Category Archives: Basic methods

Journal method #7: Reflecting

Clear rural pond at sunset reflects a horizon of trees and light.While thousands of journal prompts ask us to launch into reflecting on something specific, this post will examine reflection itself as a tool—one that you can pull out to enhance your journal even after you’ve started writing a new entry.

Consider prescribing yourself a dose of reflection whenever you find your diary reverting to a bland factual account of daily weather and completed tasks. Conversely, reflection can also fruitfully intervene when you’ve hit a rough patch and find that these days, your diary seems to serve only to vent a geyser of negative feelings, often in unoriginal, heated language.

Reflection works differently from other journal methods because any time while writing in a journal, you can pause and reflect. Stephanie Dowrick, in The Creative Journal, comments that “the process of journal writing gives you an invaluable measure of distance between yourself and your thoughts . . . I cannot emphasize too strongly how helpful this [measure of distance] is.” She describes reflective writing as a process of “’making room’ inside my own mind so that new thoughts can arise” (15).

So, how do you go about reflecting? To reflect means to break off and make sense of what you see. You give yourself a chance to examine what was just written, identify connections, patterns, or contradictions, and relay these findings in the next few sentences, as annotations, or in a later entry.

In contrast to journal methods that ask for concrete, immediate observation or a lightning-quick sequence of unprocessed thoughts, reflection takes more time to think before writing and involves intentionally stepping back. The “stepping back” matters most—yet another spatial metaphor for that process of creating “a measure of distance” or “making room” for focused work.

That new space opens within the mind of the journal-keeper. In a way the writer splits into two selves: one that can experience while another makes sense of the experience. Two common stylistic indicators of reflection in a diary include introducing the pronoun “you” and phrasing ideas in the form of questions. Both these linguistic moves give rise to implied dialogue between two subjects.

On the surface, these moves may appear to shift power toward a person other than the writer—an implied reader who is directly addressed as “you” or presented with a question to answer. But given the tradition that a diary is private and has no reader, reflection in a journal takes place within the writing self alone. A version of talking to oneself, it allows the writer’s mind to entertain and develop more than a single perspective.

In her book Diary Poetics Anna Jackson persuasively shows how the “you” in many examples of modern journal entries make more sense if “you” is taken as referring to the diarist, rather than a hypothetical reader. Instead of “I” (the writer) addressing “you” the potential reader, the second-person pronoun instead lets the writer build mental distance between an experiencing self and a reflective consciousness. (Sometimes the diarist may feel a need to protect the self at even greater distance by using third person to write about themselves.)

The use of questions likewise implies the two-sidedness of a conversation—or at least a sense that someone (outside or within) is listening to the journal-keeper and invited to respond.

Overuse of the reflective method may call out for its own counterbalancing. Analytical language can begin to feel detached and generalized, so a lengthy reflective passage may find itself giving way to “juicier” stylistic methods like specific descriptions, action scenes, or language that evokes direct sensations, whether emotional or physical.

Remember, too, that the insights gained in reflection only represent your thoughts at the current time. In the triumph of figuring something out, it can feel tempting to view that new interpretation as the final word on a subject, especially an emotionally complicated issue that matters deeply to you.

So even as you round off the reflection, you’ll want to leave the door open to re-question, reframe, and possibly someday replace today’s conclusions as the flow of time continues and the pages of future experience unfold.


Journal method #6: Snippets & scraps

Readers savor the collection of miscellaneous odds and ends that form the collage of the diary. We expect a diary entry to travel freely across the writer’s thoughts, without regard to logical or grammatical transitions.

If you’ve been writing long discursive entries, consider breaking it up:  Do several different things on the same page, and don’t even try to connect the series. Give voice to a brief expression, leave some blank space, and move on.

A single image, a succinct comment, a quick recap of a recent incident, a rapidly sketched verbal portrait of someone you met or saw today, a check-in with your physical body, a flashback to the hour before dawn when you woke during the thunderstorm, the salient question on your mind—you can give a moment of attention to each little piece as you inscribe them, one after another, in your journal.

For this method, aim to keep each burst of writing energy brief and self-contained. The jottings may vary in length from a handful of words to a couple of sentences. Fill a page, attending with fresh attention to the vitality and sharpness of each piece.

Don’t confuse this method with an exercise in automatic writing or freewriting that requires you to keep the pen moving without lifting it from the page as you pour out an unedited stream of consciousness. Rather, while forming these scraps take all the time you want to pause and consider what the scrap will include, to think about your wording and the shape of a phrase. Sentence fragments may feel right for some of the bits and pieces, while others will tend to speak themselves in sentences.

