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Mining Your Mind: Journal Techniques for Writers

By Ruth Folit

Writers practice the advice of Sir Francis Bacon, even if they are not aware of his precise words: 'A (wo)man would do well to carry a pencil in his pocket and write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought are commonly the most valuable and should be secured because they seldom return.'

Most writers carry a notebook, scraps of paper, old envelopes, to jot down 'thoughts of the moment.' A journal is another medium in which a writer can keep a record, albeit a slightly more unified one.

Incorporating journaling into your writing practice may not only make the process of writing more enjoyable, but may help you become a better writer, too: because journal writing is easy, there are no rules, no worries about whether to use a comma, a semi-colon, or dash, no one to impress, no deadlines. Because journal writing is relaxing and not stress inducing, because journal writing flows uncensored.

Consider first, the liberation of writing just for oneself. Without the pressure from an imagined audience, you find that your writing often becomes fluid, free and unself-conscious. That liberated feeling while journaling is analogous to the difference in feeling between giving a speech to a filled auditorium and having a lunchtime conversation with a close friend. There's room to make mistakes, think out loud and say what's really on your mind. With no intended audience for your writing, honesty blooms. When writing with less pressure, connections between different ideas become evident and new insights are born. Self-censorship isn¹t necessary; you don't have to think about 'the other.' Writing is simpler.

Journal writing is cathartic and enlightening. Words spill out from places perhaps yet undiscovered. A journal becomes a permanent repository of thought to which the writer can return and find veins of ore to mine. The benefit of a journal is that it keeps your record, perhaps for future use, of a perfect and spontaneous expression of truth, of insights into human nature, of memories, of snatches of creativity. Further, it is the record of a writer's interior life, validating his/her creative growth even during those periods when he/she 'cannot' write for an audience.

When you are in the mindset of a journal writer, your radar is always on. You are poised to observe, notice the details and keep your mind open and absorbent. Bestseller novelist Barbara Bretton, an avid journal keeper for more than 40 years, reflects, 'The more attention I paid to journaling, the sharper my eyesight grew, the more acute my hearing. The world around me suddenly became more interesting, more filled with incident and color and texture. My days seemed rich with material for my nightly journal entry, and that richness fed both my soul and my work.'

Since a journal is a repository of personal, often stream-of-consciousness thoughts, it might seem contradictory to seek outside inspiration to find journal topics. But, that process does not mitigate the personal nature of a journal because no matter what the topic, you are still writing yourself.

Feeling stuck in the muck of narrow thinking? At a loss for ideas? Learn what great thinkers have said succinctly about a current theme in your life: courage, fear, motivation or writing. Quotes may shed new light. Web sites exist that give you access to hundreds of quotes, such as:
http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/quotes.html

Prompts are questions or statements designed to spark your thinking about a subject in a new way. They often set you off on a new path of discovery -- about a value that has not been articulated, a piece of your personality that may not have been acknowledged or a memory that has faded. There are also web sites that offer prompts, questions or sentence starters to encourage writing:
http://www.eaze.net/~jfbarber/ez/creative/prompts.html

A journal writing technique that you can use to better understand a character or a situation is dialoguing. In journal writing jargon, dialogs are imagined conversations between two or more entities, not necessarily two people. They can be between the two conflicting parts of a person, or between two opportunities a character in your story has to choose. The dialog itself may never be used in the final writing PER SE, but it may help clarify the story for you. Ira Progoff, the grandfather of personal journal writing [author of At A Journal Workshop], has developed a full list of the kinds of dialogs you may want to engage. Here is Progoff's list in part:

*Dialog with a person -- present or past relationships, living or deceased.

*Dialog with work -- a project, the body of work that you¹ve done in your life, your career or professional life, your creative work (writing, gardening, playing music, painting, etc.), your role as mother, father, sister or brother.

*Dialog with events, situations, decisions, and circumstances -- this could include a car accident, the World Trade Center attack, or a choice between moving to two different locations.

*Dialog with society -- this includes heritage, traditions, cultural backgrounds, art, religion, sexuality, institutions such as marriage, the church or schools.

*Dialog with dream -- there may be an enigmatic dream or a symbol, person or situation in a dream that you want to know more about.

*Dialog with emotions/feelings -- if you find yourself often feeling a particular emotion, you might want to have a conversation with it.

*Dialog with resistance/block -- you may want to converse with a conflict that appears and stays in your life for a period of time to find out why it¹s there and what you can learn from it and do to move beyond it.

As your journal writing progresses, you¹ll notice upon re-reading that hidden amongst the mundane writing are some ideas, some language, some honest recollections and some imagery that are brilliant. This is the gold that you can mine to use in future writing. This is one payoff for keeping a journal. Bretton uses her journals when writing her novels. 'When I sit down to write a novel, I don't have to struggle to remember how it felt to be young and in love: all I have to do is reach for one of my journals, and I'm sixteen again, and it's as real as it was when it first happened.'

In the process of journal writing, of enjoyably and spontaneously writing his/her reflections, a writer effortlessly and unintentionally leaves details of the stuff of life, nuggets that can be transformed into elements of screenplays, poems, novels and short stories.

Meet the Author: Ruth Folit