Lately, I haven’t been writing.
It’s true, I write copy everyday because it’s my job to do so, but as far as writing creatively for myself, or for publication, or for this blog or my newsletter (which was really picking up steam a few months ago), it just hasn’t been happening.
I’ve always said that I don’t believe in writers’s block. When your livelihood depends on deadlines, writer’s block is a luxury you simply cannot afford. The only way to move forward with a piece is to push onward, most of the time before you’re ready, almost always before you fully understand every nuance of the topic or even the thesis.
When I’m writing the most, it’s when I’m able to take that theory and apply it across all my writing projects — the content and copy I’m contracted to do for businesses, of course, but also the editorials, short stories, blog posts, and newsletters I create to help give my work a deeper sense of purpose.
There is a risk in that approach. Producing for the sake of producing can be both beneficial and troublesome long-term. But I would argue that it’s always better to get something out — to exercise your creative muscles — rather than keeping whatever it is you have to say locked up and smothered ... So if what I’ve been going through isn’t writer’s block, what is it?
It certainly shows the same symptoms as what most people refer to as writer’s block — toiling around in front of a blank page unsure of where I should start. Doubting all of my ideas, convinced that I’ll never have a good idea ever again. Fretting over whether or not I can actually call myself a writer, reeling in imposter syndrome. It’s first-class torture, but it’s not writer’s block. Its fear.
Fear that I’m not good enough.
Fear that I’ll never amount to anything.
Fear that I’m stuck on a hamster wheel that I’ve created.
Fear that I’m “behind” in life.
Fear that I just can’t do it.
Fear tends to seep its way into your life during times when you’re already feeling down and weathered. It’s those instances where you feel like damn, I just can’t catch a break, that the spiral of fear weasels its way in through a crack in the door and before you know it, you’re drowning in a 20 foot wave that you can’t seem to swim out of, over and over and over again. It’s overwhelming. Fear plays on the negative emotions you’re already experiencing, making it a tough cycle to break out of.
There are plenty of books you can read on this subject. I’ve recommended many of them in previous blog posts — You Are a Badass, Big Magic, and The Artist’s Way, among others. It is helpful to gather context around why you might be feeling the way you feel, to read stories of other people who have experienced the helplessness you’re feeling and overcome it with triumph, but most of the time, the answers we’re looking for can’t be found in the pages of someone else’s book. The answers we’re looking for already exist within us, and it just takes a bit of time and coaxing and being vulnerable with ourselves to find them. Enter, journaling.
Why I Journal
Journaling is a constant in my life—one that I’m grateful for and that continues to surprise and inspire me in more ways than one. Most mornings, I start my day with a cup of coffee and about 30 minutes of quiet, alone time to sit down and pour out my thoughts. But sometimes, life gets in the way and I have to run to a doctor’s appointment instead, or I wake up late, or I’m on a deadline, and journaling gets pushed to the side until tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next week.
I can always tell when it’s been too long since I’ve journaled. It usually only takes a couple of days before I start to feel untethered—fitful in my thoughts and unsure of where to begin in terms of decision making or problem solving. I often think of that silly line you see on mugs and t-shirts about [fill in the blank] being cheaper than therapy. For me, that’s definitely journaling, even if the amount of money I’ve spent on artisanal notebooks over the past few years doesn’t quite match up with my Mint goals.
I’m very open with others about the fact that I journal often, and that I need to journal often, but it wasn’t always this way. The idea of “keeping a diary” was so embarrassing throughout middle school and high school that I probably would have written pages and pages more had I simply not cared what my “cool” peers thought about it. One particular incident around the topic was so embarrassing to me that I threw away all my journals from freshman year of high school dating back to who knows when. It was rash, melodramatic, and terribly unfortunate. But I was fifteen and devastated and at the time, it somehow made sense.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. And looking back, that event shows me just how important journaling has always been to me. It’s a place all to myself—a safe, secret hideaway where I can talk about anything, literally anything, without worry of being judged, without anyone else there to tell me I’m overthinking it, without feeling like I need to process my words through a filter. Journaling helps me see, faster than perhaps any other method, the areas in my life where I’m gripping and resisting, and that letting letting go is a lot easier than it seems.
When I talk about journaling with others, I often hear people say that they want to start journaling, too. Lots of people say they used to journal and they want to start again, or they don’t know how to get started. Or, most of all, they just can’t find the time.
