Friday, December 30, 2011

Journaling Ideas for Mental Health

I do not keep a journal. I do not record the details of my life or of my emotional state with any regularity. I do not have a daily writing ritual or a treasured notebook in which everything is meticulously recorded.

I have nothing against journaling, except in the specific case of my own emotional health. We depressive types are often lovely people—really!—but many of us share a certain thought pattern: rumination. Because I am most likely to seek the company of pen and paper when I'm least suited to being with actual people, my attempts at journaling used to end up like this:
I'm the worst housekeeper ever. The kitchen's so gross it will take me an hour, and then I’ll be even more tired and I won’t get any writing done. What is the point? WHAT IS THE POINT? There is no point. It’s all utterly pointless. Do the dishes, then more dishes get dirty, then do more dishes, again and again forever as I hurtle towards a meaningless death. Everything sucks.
See what I mean? The journal is not a healthy outlet for rumination. Expressed mathematically:

But still... I need to write like I need food and air and very occasional interaction with human beings. So what's a writer to do? Here are my tips for avoiding the tornado:
Low-to-Zero Expectations:
If I buy a notebook, I do it with full acceptance of the following:
  • It may get used off and on for years or be filled in a month.
  • I’ll have at least two other notebooks in rotation at the same time because I write in whatever I have handy.
  • It will be an unsorted mish-mash of fiction, stream-of-consciousness drivel, grocery lists, and important dates and phone numbers. I will never remember to transfer those important dates to a calendar.
  • Eventually, I will let the kids doodle all over it at a restaurant.
  • At some point, I will spill water or coffee, rendering most of the pages unreadable.
  • 99.9% of any notebook is too boring to re-read.
Take out the trash
Sometimes I need a brain dump before I can settle in to my "real" writing. I set a time limit or a page limit, and I just let go. I don’t dwell on one idea or try to give myself a pep talk. I write about what I need to do, what I don't want to do, what I dreamed about, why I hate my novel, etc. I don't go too deep and I don't try to analyze. When I reach my limit, I stop and move on to the work of the day. The key difference between this and ruminating is that I don't see the negative stuff as anything but taking out the trash. That mindset is critical; you can't believe everything you write.

Wax Poetic

While simply writing down bad feelings isn't very helpful, transforming them into poetry can be. Include line breaks, choose each image and each word carefully, and you might find yourself more involved in crafting a poem than in whatever emotional crisis started your journey into free verse. There's a creative objectivity that goes along with art, and it often gives me the distance I need to get though a bad time.
Her worth was the dusty trail’s
She puts lotion in her hands,
always dry now,
and in the geometry of her skin
sees the cracked desert clay
no water for her thirst.

Get Kinky

There's freedom in writing stream-of-consciousness, letting yourself get as random and weird as your mind will allow without regard for logic or meaning. The following is utter nonsense, but writing it rescued me from a pint of Häagen-Dazs.
Diet Coke + Mentos = Awesome
Devil peals out of my car's subconscious keychain and I'm laughing out loud the nocturne, gentle and slow. Why is that cat clawing at nothing, air, a vacuum, a blue blinding hell-born light?  My mind is bottled up and fizzy and minty-fresh, vaguely European. I'm a Mentos, a science experiment, imploding in the sand. My toes call me and plead to feel the sun.

Try it, really. Your brain will thank you.

Moment by Moment

(Not my actual husband)
Feelings are like leeches—slimy and sticky at the same time. You can't pin them down, but the act of trying tends to make them hold on tighter. So don't write feelings. Write moments. Was there a penny on the floor? Heads or tails? Were you twirling a stolen hotel pen in your fingers? Was there sunlight or lamplight or the flickering of a fluorescent bulb? A moment during a conversation with my husband, between lines of dialogue:
I held the last glass from the dishwasher; it dripped water from its concave base onto my hand. John stood against the counter, slurping the last drops of Kellogg-sweetened milk from a blue ceramic bowl. His sandy hair stuck out in eighty different directions, and his left arm had a bright pink pattern of sleep creases. The children whispered about their cereal being poop, which meant they were eating poop and that made them poopyheads. I pretended I couldn’t hear them over Elmo’s World.

Letting Go

When you're working on a story, sometimes it flows and sometimes it's really work. That's just the writing life. Don't let a journal become an obstacle. If it isn't working for you, put it away. Go make some memories. Let life happen, and if the best times never make an appearance in your stack of notebooks, that's okay. There's more to the writing life than writing.


  1. I'm a big fan of streams of consciousness for getting myself through moments when I'm feeling stuck on a writing project. I'm one who can get very attached to my words, so it's quite freeing to write words that I know I'm going to throw away.

    Also, I used to journal, but it did indeed result in the above cycle, and I did more whining than anything else. So now I just keep a travel journal.

  2. This was great! I did the Artist's Way stream of consciousness idea for about two weeks once. It was great but took up too much of my time.

    I think I might use the Moment By Moment idea to help my with my stalled blog post for tomorrow. Thanks!

  3. Excellent ideas for a confirmed non-journaler like me. I just checked my diary. My last two entries verbatim were:

    July 28, 2011 - Maybe I'll try

    September 3, 2011 - Or not.

  4. LOL, Susan! I love it :)

    My brain dump is very similar to the Artist's Way Morning Pages, but I only do it when I feel like it. The last thing I need is another thing to do every day... I'm still working on showering every day.

  5. I've never been much of a journal writer, but I like your suggestions. Especially the moment by moment.

    But I will make a wager that I'm the worst housekeeper ever. It's like you were channeling me when you wrote that. :)


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