lessons learned and relive the adventure through family stories.
Remember, however, there’s no ONE right way to journal. You do not have to journal about travel this July. Perhaps you can devote the month to gratitude journaling (listing 3-5 things you are grateful for each day) – or Morning Pages (writing 750 words each morning to release discursive thought and make room for creative ideas) – or perhaps you can choose the time to reflect on the past (use the writing prompt: I remember… and see what memories surface).
I find that I do well with these kinds of online events. I feel as though I am a part of a like-minded community. And I am more likely to maintain discipline when I know others are out there who are doing the same. I instinctively feel kinship and support.
NaJoWriMo is a relaxed gathering around the cyber pool. Care to join me for a refreshing dip?
About the Author: Molly Totoro
Molly Totoro is a Connecticut Yankee currently residing in the Midwest with her husband and trusty basset. While Molly retired from full-time teaching in 2014 to pursue her writing dreams, she continues to work with students to achieve their writing potential. Molly recently published her first book, Journaling Toward Wholeness: A 28-Day Plan to Develop a Journaling Practice with the hope of inspiring others to experience the health benefits of writing their inner thoughts.