Journaling is a commitment. And like any new habit, it takes awhile to get into a groove. It’s painful at first. It will feel forced, unnatural. But if you give it time and practice, it will become something you look forward to and eventually, something that you can’t not do.
There are really no rules to journaling, which for me, is part of the appeal. But I know that scares some people, especially people who aren’t as comfortable writing in the first place. So, while I can’t tell you what will work for you, I can tell you what I do in the hope that it might help you get started or see the practice of journaling in a new light.
How I Journal
I allow myself to write about nothing, if that’s what comes out.
I’m convinced that lot of my journal entries would be pretty boring to read. Much of what I write is just … nothing. It’s the random thoughts that are on my mind, what I have going on that day, what I bought at the grocery store yesterday, how annoyed I am that I missed the bus on the way to work, or how I saw a musician in the park on my walk home. I’ve begun to think about this idea of writing about nothingness as “clearing.” One of my creative writing professors used to start each one of our classes with a clearing time—we’d go around the room and just say whatever it is was on our minds, whatever might be preventing us or distracting us from the elusive creative work at hand.
But if something is bothering me, I address it head on.
Clearing-style writing happens a lot, but if there is something specific bothering me, I try to address it head-on. Sometimes, this is difficult. It’s amazing how talented we are at avoiding the tough topics that need to be addressed, even just within ourselves. So even though it feels uncomfortable and awkward to write about, sometimes it’s really helpful to let out everything that’s on your mind—the good, the bad, the ugly—unfiltered and without pausing to think about it until you’re through. Chances are, after you’ve written it all down, the resolution will be clear, or at least in sight, somewhere down the path.
I try to write for at least three pages.
This is a habit I established when I was reading The Artist’s Way. Morning Pages is the style of journaling The Artist’s Way instructs, and the theory is unless you write for at least three pages, you don’t allow yourself a chance to get warmed up to feel comfortable. I tend to agree with this, so unless I’m short on time, I use the three-page rule as a guideline. Practically speaking, this also depends on the size of the journal you’re using. My current journal is very small, so three pages comes and goes in a matter of minutes. But if you’re using a larger, full-size notebook, three pages is a lot and maybe isn’t necessary or doable, depending on what you need.
I like journaling in the morning.
For the past couple of years, shifting my schedule to wake up earlier to allow myself some “me” time in the morning is a constant goal. It’s not consistent yet. I’ll go through periods when I’m up early enough to read, write, drink coffee, and get some exercise before I have to get to work. Most often, however, it’s not that easy and my schedule is a bit more erratic. Maybe this, again, goes back to the “clearing” philosophy, but I know I’m a better version of myself when I take the time to check in with my thoughts and emotions first thing. It allows me to feel a little more centered and at peace throughout the day. I know mornings don’t work for everyone. If you’re a parent, I imagine mornings are tricky. I also know that some people need to wake up their physical selves before they wake up their mental and emotional selves. Sometimes I wish that were the case for me … I would probably workout more!
After a big event, I write down the moments and details I know I’ll want to remember.
I don’t really go back and read my journals, but I always think about how someday, maybe I will. And occasionally, if I’m working on a piece or trying to remember something specific, my journals are a pretty good record of what was going on with me at that time. After a big event—a friend’s wedding, a family vacation, a wild encounter—I try to record the highlights. This not only gives me the reassurance that this is an important memory I’ll now have recorded forever, but helps me feel even more grateful (more on that below) for the people in my life and the experiences I get to have with them.
I always end in gratitude.
There’s a lot of research (and who knows how many articles) about the power of gratitude and how feeling grateful can really help you get out of a bad mood or a negative spiral of destructive thoughts. I’ve started writing down things I’m grateful for and try to end every journal session with a list of 5–10 things. Making this kind of list can be so game-changing that if I don’t have time to journal, I at least try to pause and write down what I’m feeling grateful for, knowing that it will help me start my day (or end my day) on a positive, abundant stride. Again, there are no rules for this list. I would love to look back through my journals and see how many times I’ve written down coffee as something I’m thankful for. You can be grateful for anything and everything, big or small, which is actually part of the joy and fun of practicing it.
How do you journal? If you don’t but are interested in getting started, what’s holding you back? Let me know in the comments, I'd love to start a dialogue around this topic. Bonus points if you tell us about your favorite notebook. You can never have too many, right?