Writing My Most Private Thoughts Made Me a Better Writer & Person
People rush off to meaningless jobs day after day, you see them coughing in the subways at dawn. They squander their souls on things like rent, decent clothes, gas and electricity, insurance, behaving like peasants who have come out of the fields and are so dreadful tickled because they can buy baubles and doodads in stores.
-Jack Kerouac, 1948, age 26, author of On The Road
Today is a great day. I woke up to a steady, beating rain outside. I love a rainy Sunday. Uh oh, gotta go to the bathroom.
-Drew Grossman, 2015, age 26, author of Pumpkin Drewskis: Drew’s Take on Pumpkin Brewskis
The sentences above are taken from the journals of two writers. One is a Nebo copywriter and the other is a 26-year-old who, up to this point in his life, hasn’t published much and lives with his parents.
To use the word “writer” to describe us both may be overly generous to my case, but that’s not all we have in common. We also both journal (or journaled). Most good writers journal, from Hemingway to Kerouac to Kafka to David Foster Wallace.
Until recently, I didn’t journal, and I didn’t write much outside of what I intended to publish. That changed in August. I’ve journaled almost every day since then. Each morning, I write three pages longhand on a legal pad before I begin my day. I try not to overthink it (as you can see in the example above). I don’t worry about spelling or grammar or if the work is compelling. I just dump my thoughts on the page.
It isn’t pretty. We’re not all Kerouacs (then again, maybe if I lived with mom and dad and didn’t have to worry about grown up things like rent, decent clothes, gas and electricity, and insurance, I’d have more time to find a voice that defines a generation). However, the practice of writing uninteresting, garbled, stream of conscious gibberish each day has been one of the most powerful exercises I’ve ever done.
The writing has come much quicker recently. I think I’m getting more comfortable writing stream of conscious, not overthinking my words, and not self-editing.
The value of journaling has been researched, spoken about, written about, and recommended many times over. I won’t regurgitate for you what’s already been said. Instead, I’m going to tell you about my experience and what I gained by doing it, from the tangible to the transcendental.
Hold Yourself Accountable
A lot of good things happened to me in the last four-and-a-half months. I’ll share one accomplishment I attribute in a large part to daily writing: a promotion.
When you free write, you write about what’s on your mind, and in August I was thinking a lot about work. When I struggled with tasks, I wrote about it. When I was complimented by a client, I wrote about it. When I disagreed with a coworker, I wrote about it. I didn’t sit down intending to write about work, but when I started writing, that’s what came out.
After a few weeks I started to notice patterns. When I procrastinate, I’m stressed. Don’t procrastinate. When I’m underprepared for a presentation, I get anxious and don’t communicate well. I started writing things like: “I have a presentation next Friday, spend time today practicing.” Or I’d write: “This is a slow week, I’ll get ahead on my to-dos.”
Through writing about work I identified some of my strengths and weaknesses. What tasks do I enjoy? What tasks do I dread? Unintentionally, I started piecing together my dream job: more writing, more editing, more time with clients, less time in meetings.
Eventually, I started nudging myself toward asking for these things. I’d write, “I need to create a pitch for how I’d benefit the agency in this new role.” Then, once the pitch was done, I might write, “I really need to set up a meeting today to discuss.” Once these nudges begin, it’s really hard to slow down the train. After writing about it for weeks, there was no way I wasn’t going to take the appropriate steps to request a promotion. If I didn’t ask, and if I didn’t prepare for that meeting, then I’d have to face myself again in the next morning’s writing.
I’d like to exercise, write, read, and get a haircut this weekend. Oh, I also need to scrape the dog shit off my sandals and get them off the front porch so Arielle doesn’t get upset. She asked me to do that a few days ago.
Journaling makes you accountable to yourself.
Be Your Own Sounding Board
I’m a bit of an oversharer. During my Nebo interviews, I used the phrase “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but…” multiple times. Once I have a thought, it’s hard to keep it to myself. Being in the age of social media, I’ll go out on a limb and say I’m probably not the only one.
And like most people, I often work out my thoughts in real time, as I share them. This is obviously dangerous. In the last four months, we’ve experienced natural disasters and human disasters of all kinds: the shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, the presidential campaigns and currently the “militia” occupation in Oregon. Each event has affected me in complicated ways.
Yet, my first reaction is rarely complex. It’s almost always ignorantly simple. Paris: angry. San Bernardino: angry. Donald Trump: angry. Oregon “militia”: angry.
My notebook has become a buffer between me and the thoughtful, intelligent people around me. I work through my reactions in the privacy of my notebooks. I ask myself a lot of questions, like why does a group occupying a federal building in Oregon upset me? What ideas do I disagree with? Why? Am I being closed-minded?
So now at happy hour when conversation inevitably turns from Star Wars to what the hell is happening in Oregon, I’m not chomping at the bit to make an ass out of myself. I’ve considered my thoughts on the issue, and I can decide if it’s even a topic I feel comfortable discussing. Through journaling, I’ve gotten better at resisting the bait. This is the practical value.
I’ll use a different example to illustrate the spiritual value. Picture your narrator (me), silently crying in a canoe in the middle of Lake Allatoona with a young girl who is singing Alicia Keys’s “Girl on Fire.” If you’d like to sing along, the song goes like this….
She got both feet on the ground
And she’s burning it down
Ohhhhh oh oh oh oh
She got her head in the clouds
And she’s not backing down
This girl is on fire…
This girl is on fire…
She’s walking on fire…
This girl is on fire...
It was a Sunday in September, and I was rounding out two days volunteering (not something I do often) as a camp counselor at a grief camp for underprivileged kids. Needless to say, it was an emotional trip. In the last hours of camp, a camper asked me to take her canoeing, and I did. After covering the basics of school, our favorite animals, and her friends, we ran out of things to talk about and she started singing. With the sun shining over the lake and the camaraderie and support of the weekend—and I was really tired—and the lyrics; the tears quietly came.
I struggled to articulate my feelings when I got home. I’d either dump them on an unsuspecting co worker...
Johnny Nebo: Hey Drew, how was your weekend?
Drew: Oh, let me tell you! I cried and the kids and everything was so beautiful and sad and inspiring, yada yada yada.
...or, when the people who really cared asked, all I could come up with was platitudes. “It was good,” I’d say.
It took a little while, but through daily writing, I was able to work through my thoughts and emotions on the page and decide how I’d like to share this experience with friends, how I’d like to share it with coworkers, and how I probably shouldn’t share it with the Publix deli counter lady. The need to make people understand lessened.
[Ed note: Sorry about Drew’s crying story. He’s a crier. It’s a little much.]
Get the Good Stuff Down on Paper
There is no better way to start your day than by doing something you enjoy. I like writing. It makes me feel good. I find real value in beginning each day writing, even if it’s nonsensical scribble.
Who knows what will come out of it? Maybe your next great marketing campaign will reveal itself in your notebook. Your head is a dangerous place to leave your ideas. They’re forgotten, ignored, and unnurtured. Do yourself a favor and start getting them down. It doesn’t need to be 1,000 words a day. Maybe start with 300. But push yourself to do more. That’s when the goodness comes out.
I recommend writing longhand. John Irving writes all of his novels longhand because, he says, he types faster than he thinks. I can relate. Compared to a word processor, I like the permanence of longhand writing. It’s easier to resist the urge to edit as you go and consistently rewrite. And the hand cramps will go away after a week or so.
Eventually I should write a blog post about journaling and try to explain the experience.
PS: I started journaling as part of a program called The Artist’s Way created by Julia Cameron. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, I highly suggest you check it out.