Journaling for Writers during NaNoJoWriMo October

image of handwritten journal entries by John Steinbeck from his Grapes of Wrath journal
John Steinbeck’s journal for The Grapes of Wrath

Fall is here, and that means we’re getting closer to NaNoWriMo.

One way to start thinking about what to write for NaNoWriMo is to keep a writer’s journal, one that’s primarily about prepping to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days during the month of November.

Writers’ journals are a venerable tradition, used by many writers in the past and increasingly popular today. A writers’ journal can be a conventional “dear diary” journal, of the sort Samuel Pepys kept, or it can be a record of where you are in a writing project, where you need to go, what plot points and character traits you want to remember and emphasize — even your emotional response and impressions about your writing.

John Steinbeck kept a writers’ journal from the beginning of his work on The Grapes of Wrath. He used journaling as a way to help cope with and mitigate his anxiety and stress about writing every day. Sample entries include short notes like these:

 

May 31, 1938: I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day. Just now the work goes well.

June 18: I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty to it… If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity

September 7: So many things to drive me nuts… I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too . . . If only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves.

October 4: My laziness is overwhelming. I must knock it over . . . I’ve been looking back over this diary and by God the pressures were bad the whole damned time. There wasn’t a bit that wasn’t under pressure and now the pressure is removed and I’m still having trouble. It would be funny if my book was no good at all.

Other writers are less interested in their emotional response to their writing, and more interested in counting the words; they often write short notes about the current word count, the daily word count, and what they mean to start writing about in their next session.

567 words this morning; 31789 total. Must figure out who Bryan really is, and why he wants to find the crater. What is his driving need? What will finding the crater do for him?

As a way of prepping for NaNoWriMo, consider starting a NaNo journal. Starting a NaNoWriMo journal now allows you to plan, plot and work on characters and backstory without actually drafting. Consider the NaNoWriMo journal a sandbox for your writerly imagination. A journal can not only be really helpful in terms of concentrating on writing during NaNo November, it can be a great deal of fun.

A NaNo journal doesn’t have to be elaborate; a .99 cent composition book from the corner drugstore, a spiral notebook, or even a small pocket notebook that’s meant to fit in a back pocket or purse are all perfectly fine; whatever works for you. You might be happier and more like to use a journal app that runs on your smart phone. Like a pocket notebook, an app for journaling on your phone is convenient, letting you make quick notes about your WIP while waiting for the bus or during your lunch break. There are journaling apps for Android and iOS. You might even want to use a bullet journal as a writers’ journal.

If you’re intrigued by the idea of journaling, October 1 starts National Journal Writing Month:

National Journal Writing Month (NaJoWriMo) helps you start and maintain a journal writing habit in 30 days. NaJoWriMo is geared toward personal growth, reaching your goals, and recording your life as you live it.

NaNoJoWriMo is a quarterly event (January, April, July and October) meant to encourage people to try journaling. It’s not terribly rule-bound; you can journal as you see fit, with a goal of journaling every day for 30 days. There are daily prompts, as well as lots of tips about starting and maintaining a journaling habit. NaNoJoWriMo has a theme every quarter; this quarter’s theme is Unleashing Your Creative Mind Through Journal Writing. That sounds perfect in terms of NaNoWriMo planning. The NaNoJoWriMo website has a free newsletter; sign up for a free downloadable with lots of tips about starting and maintaining a journaling habit.

Journaling is a great way to start your writing day, and it can be freeing to be able to write without it having to be your WIP. You might want to keep a journal to remind yourself of the good things in your life (an awesomeness journal). Journaling is a one way to freewrite and start your writer brain, especially if you’re struggling with writers’ block or your well of inspiration is temporarily dry. If you’re in front of a keyboard and screen for much of the day, or working on your WIP on your computer, consider journaling with pen and ink (or pencil) as a way to free your writer brain to work on your story while you write differently.

Bullet Journals for Writers

There’s a high probability that you already know what a Bullet Journal is, in which case you can skip ahead. If you think a bullet journal is for gun enthusiasts, read on.

What’s A Bullet Journal?

Image credit: Mike Rohde

As originally designed, the Bullet Journal is a minimalist system relying on a notebook and numbered pages. You use short codes to tag kinds of data and tasks. You create your own pages to suit your personal needs and style. A bullet journal (BuJo for short) is an efficient way to track your time and goals, and other data that you use for short-range and long-range planning.