Possibly a few of the scraps will consist of material other than words. Your exercise in miscellany may open space to sketch a small picture, set down a line of music, or tape a preserved memento like a ticket stub, pressed leaf, recipe, or news clipping, on the page.

If you go about it mindfully and clearly, setting down each scrap as it occurs to you, a fuller picture made up of these disparate pieces may later emerge, revealing connections traced by your imagination and memory as you wrote. Such patterns become visible only with time. Virginia Woolf refers to this process in the well-known passage where she describes the ideal diary as

some deep old desk or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art. The main requisite, I think, on reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of a censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time. (Diary, April 20, 1919)

When vignettes stand out separately on a diary page, we think of the most highly condensed literary forms: the haiku, aphorism, imagist poem, couplet, or epigram. Maybe your own scraps will assume one or more of these shapes—or maybe your own favorite examples will weave themselves in among your own writing as quotation and counterpoint, in the age-old tradition of the “commonplace book,” a diary that consisted entirely of other people’s words.


Journal method #5: Shaping a day

Maybe you don’t keep a daily diary, and even take pride in how your journal cultivates an elastic sense of time: an open-ended approach that lets you focus on the immediate moment of writing, venture back to reflect on significant incidents in the past, or list the current ongoing circumstances in your life. Yet despite its marvelous flexibility to travel across minutes, weeks, or years, any journal or diary, at the very root of its name, retains a privileged connection to one well-defined span of time: the day.

You can honor the form’s tradition of dailiness by choosing to dedicate the occasional entry to a detailed sketch or portrait of your day. Tristine Rainer, in The New Diary (Updated for the 21st Century) makes the point that you gain the greatest benefit from this type of entry “if you have time to expand it as fully as possible, to push beyond an outline of the day’s activities” in order to dwell on the nuances, sensory textures, and highlights of insight or emotion that defined the shape of this 24-hour period.

Rainer acknowledges that a full chronicle of every day “could become exhausting and dull.” But if practiced “occasionally,” she asserts that “a complete record of the day will give you a sense of the complex, detailed fabric of your life” (27).

To enhance the challenge, instead of spelling out or labeling your emotional state(s), you could try allowing your feelings to seep through the vocabulary and phrasing that describe the day. The tone of selected words, the entry’s pace and rhythm, explanations of context, commentary, which aspects of the day you choose to focus on and how you arrange them—all these elements of apparently objective description will reveal your mood and interior life.

Equally accomplished as novelist and diarist, Virginia Woolf understood how thoroughly perception shapes experience. As she wrote in her 1919 essay, “Modern Fiction,”

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday.

In this passage Woolf implies that we can use our “ordinary” minds to view every “ordinary” day as not just unique but extraordinary—as offering a treasury of sensations, ideas, perceptions, reactions, interactions, and feelings that may strike you as momentary or entrenched. Unless the day is extraordinarily bad—perhaps muffled in unbearable strain or grief that places caring for yourself above working in the journal—you can practice uncovering the day’s richness in all that it presents.

Followed through from dawn to dusk, from the shrill of a morning alarm to the ritual of settling in at bedtime, whether the day marks itself in hours, in scheduled and unscheduled events, encounters with other people, mealtimes, pastimes, or outings—the full description of its turning-points, its ebb and flow of energies, will do more than illuminate just that one day. Looking back at the entry will tell you more than reviewing a page in an old calendar. You’ll perceive again what life felt like, and survey all that you received and responded to during this time.

Samuel Pepys typically began his diary entries with the phrase “Up betimes” and ended with, “and so to bed.” This formula of daily rising and retiring would predict a chronicle of an ordinary person’s activities over many thousands of mostly ordinary days. But if you can write about your days with the vitality and enthusiasm that Pepys brought to the task, maybe people will be reading your diary almost four centuries from now.


Journal method #4: Loosen the bounds–work outside the book

Some journal prompts bring up a strong feeling of resistance. Why? For me, it’s the loose and sloppy ideas, like free-writing for 20 minutes without ever lifting your hand from the page, experimenting with the pen held in your non-dominant hand (reviving the awkward stage of learning to write), or scripting a dialogue between yourself and some imagined entity, such as a person who once wronged you, a spiritual wisdom figure, or your own body.

I recognize that formal experiments generate material you wouldn’t get otherwise. They make you loosen up and try something fresh, even risky, in your journal. Like anyone, I feel tempted to see what may emerge from my subconscious mind if I try such methods.

