The Healing Journey of Journaling: Madness, Rapture and Angst

By Julia Rosien

Women in conflict with the law have taught me more about my own journals than any book or motivational speaker ever will. I teach journal writing at a federal prison for women. They write to heal. And their writing reflects a path filled with heartache, shame, courage, and for some, hope.

We gathered for the first time on a snowy afternoon in November. The wind pushed against the institutional windows as I wrapped my hands around my steaming coffee. I had just handed each woman a journal. Some leafed through the pages to read the quotes, while others nervously twirled a pen or munched on a bag of chips.

I pointed to a prompt I had written on the board and asked each woman to write it on the first page of their journal.

I am hopeful.
Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes,
knowing that from those remains comes
A new beginning.

Then I asked them to write a poem using that as a model. They could use a list of things to describe themselves and every sixth line had to begin with I am. I sat back as they began to write. When we shared what we’d written, their descriptions of themselves surprised and delighted me. These women were bruised, but not broken.

Here are some of their words:

I am summer,
still as a steamy afternoon,
alive with promise,
the sky is mellow, like an vanilla cookie,
comforting, like my grandmother’s hug, my daughter’s warm hand.

I am a diamond,
a complicated pattern of emotions,
joy, grief, anger and love,
compressed into a perfect, admired jewel,
sparkling and priceless.

I am navigating solo through my life,
the space between sinner and saved,
so much like my other
of a lifetime ago.
similar on the surface, changed inside,
learning the ropes, getting burned, but holding on…

I am hopeful.

Permission to Enter, Please

Each woman stood at a doorway. Some walked through, eager to begin their journey of self-discovery. Others hovered, waiting for guidance. One woman locked her emotional door and left the class. She thought the demons behind that door were just too huge and too powerful to conquer.

My doors differ from a fellow teacher’s doors and from our students’ doors, but they exist. Some people swear they don’t harbor “emotional baggage”; they bury it in a place no one can touch. Instead of the ground though, they’ve buried it behind that door. Each time something terrible happens it gets shoved “in there.” And another padlock is added to that door, until its weight bears the soul down.

I began journaling again during a severe depression. I retreated to my journals to heal, to find a way to live my life with happiness and purpose. Writing created a bridge between my past and the future, between my fear and courage. I soon realized I possessed everything all writers have—paper, pen, language, my mind. I required no special talent, skills or experience—only a willingness to explore my despair and my ecstasy.

Looking back through the journals I’ve kept throughout my life, I wonder about that girl who wrote of her life in melodramatic prose. Her first journal entry is at twelve years old and her letters sit like fat little balls of dough on the lines. At sixteen her free-spirited strokes glide across the page like sails on a boat. Sometimes though, her writing resembles a soul searching desperately for a body as her words trail down the sides and across the bottom. It’s as if she’s afraid she’ll run out of time and forget what it was that was so important. Nothing is written in passive tones; it’s all emotion and angst and tears.

Journal writing is not second nature though, and there have been times in my life that I’ve reduced it to a luxury, something I only do when I have time. But I’ve learned self-care is anything but luxury. Self-nurturing provides the foundation for a fulfilling life. Journaling can be a vital component of that journey.

Moving Beyond

Each of us has unique stories to tell, yet we shy away. When we write to express our feelings, we often censor our true thoughts. When the raw truth puckers our taste buds, we deny the specifics rather than confronting them head-on. Perhaps telling it like it is, rather than how we wish it to be, is not so easy. Editing our words, or sugar-coating the truth, makes swallowing easier.

journal writing isn’t about writing a masterpiece with grammatically correct sentences and stunning phrases. It’s about telling the truth, your truth.

Perhaps you’ve thought of writing, but the time didn’t feel right. Or maybe you thought you didn’t have anything to say, or felt that you couldn’t put pen to paper (or fingers to a keyboard). But journal writing isn’t about writing a masterpiece with grammatically correct sentences and stunning phrases. It’s about telling the truth, your truth. Your words, the color of ink, the slant of your handwriting, and the doodling (or lack of it) makes these stories uniquely your own. There are no deadlines, grades or judgments. Only you determine the start and finish.

Your stories, like fingerprints, memories, emotions and way of processing information make you unique. Dressed up truth is like donning gardening gloves when you’d really rather just stick your hands in the cool, dark earth.

If you can’t delve into the garden with both hands, try using a shovel first, working on the border. Instead of stepping into the middle with a shovel, sit on the edge and examine each event in your life as you would examine a weed or a flower. Write about what you saw one day, what you felt the next. Take baby steps. Remind yourself that expressing your story without censorship is necessary and beneficial.

When you’re ready, take off your gloves. Give yourself permission to bleed and then heal.

We are not who we present to the world, but a complicated tapestry of emotions, experiences and beauty that can’t be realized with a cursory glance. Like the underside of a tapestry, our journals reveal the loose threads of life, the knots and lumps. Looking below helps us understand, even years later. Maybe our journals are more of a guide than anything else. They help us navigate our lives, and maybe they’ll help others understand us after death.

They’ll be our defense and our alibi. They’ll be our secrets, our lies and our truths.

Write it by yourself, for yourself.
Write for your loved ones, your children, your parents, and your significant other.
Write for someone not born yet.

Here are a few suggestions for rediscovering you within your journal:

1. Make Sense of Pain

Write down your traumatic experience using your five senses and your feelings. Keep writing until it becomes less painful and loses its power to hurt you. If you have a chronic or life-threatening illness, for example, a journal can be the perfect place for you to discover your inner strength.

2. Take Control of Your Life

Instead of worrying, turn to your journal. Draw a line down the center of the page. On the left side list what worries you and on the right side list what steps will help you resolve the issue.

3. Stay Focused and Motivated

Whether you are trying to reach a weight loss goal, a financial dream, a spiritual plateau, or an educational aspiration, use your journal to log your progress.

4. Use Your Journal to Practice Positive Thinking

Taking time to list at least one thing you give thanks for. Finding and focusing on at least one positive thing in your life makes it hard to paint your whole world black.

5. Make Scribbling in Your Journal A Happy Habit

Pick a comfortable spot with minimal distractions and try to write for at least 15–20 minutes a day, depending on the subject. A log-type journal requires daily entries while major life issues are best dealt with if you write for a few days in a row.

Julia Rosien wields her pen for newspapers, international magazines and various on-line venues. She teaches creative writing at a women’s penitentiary, and at community college. Words she tries to live by: “Happiness is a way of life, not a destination.” You can find Julia Rosien at her website