If you’re completely unfamiliar with the concept, a place to start is the original bullet journal video Bullet Journal – YouTube by Ryder Carroll. I’ve also linked to some useful pieces about how to create, customize and use a bullet journal in the Resources section below.

Bullet Journals for Writers: The Basics

Because a bullet journal is so very flexible, many writers use a BuJo just for managing their writing time and tasks. I find a bullet journal especially useful in terms of tracking multiple projects and deadlines.

The Index

The first thing to do when you start using a bullet journal is to number the pages. (Some notebooks have pre-numbered pages, like the Leuchtturm1917 notebook, but it takes mere minutes to do it by hand).

The second thing to do is reserve the first three or four pages of your notebook for your Index. The Index is a list of pages and what’s on them; it makes finding your information very quick.

Tobias Bucknell, SF/F author, has written a helpful post about his experience creating, using, and customizing a BuJo for use by a writer This is how I Bullet Journal | Tobias Buckell. Bucknell says that for him the Index was a key point in making a Bullet Journal personally useful:

But creating an index, that was interesting. Because now I suddenly, like a light bulb going off, realized I could create not only daily to-dos, but project to-dos, and flip back and forth. Even better, while I used a variety of to-dos via digital software, some projects of mine were getting so complex that I needed a way to glance at the 30,000 foot view quickly.

Bucknell’s post provides a wealth of information about customizing the basic concepts and practices behind bullet journals with lots of specific suggestions about how writers might want to use a bullet journal.

There are lots of writers of every sort using bullet journals; some of your peers are likely using bullet journals, and may very well have some specific tips. In the meantime, here are some suggestions about ways to use bullet journaling as a writer.

The Key

Image credit: Mario Valdez

One of the primary techniques behind bullet journaling is what Ryder Carroll calls “rapid logging.” It means making brief notes about tasks, events and ideas, marked with identifying symbols to make it possible to tell what kind of a note you’ve made, and whether it’s a completed task or event or re-scheduled, at a glance. There’s an “official” Bullet Journal key; it looks like the image to the right. People customize the symbols they use all the time.

Collections are Powerful
A bullet journal Collection is a collection of data; that data can be lists or images or mind-maps or sketches, or trackers (more about trackers later). These are some possible Collections for a writer

  • Backstory and plot notes
  • Character notes (and sketches)
  • Setting notes (and sketches!)
  • Scene or Chapter breakdowns
  • Brainstorming—ask yourself questions about your WIP (why does Whitney go to the barn? What does Simon need? What does Simon want?)
  • Inspirational Quotes (See Tobias Bucknell’s post on starting with a motivational quotation)
  • A list of those words, you know, the ones you can’t spell without having to look them up.
  • List special character and place names, or special spellings of standard words, archaic words, idioms or invented words that you’ll want to submit to your editor so they won’t get changed.
  • Your personal style sheet; leading and trailing spaces before and after em-dashes, or not; spaces before and after ellipses, or not; preferred spellings of words that have options. Sure your editor and publisher may have different opinions, but if you standardize the way you do it, they’ll be much easier to change later, if it’s necessary.
  • Patricia Wrede has some great questions for fantasy world building that are useful to answer in a bullet journal as part of your backstory.

Trackers

Trackers are a visual method of tracking repeated events or habits. They’re often used for things like tracking sleep or miles walked, or water imbibed, or pages read, or words written. Technically, trackers are a subset of Collections in official Bullet Journal terms, but they’re endlessly flexible.

  1. Trackers can be as simple as M T W Th F S S to represent a week.Draw a line through the letter to mark the days on which you met your daily goals.
  2. Use a row of boxes with numbers for tracking monthly goals. Cross off or fill in the boxes on the days you met your goal.
  3. If you want to track multiple daily habits for a month, create a simple graph; habits or tasks across the top of a two-page spread, and numbers for the days of the month down the side of the left-hand leaf. Use a filled- in square or dot or X to mark the task (or habit) you completed under the column across the top. (Here’s a tracker example from Heather Haft).

You can get colorful of course, and there’s lots of advice and models about using trackers in your bullet journal. See for instance Bullet Journal Habit Trackers from Productive & Pretty. Lots of people use trackers to track good habits and health.