But when I imagine those “loosening up” activities on the page of my journal, I come up against something I am reluctant to admit: I view my journal as not just a process, but a product.

I know. Most schools of journal-writing caution us against holding our journal to any standard. In a journal, they say, “anything goes.” You can’t do it wrong. The journal creates a place of freedom from our inner critic, release from the perfectionism that too often creeps into our writing.

Besides, to see journal-writing as pure process feels therapeutic. A free and open-ended diary offers great value in helping to sort out ideas and feelings. The practice of writing a journal settles the mind, and often brings new clarity to a confusing situation. I’ve found every one of these claims borne out in my own experience. But . . . that’s not all I want from my journal.

I want to go back and read the journal someday. Maybe others will read it too. And speaking for myself as future reader, I don’t relish the prospect of wading through illegible pages poured out in a rush as the stopwatch ticked away. I don’t want to revisit those embarrassing efforts to speak in the voice of my body or of my nemesis. I don’t want, in a word, to cringe.

Fortunately, I have a solution. Turns out you can have it both ways. How? Simple but radical: You can engage in journal-writing that doesn’t end up in the book.

When a journal-keeping prompt gives you that doubtful feeling, yet you can’t keep from wondering what the process might reveal, take up a loose sheet of paper, and get down to writing on it. That piece of paper may end up getting inserted into your journal as an entry, or it may get filed in a folder that feeds other writing projects—or it may end up in the trash. Even if you crumple and discard the page, you’ll know something you didn’t know before.

Maybe in your journal, you’ll reflect on the insights gained from writing in this undisciplined manner, this cheesy format or this kooky style. If it opened your mind and widened your perspective, the investment has paid off. At the same time, you don’t need to preserve something that was never intended as a product. Developing a skillful and versatile style for your journal may entail some detours that boost stylistic experimentation and personal growth, but these don’t have to become part of the journal that lives on into the future.


Journal method #3: Expand the present

Diaries can heighten awareness of the immediate moment—for example, by writing a “here and now” entry—but they also offer a chance to interpret Now or “the present time” more broadly, as the current phase or chapter in one’s life.

Two classic books on journal-keeping explore ways to expand the present moment into a longer time-period from which to move forward. “There are steps to action, but no formula,” says Christina Baldwin in her book Life’s Companion. Baldwin claims that you can more clearly see the steps toward positive change once you establish a clear understanding of where you are now.

Adopting an honest view of the current reality is crucial, because as Baldwin adds, “we need to make use of the world as it is. Only from the position of being fully in the world can we influence it” (285). To this end, Baldwin offers a sentence-completion exercise that repeatedly opens with the stem phrase “Current reality is . . . “ She invites journal-keepers to create a page of sentences each beginning with that stem, to “make an objective list of the circumstances in your life.”

After listing the factual circumstances, Baldwin next suggests using the same sentence-stem (“Current reality is . . . “) to detail, in simple declarative statements, the emotions felt by the journal-keeper about the circumstances listed in the first part of the exercise. Though it may not seem like this exercise would reveal anything that the journal-keeper doesn’t already know, try it! Many have found clarifying value in writing out these lists and seeing what emerges, as a first step toward action for change.

A more intuitive way to place oneself between past and future, or “position oneself in the present,” comes from Ira Progoff’s Intensive Journal method. “Now is not limited to the immediate instant,” Progoff writes in his book, At A Journal Workshop. Instead, “we stretch the present moment back as far as it needs to go in order to include as much of the past as is still an active part of the present.”

This “present moment” could be longer or shorter depending on the person. It usually goes back to some significant event that continues to influence the writer’s life. Progoff writes:

For one person this present period in his life may reach back three years since he had a car accident and was hospitalized. Because of the changes it brought about, the period of time since that event is the Now. For another person this present period may be merely a few weeks since she met a new friend, moved to a different city, began a new job, or underwent some other significant change in her circumstances. Since that time her life has borne the imprint of that event, and it, therefore, is the definitive factor in this present period. (47)

To launch this exercise Progoff asks the writer to take a few minutes, with eyes closed, to reflect on the implications of the question, “Where am I now in my life?” Instead of thinking about it deliberately, the goal is to relax in a meditative state, allowing an image or sensation to emerge in response to this question. The awareness may come in many forms—perception, symbol, metaphor—and can be described with the sentence stem, “It is like . . . “ followed by a description of what has revealed itself.

