DIY Therapy – The Art of Journaling

Mid-September I restarted an old practice, but I think this time I got it right.

When I was in college for art, I got my hands on a book called “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. I got the hang of the Morning Pages, I still have a paper box full of journals from that decade. But not the rest of it. A lot of it was inspired by 12-Step programs, and that wasn’t for me. And I built up a ton of psychological debt from writing and never reading those journals. Even in interviews, Cameron has admitted she seldom or never reads them, the Artist’s Way reddit says most just eventually throw their journals away.

So naturally I fell off. But feeling lost and confused and trying to organize my life, last September, I thought writing down what was in my head would help.

And it did. But I’m not writing Morning Pages.

I’m still writing first thing in the morning. In pen. Longhand. Stream of consciousness, 3 pages, on lined paper. But I won’t call it Morning Pages. Because that has a bunch of weird spiritual emotional baggage that’s vaguely religious, and I don’t like that.

A week or so into it, I decided that I really needed to be able to read my journals. And I wasn’t about to build up more mental debt, and stack them up to 30 days to the point that I just had massive guilt about it. I decided that one week’s delay between writing and reading would be fine.

So I got a binder – actually found a nostalgic Trapper Keeper that I had had no plans for but bought a few months earlier. I got out some large cardstock, and made 7 tab dividers, one for each day. I was feeling crafty so I drew the lines, made the measurements, used a hole punch to round the bases of the tabs like they were die cut, then labeled them front and back. And filed my journal pages in by day of the week.

And with a backlog of 10 days, I started reading what I wrote. And that made all the difference. At a week delay, I’m still recognizing who I was a week ago. There’s nowhere near the embarassment, of “Wow I was awful then” – I can remember the events that made up the context of the journal. And even better, once read, the journal pages have lost their psychological charge. I take notes on what seems important from them, and then file the old pages – into the trash can.

The insights I’ve captured have changed a lot, I’m taking much better care of my life, and developing improvements in many directions. Organizing, cleaning my space, finding more purpose to work on my art, and so on. And they’re not even the purpose of the journal.

The actual point, the mindset of the journal, is that it’s a meditation. You’re just putting pen to paper, and writing what’s on your mind, until you reach the end of the third page. But it’s a meditation you can review. And being able to take a look at your own thoughts at a week’s delay, and have that outside perspective on where you’ve been, is what I mean by DIY therapy. It’s a safe place to explore your thoughts, review what’s on your mind, and get some visibility on what’s rattling about in your head. The “first thing after you wake up” aspect makes sure it’s not just full of reaction to the day’s fuss, and the longhand writing yokes together two mental speeds in a way that can be both stream of consciousness and deliberate in a great way.

It takes me about 15 minutes per page to write, for a total of 45 minutes of journaling. (I put the date in MM/DD at the top of each, justified left/middle/right to keep track of which page I’m on). Then reviewing the previous week’s journal is maybe 5-15 minutes total, it’s a lot faster to read. The entire process is done in an hour, and nearly immediately straightened out my day enough to carve out that hour for the work.

So if you’d like to try this method as an alternative or adjunct to therapy, or just to see what’s up, here’s what you’ll need:

  • 3-hole-drilled lined paper – $1 for 150 sheets (I started with a legal pad, but quickly switched to college ruled, which can be found at nearly any store – department, grocery, pharmacy – as long as they have basic supplies, you’re good)
  • Easy to use pens – $5-$15 depending on how many you get. I’m using 0.7mm Pilot G-2’s – the 0.5 was a bit scratchy and the 1.0 went through ink too fast.
  • A 3-ring binder – $2-15. I used a Trapper Keeper to identify it easily and because the bright colors make me happy, but any size or kind of binder will do, you’re only keeping 21 pages of journals in it.
  • 8-tab dividers – $8-12. I made my own, but there are lots of options out there. Arguably the most expensive part. Label them with days of the week, starting on which ever day you like your week to start. I use Sunday.
  • Something else to take notes on the journals in. An app, a small organizer notebook, whatever. This isn’t media-sensitive, whatever works for you.

That’s the whole list. At its most expensive, still less than 1/5th the cost of a single therapy appointment. (Not that I’m suggesting anyone stop seeing their therapist)

Because I’m using a Trapper Keeper, and was bored one day, I have the paper divided up into stacks of 30 sheets, one stack on each side of each pocket folder that came with it, and then the “current” stack in the built-in clipboard in the back, but you do you.

Then the entire process is simple. Wake up. (Grab a brush and put a little makeup.) Find a comfy seat – I have a futon so I fold it into couch mode. Open the binder, put 3 clean pages behind today’s day. (Once you’ve done this for a week, you’ll need to set the previous week’s journal out of the binder first). Put the date at the top – I write it MM/DD. Then just write, whatever comes to mind. Remember, insights are a side effect, all you really need to do is keep the stream of consciousness going. “I forgot what I was going to write” or “I can’t think of what to write” is just fine, whatever comes to mind. When you get to the end of the third page, close up the binder and set it aside for the day.

If you’ve gotten through it enough to take an old journal entry out, now it’s time to take some notes. Read the journal, looking for anything that seems important to remark or remember or note – in whatever you’re taking notes in. What matters to remember is up to you. Then fold the old entry and toss it in the trash. I mean, you can keep it if you want, but many people don’t like the feeling of having weeks, months, years of potentially embarassing stream of consciouness ramble hanging around in piles. The trash is fine – it’s why you take your notes. If your space isn’t secure from meddling cohabitants, maybe a paper shredder – you might want to lock the journal binder away safely too in that case.

That’s it! Hope it helps, happy writing.


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