Migration

Migration in bullet journal terms refers to an event or task that wasn’t completed when you planned, so you migrate it to another day. In other words, you move it from Tuesday the 6th to Friday the 9th (or whenever). The official Bullet Journal Symbol for migrating something is >; lots of people use other symbols. Part of the point of migration is that you have to write the thing down again every time you migrate; if you find yourself doing this repeatedly, it’s an indication that you really don’t want to do the thing, or, that maybe, it doesn’t really need doing. As Ryder Carroll, the inventor of the Bullet Journal says:

You can reduce the amount of things you have to do by transferring things by hand. If a task isn’t worth the time to rewrite it, it’s probably not important. Spend time with things that are important and be mindful of how you spend your time.

Plan to Write

As writers, we all struggle with time management; with finding time to write. One way that a bullet journal habit can help with that is that you can plan not only the time but what you’re actually going to write.

By reducing the time we spend in non-writing activity in our writing time, we can actually get writing done. Those collections with questions, and character notes, and plot points can be springboards, specific starting points for your daily, nightly or weekly writing time.

Tip: A particularly useful technique in terms of tracking your narrative and writing progress, is to make a note when you end a session about where to start the next session

Bullet Journals are Analog

We’ve got Google Calendar, and iCal and all sorts of ways to sync data between our phones, our computers and our tablets. I’m still using them. But there are some advantages to writing by hand on paper.

  1. Handwriting aids retention.
  2. Handwriting allows us to use the parts of our brain that we don’t when we keyboard; there’s a thing that happens when we’re doodling or brainstorming with a pen in our hand where we solve problems, whether of plot, narration or character motivation, or planning. Some of it is perhaps not conscious, but as we write, we formulate a solution.
  3. Because of the way we concentrate on what we are doing and because it is slower than a keyboard, writing by hand gives us time to think.
  4. There’s something to be said for having a single place to track our time and ideas, especially when we write on a digital screen. Think of the journal as a portable extra screen, one that doesn’t require switching windows or apps.

A Note On Aesthetics

Lots of people spend a great deal of effort on prettifying their bullet journal; if you’ve got the time and skill that’s great. There are some incredibly beautiful BuJo’s out there. Me, I have neither time nor talent. I started my bullet journal in stumbled-upon blank page notebook, using a mechanical pencil and my travel fountain pen.

Bullet Journal Resources

Getting Started
There’s the video that Ryder Carroll made, of course, but these are some particularly useful guides to getting started using and customizing a bullet journal to suit you.

For a quick intro see Buzzfeed’s WTF Is A Bullet Journal And Why Should You Start One? An Explainer

It’s worth signing up to the once-a-month newsletter at Ryder Carroll’s  official bulletjournal.com site to download a copy of the free .pdf starter guide. It’s a cheat sheet for getting started with a bullet journal.

The best starter guide (full of practical suggestions for customizing) is How To Bullet Journal: The Absolute Ultimate Guide from the Lazy Genius Collective. Lots of useful pictures, and down-to-Earth advice.

Kim at Tinyrayofsunshine.com has an excellent Thorough Guide to the Bullet Journal System. Her pictures are very helpful and there are some excellig ideas about simplifying and customizing.

Bullet Journals for Writers

Writer’s Edit’s The Complete Guide to Bullet Journaling for Writers has some excellent suggestions about getting started, tracking submissions and using a bullet journal to plan and to manage NanoWriMo.

Victoria of Something Delicious has more specific tips for writers using bullet journals in Bullet Journaling for Fiction Writers. (Scroll down past the introduction to bullet journaling to see specific tips for writers).

Belle Cooper has some great practical suggestions for using a bullet journal to track freelance writing.

Supplies

There’s a section in the Absolute Write Amazon Store for Bullet Journal supplies; but you might want to try bullet journaling first before making an investment in pens and notebooks.

According to Bullet Journal inventor Ryder Carroll “All you need is a notebook and a pen . . . ” Consider using something you already have to start with (I did!). If you don’t have a blank page notebook (notebook paper isn’t really suitable) consider something like this Amazon Basics Classic Notebook, in either blank or “squared” (graph paper lines).

If you’re sure you’re game, consider using a notebook that has either a square grid (like graph paper) or a dot grid; they’re easier to use for charts, and they make it easier to write legibly.

If you already use a BuJo, let us know how you use it. What tips do you have for those just starting out? What do you suggest in terms of bullet journaling for writers?

My Best Ideas are All Wet

By Sue Marquette Poremba

Without fail, when I am in the shower or the swimming pool, a million article or story ideas flow through my mind. Unfortunately, my notebook isn’t waterproof.

Why the water? Other people sing in the shower. I tend to sing everywhere else, so maybe it is because the shower is the one place where my mouth is shut long enough to get some quality thinking done.

However, I think the best ideas come when you are least able to write them down. When recording my ideas immediately is virtually impossible, my brain goes into overload, but I’ll be lucky if I can remember anything by the time I get to dry land.

It may help too that water is my cheap version of a full-body massage. Water relaxes me. Stress floats away when I sit on the beach, watching the waves wash up on the shore. Rain falling on the roof soothes me to sleep. When I’m in the water, I find my mind uncluttered by thoughts of housework, carpools, and in-laws, allowing my brain to wrap itself around ideas for my writing.

Not only am I completely calm in the water, I’m also completely undisturbed. No one is there to talk to me. Moments completely alone with no other distractions rarely happen outside the water.

In the shower at the gym, my memory drifted to the toddler antics of my now-teenaged daughter, which I turned into a published essay. During a lingering bubble bath, I wondered if the story of an auction would make a nice story (a regional market thought so).

Swimming, while not necessarily the source of the best ideas, gives me the best opportunity to think. There, as my mind works in tandem with my strokes, thoughts flow as complete sentences and paragraphs, with beginnings and endings, an entire article or query letter written, edited, and rewritten during a thirty-minute swim. (I’m convinced that I could complete my novel if I could swim enough laps in one session.)

The problem is keeping the article in my head until I can write it down. I do carry writing goodies with me to the gym, but someone stole my shower stall once when I tried taking a break to jot down some thoughts. At home, there is usually an entourage at the bathroom door, ready to pounce the moment I walk out the door. Swimming? I simply pray that at least a few snippets of the “perfectly written article” will stay with me until I get to my computer. Sometimes that happens—an article about marriage and exercise virtually wrote itself on paper after it was developed in the pool. More often, though, the swimming stories are like dreams—foggy at best, completely forgotten at worst, evaporated by the time I get to the hot tub.

My best ideas are all wet. All I need to do is dry them off.

Sue Marquette Poremba is a freelance writer based in central Pennsylvania. Her writing credits include The Christian Science Monitor, Road King, iParenting.com, and Notre Dame Magazine, among others.

Write an Article a Day: Using an Outline Template

By Larry M. Lynch

So many readers wrote to ask me for my simple article writing template mentioned in “Five Ways Posting to Article Banks Can Spark Your Writing” that I decided to flesh it out just a bit as another complete article. A sincere “Thank you” to all of you who responded so kindly. It was none other than Abraham Lincoln who said, “Whatever you are, be a good one.” Writing practice makes perfect. This format helps me to do just that. It will help you to practice your writing, too—a lot.

Use This Simple Outline Template for Writing Online Articles

Here is the short, simple outline template that I use to tell me if I have enough information for an online article. It also helps me to organize what I have and ensures that I stay on track with the flow of the article. Follow this format and you’ll have absolutely no trouble writing an article each day once you get the hang of it.

First I draft this out by hand and if there’s enough or almost enough information, then I know the article is a “go.” If not, I can either research the additional data I need or simply scrap that article idea for a new one—I always have plenty of ideas, don’t you? On occasion, working through the article outline template will spur the piece or idea into a slightly different direction. That’s fine too, so I just “go with it.” I sincerely hope this basic online article outline template helps you generate more writing faster.

Headline: Write A Killer, Stop-Them-Dead-In-Their-Tracks Article Headline.

You must slam the reader to a screeching halt when he reads your headline. Online, if you don’t grab readers, they’re gone. Your piece won’t even get read as the lost reader tunnels deeper into the bowels of the web and into another author’s article only a couple of mouse clicks or so away.

  • Put reader benefits into a Hooker Headline
  • Use keywords for SEO (search engine optimization)
  • Try out at least four or five different titles for each article
  • Use an online keyword search tool to help narrow down high-frequency and top-rated keywords

Opening Paragraph:Write a killer opening sentence and a grab-’em-by-the-throat first paragraph.

