how I do it and why I like it
I recently hosted (my first ever) writing workshop on journaling at Burning Man. These are my notes in blog post form - thanks Alex for the idea! The workshop and this post are a spiritual successor to a post from a few years ago. Thanks to Savannah, Nancy, Kristen, and Dave for showing up to my workshop on that beautiful, dusty, windy day.
Journaling is in a family of introspection practices, sitting near meditation, psychedelics, and yoga. There are healthy and unhealthy uses of all of these, so it’s best to approach them with intention and care - like anything else with the power to alter self-perception, memories, and stories of self. It seems to work best alongside other practices to form an ecology, allowing each to bring a unique perspective and methodology to the mix.
why journal? #
- my mind feels less noisy: I spend more time thinking about the things I want to think about
- easier to show up the way I want to in the interactions I’m in because I’ve made space for myself and listened to subtle emotions and curiosities
- a way to clear the channel for creativity and inspiration to come through: do the reps so it’s easier to tap into when it happens
- I find seedlings of blog posts in it. writing about something is a lot easier when I can look at rough notes about my recent experiences with that thing or my experiences of life in general
- It helps me spot patterns in myself, my relationships and the broader world
- it’s an excellent record of what I was feeling, thinking, doing, who I was meeting, what I was excited and nervous about
- it serves as a helpful way to focus my attention, by letting me set intentions and notice things that are getting in the way (usually, anxieties and insecurities) all of which can be gently negotiated with
Note: this is just one way to practice journaling; the specifics of which continue to be in flux for me! Journaling doesn’t exist with words like “right way” or “wrong way”. It’s an artistic practice of self-therapy. Feel free to disregard completely and do everything completely opposite, as long as it helps you hold space for yourself and explore your thoughts and emotions.
- writing surface: digital and physical are both great: whatever gets you writing. I find digital lets me get words out faster, use more of it in my writing elsewhere, embed links and photos, avoid hand cramping, and review things easier. On the other hand, having a backspace defeats some of the purpose of journaling, there’s privacy and legal considerations, and it’s harder out in wild environments than a good notebook.
- I use Obsidian. No app is perfect; all require compromise. With Obsidian, I get great performance on my computer, a very versatile format and sync strategy (folder of markdown files in iCloud), and good blog post drafts. But I have to accept an unusable iOS app, meh search capabilities, no transclusion, and I miss being able to outline like in Roam.
- When I use paper, I like LEUCHTTURM1917 (lined) and Maruman (gridded) and a trusty Pilot G2 pen.
- I have a dedicated laptop for it. Being able to open it and go directly to writing without saving and minimizing a dozen projects is worth holding onto an old work laptop (13 inch 2020 Macbook Pro).
- when: as I’m drinking my first cup of coffee works best. Doing it before a long walk is nice. Doing it after a long walk is also nice. Like a workout habit, if I don’t make time for it life won’t either.
- Some mornings are busy. On those days I’ll find a time in the afternoon or evening to get to it. Writing from new places at different times of day and energy levels is fun! But it’s easiest to build consistent habits to start.
- If it’s late in the evening, a carbonated beverage or tea can satisfy my craving for coffee.
- where: I try to be somewhere I might enjoy reading a book; outside whenever possible.
- when inside, consider headphones to tune out conversations and something comfortable to sit on - writing with bad posture is not fun at all
- when outside, consider temperature (hands get cold first, consider a knitted laptop sleeve), wind, shade, rain, and comfort
- Coffee shops are usually a little to noisy for me; libraries and other public spaces are really fun
- Late night diners, hotel lobbies, hammocks, parks, and quiet corner bars are wonderful too
- duration: I like to give myself 60 - 90 minutes, though I rarely take the full amount of time - closer to 45 minutes usually.
- I find the “padding” gives me the space to go deeper / broader with the confidence I won’t have to drop everything to hop onto a Zoom call, and once in a while I will go the full length. But most of the time I finish earlier and go and read a book or walk around for a bit.
- how often: I started out a few times a week and that worked well and fine. Over time I’ve found it easiest to maintain a daily habit. I average about 6 days a week and don’t really stress it when I can’t get to it.
- Like with most habits, whatever is affording a repeatable practice that lets you develop muscle memory is a good frequency.
prompts to start with #
For the second part of my workshop, I invited everyone to respond to some starter prompts. Prompts are a great way to give you something to focus on and write about, but their real purpose is to start the flow of introspection or channeling or creativity. This paves the way for the real juice to come through.
If as you’re responding to a prompt, and something comes up that feels more alive - forget the prompt and follow that thing! That’s the point of this whole exercise.
- what’s happening? what’s around me? how does this place feel? be present to the sights, sensations and sounds and put them into writing.
- If I have nothing else to write about, I can at the very least describe what’s around me and what this invokes within me. These writings are really fun to read after the fact and do a great job bringing me back to the place I was writing from.
- gratitude journaling: three (or more!) things I am grateful for.
- A classic. This one continues to humble me and remind me of how much there is around me that I take for granted; so the least I can do is notice it and give it thanks. If I want to get a little deeper, I like to explore why these things might feel special to me and how they got to be this way.
- talk with my 80 year old self.
- Sometimes when I’m pondering a decision - usually around things like career shifts or adventure paths, I like to imagine I’m writing from my 80 year old self’s perspective; or write out a dialogue between him and my current self. It helps shake loose the default, first-person perspective I’m often hanging out in and gets me to something a little further away.
next steps #
Journaling opened the door to writing for me, and writing has and continues to invite countless beautiful, wonderful things in my life. As a habit it is composeable and invites new habits emerge on top of itself. One such habit is my weekly review where read through the past 7 days of writing, and reflect on whatever comes up and set some intentions for the next week.
Exploring journaling also gave me the confidence to put more of my writing onto the internet, starting with the little garden of this site. But these are all icing on the cake. The core of the thing is regularly sitting down with permission, space, and an invitation to explore what’s on my mind, and pay a little more attention to what the universe is whispering to me.
I hope you can find as much joy in it as I have. If you have experiences or entries you’d like to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org!