As a final step to consolidate this insight, Progoff has the journal-writer step back and look at this present period more consciously:

  • When did it start?
  • What are the main outer and inner events that stand out when thinking about this time?
  • How has it generally felt to be you? Is it a difficult time, a joyous time, a time of grieving?
  • What events have focused on the physical experiences of your body?
  • What relationships with others stand out, especially conflicts or newly strengthened connections?
  • What internal events—dreams, emotional states, transformation through art or spirituality—had a strong influence?
  • Have habits or beliefs changed during this period?

For Baldwin and Progoff, the purpose of dwelling in the present and understanding the “now” is ultimately focused on the future. “Present time” entries build a vantage point from which to envision and set forth in a new direction. Such a dynamic model implies that circumstances continue to change, and that the journal-keeper can choose where to go from here.


Journal method #2: Lists

The highly popular Bullet Journal relies on a format perennially used in diaries: the list. A few years back Ryder Carroll created this system to show people “how to neatly funnel all their notes and projects into one notebook.” BuJo, as it’s affectionately nicknamed, offers a streamlined system of trackers, schedules, logs, and occasional longer passages of reflection.

The clarity of a list punctuated with bullet points appealed to Carroll, who originally trained as a designer, because of his conviction that “few design conventions can do so much with so little.” A list collects and orders information in the quickest, most compact, and simplest manner possible. Hence, as Carroll acknowledges in The Bullet Journal Method (2018) “the list is the core design pattern in the Bullet Journal” (255).

Ryder Carroll was not the first to build a journal system around lists. Some of the earliest known diaries rely on list-making, all the way back to the Medieval Japanese “pillow-books.” Sei Shōnagon, poet and court attendant to Empress Teishi (Sadako) around the year 1000, wrote a famous Pillow Book that included her personal collection of entertaining and thought-provoking lists. Her lists have titles like “Things That Give a Clean Feeling,” “Things That Give an Unclean Feeling,” “Things That Seem Better at Night Than in the Daytime,” “Things That Look Pretty but That Are Bad Inside,” “Adorable Things,” “Things That Make One Nervous,” “Presumptuous Things,” and “Things with Frightening Names.”

Lying between the fanciful lists of a pillow-book and the pragmatic value of organizing one’s life with the BuJo system, a spectrum of list-making practices can enrich the content of any journal.

On the most basic level, when life gets incredibly busy and you find yourself with less than five minutes to spend with the journal, a great quick method is to divide the page into two columns labeled with “plus” and “minus” signs. In these columns, simply jot down a few words noting what’s good about your life right now and what’s less than optimal. You can return later to expand on these lists and write more on these topics later, but you don’t have to. Just having these minimal notes will suffice to jog your memory of what mattered during tough times when you couldn’t create a more extensive record.

Conversely, when you find yourself with plenty of time to explore and write, you might be looking for a way to move out of the present moment and pull material from the past into the journal. Ira Progoff’s Stepping Stones exercise, taken from his book At a Journal Workshop (1975) invites you to imagine your whole life up to this point as a set of stages. You give a name to each stepping stone (which you could also envision as chapters in the book of your life). This overview lets you see where you are in your life, from the present vantage-point. In future writing sessions you can select a single stepping-stone to expand, explore through memory, and develop in understanding.

These lists may be relatively short (Progoff recommends a maximum of 10-12 Stepping Stones), but Kathleen Adams, author of Journal to the Self (1990), recommends another practice called Lists of 100.  Adams recognizes that it’s hard to come up with 100 examples of pretty much anything. The exercise permits repeating the same item twice; the point is to write fast, listing as many items as possible, with the understanding that, as in many brainstorming processes, the less obvious and more delayed material could end up proving most interesting and useful.

Lists of 100 can be used for many purposes, mostly involving problem-solving, identifying hidden patterns, clarifying what matters, and generally moving beyond the first few (dozen) obvious items to pull deeper, otherwise inaccessible material from the subconscious mind. Examples that Adams gives include “100 Reasons to [Do X]”; “100 Reasons Not to [Do X]”; “100 Childhood Memories”; “100 Fears”; “100 Possessions I’ve Owned Long Enough”; “100 Decisions I’ve Made That Turned Out Well.”

Like other basic journal methods, the list format can work well to write a single entry, but listing also describes a key structural feature of the diary.  Anna Jackson comments in her book Diary Poetics that “in a sense, every diary is a kind of list of days, sharing with the list the open-ended structure, the paratactic relationship of its units, [whether it’s] the days of the diary or items on the list” (137).


Journal method #1: Here and now

No journal keeper ever needs to stare at a blank page, wondering what to write. Yes, it can feel overwhelming to open the book to a new page and get started—to select an opening gambit when faced with a rush of thoughts and emotions tumbling through the mind—or, at the other extreme, when bogged down by a sense of having nothing to say. Has too much happened since the last entry, or has nothing seemed to change much since you last wrote?

One method for starting any diary entry has proven consistently reliable. Tristine Rainer, in her book The New Diary, named this method “a here-and-now exercise.”  To do it, you engage in describing your surroundings at the time of writing. Rainer advises that this method works best if you “re-awaken all the senses,” intentionally heightening your physical awareness to pick up on concrete details that people don’t generally notice.

Here-and-now starts with describing what appears around you, making the language vivid, to bring readers right into the place of your writing. To do this exercise, it helps if you don’t write in a habitual place at the same time each day. Vary the scene of journal-keeping; look for different times to write and scout new locations.

What does “vivid” mean? To bring your scene to life, most writing guides suggest avoiding abstract words that render judgment (gorgeous, boring, neglected, delicious) in favor of clear factual details that immerse a reader in the experience. “The best way to avoid the trap of dead words,” says Hannah Hinchman, “is to keep a firm grasp on the real stuff, prickly, slimy, or bony as it may be.”

Build a rich vocabulary of nouns and verbs; scrutinize adjectives and avoid piling them on; find out and use the precise names for everyday objects and the parts of things, like a lamp finial or a wall bracket. In my own journals, even as the writing unfolds across the page, I play a game of avoiding “to be” verbs—a page without a single “are,” “is,” or “were” means that I win for clear and pointed prose.

So, describe what you see—branches laden with shades of green outside the window, a fly swatter on the table, softening apples in a bowl—but also note smells, sounds, and even more subtle sensory experiences: The cidery smell and puckered skin of the nearest apple, the whine of the passing housefly, the white-noise hum of appliances around the house—bitter aftertaste of the last, cooled sip from the coffee mug, drape of humid air on arms and neck.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who writes about mindfulness, describes the state of heightened observation where you might notice, for example, how even when you close your eyes, the sound of rain can delineate a landscape, bringing out the contours and perspective of the surrounding space as raindrops hit different surfaces to produce different sounds, creating a complex acoustic experience.

What surrounds you here-and-now offers a variety of textures, colors, objects, perhaps living things to describe. You may also note interior physical sensations: Kabat-Zinn suggests, beyond paying attention to what you see, hear, and smell, pausing to immerse your awareness in the fluid “airscape” against your skin. Even on a day without wind, or when sitting indoors, if you attend carefully you can train yourself to feel a subtle current or draft moving around, in, and out of your body: cool, warm, wet, dry?

Why bother to note such trivial things and write them down? A here-and-now exercise squarely places you in the moment of diary-writing, and diaries take it as their project to begin in the present. “Put yourself right in the present,” advised the venerable diary-keeper, Anaïs Nin, quoted by Marlene Schiwy in A Voice of her Own. “Start there and that starts the whole unravelling, because that [present moment] has roots in the past and it has branches into the future.”

As you write about what’s around you, the outer world comes into contact with your physical self and produces interior sensations. Stretch to consider the less obvious sensory experiences, like sounds and smells in your environment. Let the here-and-now exercise work to expand your idea of what’s involved in being here, and your awareness of how that feels now.

By starting with the moment of writing, the diarist opens space to move in a variety of directions that we can explore in future posts. Just to give one example, sensory details of the present can evoke intense memories after years have passed. By practicing vivid ways to write about your “now,” you offer a gift to the later self who reads the diary—for whom, in Curtis Casewit’s words, “some long-ago days may still gleam there as if you had just experienced them.”

In posts ahead, we’ll look at ways to use the here-and-now exercise as a springboard. Details observed in the present often spark memories and provide a gateway into writing about the past—how it still affects our lives, or what has changed since earlier times. A single object, once we’ve placed attention on it, can become much more—the choice of words reveals what the writer finds important and how they feel at the time of writing. Mental or emotional state shapes everything recorded in the journal.

And finally, in future posts let’s broaden our idea of the present moment beyond a single point in time—the minutes spent writing today—to consider, as suggested by Ira Progoff (creator of the Intensive Journal), an “elastic ‘now’” that expands the present moment to include the length of time that has passed since writing the previous entry, or even the current period in one’s life. The elastic “now” can open enough space to take a fresh look at present circumstances and envision where to go from here.