In addition to a Hooker Headline, you’ll need a Hooker opening sentence and paragraph, one that will draw your reader in and give him reasons to start or continue reading. Based on this paragraph readers frequently decide to read the article or not, so make it as strong as you can. You must grab and hold the reader here. Your opening paragraph should be attention-grabbing, short, and descriptive. At times I even use my first paragraph as the “teaser” description of my article.

Main Feature Paragraph 1:

Write at least three supporting sentences for each main point in your article. Typically there are five to seven feature paragraphs to an article. Often though, I’ll write five to seven supporting sentences for each main feature paragraph for a somewhat longer, more in-depth piece. I’ll also add more support for each main feature if there are only three or four of them in the piece. If there are online references or websites you’d like to include, bullet them at the end of the paragraph. You can also include a quote, anecdote, and another reference to flesh out the main feature if you wish. You can open with an anecdote or quote if you have a strong one to pique reader interest.

  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Quotes
  • Anecdote
  • Reference

Main Feature Paragraph 2:

  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Quote, anecdote or reference (or a combination thereof)

Main Feature Paragraph 3:

  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Quote, anecdote or reference (or a combination thereof)

Main Feature Paragraph 4:

  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Quote, anecdote or reference (or a combination thereof)

Main Feature Paragraph 5:

  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Supporting sentence to illustrate main feature
  • Quote, anecdote or reference (or a combination thereof)

Conclusion (Wrap Up):

Write a strong closing summary of your piece as a conclusion to your arguments or information. Leave the reader hungry for more—you’re not writing a definitive piece on the topic. You don’t have the time, space or necessity for that. Do give plenty of GOOD information, but if there are things you must leave out— great. Include them in another article—a part two, etc., if you need to. There’s no problem with that. Be sure to dress up, clean up, and edit what you’ve written– at least twice. Finally, you could add a phrase similar to “For even more helpful advice and information on ‘your topic’ go to ‘your website, e-mail, etc.'” It’s really a nice touch if you can tie your closing in with your opening.

I sincerely hope this basic article outline template helps you generate more writing faster. Again, following this format, you’ll have absolutely no trouble writing an article each day once you get the hang of it. If you have a question, doubt or just want to let me know how it’s working out for you, please feel free to drop me an e-mail—even after you’re famous. Good luck and keep writing.

Prof. Larry M. Lynch is a bilingual copywriter, expert author, and photographer specializing in business, travel, food, and education-related writing in South America. His work has appeared in Transitions Abroad, South American Explorer, Escape from America, Mexico News, and Brazil magazines. He teaches at a university in Cali, Colombia.

20 Ways to Keep Your Writing Inspiration and Creativity High

By Catherine Franz

When we are stressed or blocked, it is wise to make a change so that we don’t stay in that place. Yet many times we forget some of the simple things that we can do for ourselves, quickly and easily, to bring our inspiration back and increase our creativity.

