Journaling: Our Writer-in-Residence’s guide to getting started

Library Writer in Residence Dani McClain
Image: Dani McClain

My journal entries are dated anywhere from a few days to a few weeks apart. I’ll pick up my notebook if I have a dream that seems meaningful and I want to reflect on the symbols and unpack the plot. I’ll grab a pen if I’m struggling with a knotty situation in my waking life or dealing with an emotion that’s difficult and lingers. If there’s something I want to be sure to remember — an insightful or funny thing my 3-year-old has said, or a conversation with a friend that revealed an unexpected truth — I’ll jot it down.

Until recently, I haven’t had a daily journaling practice. I haven’t felt I’ve needed one. I write for work all the time. I interview people and type or scribble furiously to record their responses. I write articles summarizing what I’ve learned. I write down thoughts for the events and public conversations in which I take part. I write emails and social media posts. But, like many of us, I’ve been staying close to home these past seven weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic. The pace and preoccupations of my life have changed. I’ve taken to writing for the sole purpose of reflecting. It’s a shift from the writing I do for work.

When I journal, I’m not writing for anyone but myself. I’m not as worried about whether I’m being clear or relatable. - Library Writer-in-Residence Dani McClain

When I journal, I’m not writing for anyone but myself. I’m not as worried about whether I’m being clear or relatable. I’m trying to better understand what I think and feel. In these uncertain times, journaling has given me a way to slow down and look closely at my racing mind. My notebook has given me a place to grieve, work through anxieties, generate solutions, and imagine best-case scenarios.

If you’d like to start a journal writing practice, here are a few tips and resources to get you started:

1. Make note of daily thoughts and questions

Want to remember what it felt like to live through this particular moment in history? Over the course of the day, make note of any thoughts or questions that arise about our new reality and how you’re experiencing it. These can be a few sentences or even just a phrase. Get down what has caught your attention. Later, when you have more time to reflect, look over what you’ve written, and see if there’s anything that you want to explore in greater depth.

In a recent interview , opens a new windowwith the Longform podcast, writer Naomi Klein shared that she keeps what’s now a 5,000-word document open on her computer. She’s titled it “Notes on a Pandemic.” As the name suggests, these are just notes, a rough sketch that she can shape into an article at some point if she decides to. This approach offers a low-pressure way to organize pandemic-related thoughts. Keeping the document open or the notebook nearby makes it easy to remember to honor our questions and ideas by getting them on the page. 

The other day after returning home from an errand, I typed the following into my own ‘Rona Notes: “Today I filled up my tank for the third time since the stay-at-home orders started. I’ve paid no more than $20 each time, compared to the usual $40. $20 a tank is what I remember paying back in high school.” Then I stopped and turned my attention to something else. It’s not much, but if months from now I want to remember the small signs of economic change in this time, this detail will be useful.

2. Consider using writing guides and prompts

Maybe you want to use journaling to work on the craft of writing or to deepen other creative skills. Two classics that might help are Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit , opens a new windowand Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way., opens a new window These are practical guides that offer exercises to help you explore your interior world and generate ideas. For those of you who are nonfiction writers, consider signing up, opens a new window for the weekly newsletter "Writerland" from The Delacorte Review. Its mission is “to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.” I enjoy the prompts I receive in my inbox. They’re usually about solving some perennial writing problem, like quieting the internal critic who wants you to edit prematurely when you should instead be letting the ideas flow.

3. Write down what you dream

Many of us are having more strange, vivid dreams, according to media reports, opens a new window. For those who want to use journaling to explore the psyche, I suggest a book called Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill , opens a new windowby Jeremy Taylor. Years ago I found it at a yard sale or a used bookstore and it convinced me to start writing down the details of any dream that stays with me and feels urgent. It’s often a worthwhile exercise, another way to know more about what I think and feel about things. There are many ways to work with dreams to tap into the unconscious. Check out a related book from the Library if the topic interests you.

Let me know if this post has been helpful, and share with me other tips you use to guide your journaling. I’m at @drmcclain, opens a new window on Twitter and @dani_mcclain, opens a new window on Instagram.

You can also join me Friday, May 15 at 4 p.m. for my virtual office hours. Email to participate in this real-time exchange about writing that’s broadcast live on the Library’s Facebook page, opens a new window. Hope to see you then.

Check out the Library's Writer in Residence podcast, Inside the Writer's Head: