When I taught academic writing, my students and I frequently talked about how to mine past events for information, insights, and introspection. They were intimidated by the idea of exploring difficult experiences.
And I told them, “Write about your confusion even if you don’t know what’s causing it.”
Later, when I read their papers, something like, “I never expected to look at it from this perspective,” on page 3 would be a dead giveaway of how their writing had led them to a surprising revelation about themselves.
I’m recollecting this now as someone who’s going through therapy for a past trauma. Somehow, I failed to take my own advice until my therapist suggested it. So I started journaling.
Here are a few lessons I’ve picked up in the process.
It’s okay to maintain multiple journals.
I have two journals.
In my gratitude/positivity journal, I write about everything that makes me happy.
My husband made me delicious coffee and brought it to my desk? My cat’s curled up to me, warm and purring, and I feel loved? Every little good thing matters.
One of my professors once told me whenever she felt down, she’d remember everything she was good at, like, “I never let the dog’s food bowl become empty.” These notes help you appreciate yourself.
I also write any goals I have for myself, even the most improbable ones. It’s my way of telling myself it’s okay to dream, want, believe, and deserve.
In my therapy/mood/memories journal, I maintain notes from my therapy sessions, keep track of my moods, and write down any memories I have from the past. It helps to stay organized and write things down as you remember them so you can study them later.
You don’t have to journal every day.
I don’t write every day. I write only when I’m moved to write. It takes the pressure off of me to be disciplined or stick to a routine.
Try journaling first thing in the morning.
If you feel you’re exhausted and aren’t able to get to it at the end of the day, try journaling before you start your day. As an overthinker, I wake up with plenty of feelings on many mornings. And when I tackle them in my journal right away, it helps me feel like I’ve dealt with them somehow before I set them aside and get productive.
Practice mindfulness when journaling.
Journaling is a fraught exercise: It’s not easy to rehash past events that left a mark on us. That’s why you have to be extra kind to yourself when you journal. You’ve done your best even if you’ve written one sentence. Use these mindfulness tips if you feel overwhelmed.
Write about how you feel.
Don’t know what to write about? That’s perfectly all right! You can start by writing about how you feel right now, physically or emotionally. What’s the sunshine like today? Is there anything you’re looking forward to or worried about? Just be gentle with yourself and give yourself time.
Don’t be afraid to seek out prompts.
I realised I was avoiding some difficult topics, so I asked my therapist for some prompts. Here are a few I got from her — feel free to use them or find your own!
Write about your traumatic experience.
Write about what you learned from the experience, whether it’s good or bad.
How does the experience affect you now?
Are there ways in which you can use your experience to help others?
Using writing as a way to explore your past or confusion about certain subjects is an endeavour that takes a lot of courage. And you should be very, very proud of yourself for taking that first step.
If you want to bounce ideas off or tell me how it’s going, reach out!
Written by: Neeru Nagarajan, a Pushcart-nominated writer, is a writer at emdash. She’s a recent MFA graduate and taught academic and creative writing at Bowling Green State University (Ohio). She’s @poonaikaari on Twitter.