  1. If you usually type your first drafts, hand write them. Nothing compares to the feeling of the ink melting into the paper and the surge of that creative flow.
  2. If you spend too much time at the computer, take a break every hour. Go for a walk or just sit outside in the sun. Even five minutes in a winter sun does wonders for a mood and creativity.
  3. Flip through magazines or books. Their colors and ideas will give you sparks and switch your attitude. Blue and green can reduce your stress levels by 30% or more.
  4. Add strong smells to the room. Light scented candles around you, visit the fruit aisle at the grocery store, or go to a store that is heavily scented. Find an orange or strawberries and smell it. Both will change a mood or create inspiration. Smells awaken your creativity. Smells trigger memories and are a great method to rekindle stories from the past.
  5. Go see or rent an inspirational movie. Relaxation time is important. You can even take your notebook and record inspirational phases. Afterwards, free write what those phrases bring up from your subconscious.
  6. Read a book that stirs you or sparks your creativity. If you prefer, read poetry.
  7. Look at bold and bright colors for a few minutes. These change your mood.
  8. Talk with a friend about your topic to flesh out ideas and creativity. Record the conversation, with his or her permission of course, and play it back to hear the little nuances that you might have missed.
  9. Write an e-mail to a friend to tell him or her what you want to accomplish. If you are stuck, say so and ask for help.
  10. Check in with your vibrational energy and do something to switch it into high gear. Take a shower. Go for a walk. Turn on some music and dance naked for a few minutes.
  11. Hire a virtual assistant to do some typing so that you can stay focused on writing. You can fax your writing or dictate it into the computer and send her a voice file for transcription.
  12. Go to church for the noon service or whisper a prayer or two. This reconnects your energy with the universe and replenishes what might be missing.
  13. Complete an appreciation exercise. Pick something around you, like the telephone, lamp, or pen. Talk to it and tell it how much you appreciate having the electricity to turn it on, the opportunity to write with a tool that has the ink inside (not like a quill), or the softness of the paper you write on. Be grateful for that you have and not what you are missing. Or make a list of “count your blessing” items.
  14. Write a personal note to friends or family and tell them how much you love them, appreciate their thoughtfulness, or kindness.
  15. Authentic, flat-out, raw laughter frees the psyche and opens the creativity process.
  16. Find a setting with lots of trees and flowers and feel nature. If the weather permits, take off your shoes and socks and feel the grass between your toes. Nature has a way of freeing our spirit and renewing our soul.
  17. If guilt or a past incident has captured your mind, write a “Dear Me” letter and ask yourself for forgiveness to to loosen its grip and expand your freedom.
  18. Are you used to writing in a quiet place? Find a noisy place to write, like McDonald’s or the mall. When your space is noisy, you will have to focus harder in order to write with clarity.
  19. Go for a quiet leisurely drive, listen to a favorite CD. You can sing out of tune and no one will notice (laughter allowed).
  20. Do something nice for someone else that you wouldn’t normally do and be a gracious receiver of a hug.

That was exciting, wasn’t it? Post this list in a conspicuous place so that it is readily available when you need it. Do one or two of these daily and keep on writing. Your readers are waiting to read your words.

Catherine Franz is a marketing industry veteran, a Certified Business Coach, Certified Teleclass Leader and Trainer, speaker, author, and Master Attraction Practitioner. Business clients include professional firms, restaurants, retail stores, coaches, writers, the marketing challenged, and independent professionals across the globe from Japan to New Zealand.

Limiting Computer Time

By Katherine Huether

Most of my day is spent on the computer. I check e-mail, write queries, and use my word processing programs to complete the bulk of my assignments. Recently, I spent a day without my computer. I spent some time feeling lost and unhappy without my laptop and Internet access. Then, I dusted off my journal and started writing longhand for a change.

The end result of my time away from the computer was that I experienced more creativity and motivation than I have in a while. I’ve made it a goal to limit my computer use and spend at least one day a week away from the computer. I find that I need this weekly rest away from my writing and my “work.” Here are all the benefits I’ve experienced from this weekly ritual.

More Balance

When I first began my writing career, I felt that I needed to spend every free minute I had working. My kitchen was a mess, my house became disorganized, and my exercise and grooming routines both fell apart. My life was out of balance.

Even though I currently spend less time writing and developing my business, I am more productive. That day off recharges my mind and helps me use my time more efficiently. I exercise more, I eat well, and I spend time with my family.

Make a list of all the aspects of your life that feel disorganized and out of balance and make sure you give yourself ample time during your week to work on them.

Living Life

As a writer, I get most of my ideas from my life. When I spend all my time working, it is easy to run out of ideas. Since I take time away from technology and my business, I am experiencing life and giving myself a chance to develop new ideas.

Even if you don’t have the luxury of taking a whole day off, you can still schedule time each day to turn off your computer and ignore all telephone calls. Do something for yourself. Go for a walk. Take a bath. Plant some flowers. Go out for dinner. Make sure you bring your journal along so you can write down any ideas that may come to you.

Journaling

A journal is a powerful tool. There’s something about writing longhand that can spark creativity. Use unlined paper; this opens you up even more because you aren’t constrained by the lines provided. Do writing exercises. Observe the world around you. Jot down any ideas or thoughts. Write a poem. Keeping a journal on the computer doesn’t have the same effect. Turn off your computer at least once a day and find an inspiring place to write. Let yourself write whatever comes to mind. Then, go back through it later to extract all those little bits that can be turned into an article or story.

Stress

Although helpful, technology can also be stressful. Yes, computers, laptops, e-mail, cell phones, and our personal electronic organizers do make our jobs easier. But what happens when the phone rings all day and you check your e-mail on an almost minute-by-minute basis? This can promote stress. It isn’t necessary to respond to every call and e-mail you get as soon as you get it. In fact, it can cause stress.

Checking e-mail only a few times a day and letting voice mail pick up your calls can help you relax. Stress hurts creativity. When you are relaxed you can be more productive with your writing time and it is easier to come up with new ideas.

Greater Productivity

Yes, spending time away from your computer and from e-mail every now and then does enhance productivity. I know it seems hard to believe. I mean, it seems like you need to actually be at your computer in order to get things done.

I don’t know about you, but when I sit at my computer all day, I start to zone. I play a game or two of solitaire. Then I check my e-mail. I finally start writing but I can only write one sentence before I feel stuck.

At that point, I know I should switch off the computer and do something else. It’s time to take a break and at the very least do some housework. But when I take a REAL break away from the computer and take out my journal or get some exercise, that is when my mind starts to organize my thoughts and ideas and I am better able to return to my work refreshed and more productive.

Small Steps

Intrigued? You may want to start with small steps. Try taking a few ten minute breaks throughout your work day. Build up to taking an entire day off. You will be more creative and productive and have a lot more things to write about because you will be experiencing life

Katherine Huether is a freelance writer who takes care of the majority of her business with her computer. Her work has appeared in Herbs for Health and Herb Quarterly. Katherine Huether has a website.

Keeping a Journal in Tumultuous Times

By Barbara Stahura

Memory is a tricky thing even in the best of times. But in times of great stress and chaos, you might as well kiss it goodbye, for all the good it will do you in accurately recalling events. When your world explodes, memory, too, falls into fragments around your feet — disjointed pieces that later shape-shift, ooze into old recollections or couple with imagination to create new patterns, or disappear altogether. So when I entered the most agonizing, confusing time of my life, I took my journal along and wrote pages in it nearly every day. As a wife and an individual in the midst of turmoil, and also as a writer, I’m grateful that I did.

At the end of 2003, my husband, Ken, sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as the result of a hit-and-run. For a short time, the accident shattered my life into chaos. Later, I settled into a weird rhythm so disconnected from my familiar life that it often left me breathless (and once sent me to the ER with chest pains). I had to maintain any stability I could for Ken’s sake, and for mine. Beginning the morning after the accident, I wrote in my journal nearly every day. At the time my reasons for journaling weren’t necessarily defined. I simply felt a driving need to record my thoughts. Now, though, I’ve had time to sort out and reflect on those reasons.

First, in the exhausting, agonizing weeks that followed the accident, I felt as if I had been cast into the deepest ocean without a life jacket. Visible land — the life to which I hoped to return with my recovered husband — was only a hazy strip in the far distance. Journaling provided a way to ground myself, at least for little snatches of time. It was a safe, private haven where I poured out my confusion, anger, and sorrow.

This had a positive result since I was less likely to express these emotions in the wrong place, as in the ICU, for instance, when Ken’s neurologist saw no need to speak with me. Furthermore, though any medical emergency is confusing, the addition of a TBI complicates the situation even more. The brain controls everything we do, directing not only our mental functions like memory and cognition, but also our personality, emotions, and all the other functions that blend together to create a self. And when the self of someone you love more than your own heart is diminished and damaged the way Ken’s was, you clutch whatever you can to keep yourself afloat. I clutched my journal as if our lives depended on it.

Second, Ken’s memory was damaged by the TBI (fortunately, it has returned, with only slight deficits). He remembers nothing of the earliest weeks after the accident and not much of his time in the rehab facility and the second acute care hospital where he was taken after developing a pulmonary embolism. Early on, I figured he might one day like to know what happened to him, to me, and to us during this lost time. I wrote in my journal for him, too. After he came home and was well enough to comprehend it (and, I’ll admit, decipher my handwriting), he read the entire journal and was grateful I had written so extensively.

Writers have long teased personal essays, memoirs, poems, and even fiction from true-life journal entries.

And, finally, I kept the journal because I am a writer. I knew I would eventually want to write my truth about this watershed event in our lives, and how could I do that without a record? To be enveloped by crisis and wanting to record it so I could later write about it, and even profit from it, can sound self-serving. Perhaps it is. But other writers understand. Writers have long teased personal essays, memoirs, poems, and even fiction from true-life journal entries. In the past eight months, I’ve read half a dozen memoirs from TBI survivors and their families, all of which used journal entries as memory aids and even as direct sources of narrative. And all of them have given me a clearer understanding of the devastation, struggle, and hope that surround this injury that is unlike any other a human being can sustain.

Like prehistoric pollen captured in cores of ancient ice, little nuggets of information glisten in a journal long after an event. Just as scientists use that pollen to infer a great deal about climate and plant life in centuries past, we writers can use our journal nuggets to illuminate much larger portions of our stories. Until I re-read my journal after Ken came home, I’d forgotten a bizarre, significant dream from two weeks after the accident. Now incorporated into the memoir I’m writing, this dream reminds me that I occasionally felt hopeful during the days when my husband sometimes couldn’t remember my name and when exhaustion and despair whitewashed my other emotions. I’ve also referred to my journal when writing several personal essays about Ken and brain injury. Each time, I’ve unearthed something vanished from my conscious memory that allowed me to present a clearer picture.

It can be wrenching to read my journal entries and relive those horrible, frantic weeks after Ken’s accident. But my journal now provides me something precious that was not available then: the luxury of remembering, at a distance and in great detail. Instead of feeling frustrated because that time has evaporated from my memory, I can turn to my journal. I didn’t record everything, of course, but I preserved enough to allow me to reconstruct events, feelings, and situations that otherwise would have been lost forever. As Ken’s wife, I’m gratified he also found value in my journal. And as a writer, I hope that what I scribbled all those months ago may someday have value to others who love TBI survivors.

Barbara Stahura is a freelance writer in Tucson, Arizona, who has written for a number of print and online publications, including Science & SpiritThe ProgressiveSpirituality & Health, and MSNBC.com. Barbara Stahura has a website.

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

The Value of Writing Prompts

By Uma Girish

I often feel like a motor car, for I have starting trouble.
Pen poised over paper, I wait for the words to trickle.
Rarely do they gush from the word “go.”

When my brain does the freeze-mode act, I flick the computer on and run through my “Favorites” list. I look for a writing prompt that will thaw my machinery. I pick one that catches my fancy, then set my timer and start to scribble.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a big believer in the value of writing prompts to rev up my writing session. A writing prompt lubricates my creaking creative joints and limbers them up nicely so they can do cross stretches when I need fresh, inspiring ideas. Believe me, it works.

What I do is very simple. I give myself a program to follow.

  1. For the next fifteen minutes I will write non-stop.
  2. I will correct nothing; I will simply let my thoughts flow, whether they’re good, bad, or ugly.
  3. I will not think about grammar, punctuation, and syntax; I will let the words pour out of me.
  4. I will start my writing session with a positive reinforcement — I know I can do this really well.

When the timer goes off, I zoom back to the real world, and find I want to write more. When I read what I’ve written, I cringe, groan, shudder. A lot of it needs re-working, but I invariably spot a gem or two in the huge word rubble. Gems that I can polish and buff for later use.

I’ve actually sold a lot of work that started out as ordinary writing prompts and morphed into personal essays and short stories. What happens when I consciously turn off the Inner Critic is that my writing is unshackled, my ideas flow freely. I find a glimmer of something, the beginnings of an idea, a phrase I didn’t think I could produce. All valuable grist for the writing mill.

Many of us have trouble deciding how to start, and what to write when we arrive at our desks. I have at least 4–5 jobs on my To-Do list but I sometimes cannot figure out if I’m in the mood for a personal essay, a work of fiction, or an article that needs to tap into my reporting skills. So I choose my prompt of the day. Write about jealousy. Sounds simple enough. I’ve been jealous a million times, over issues big and small, and I can surely unearth one anecdote worth telling. I follow my instinct and slowly feel the sluice gates open wider and wider.

There was a time when my writing day got off to a predictable start with a prompt. With my top-heavy To-Do list I find myself diving into my assignments right away these days. But I always turn to a prompt to rescue me from dry days and find that it unclogs word passages and frees up idea highways.

Sites that Offer Writing Prompts

Uma Girish is a freelance writer based in Chennai (India), and mother of an 8-year-old. She writes both adult and children’s fiction. Her articles on parenting, freewheeling columns and short fiction have appeared in newspapers, magazines and websites. She has written extensively about coping with grief. You can find her Web site at UmaGirish.com