As a haphazard journaler for twelve years and with over 2,300 journal pages to my name, I have found journaling to be a valuable tool in my life. Although, as Dave Marks pointed out in his column in PHS #57, journaling is no substitute for a creative-writing curriculum, the journaler experiences spiritual, psychological, and emotional benefits from taking time to slow down and write out his or her thoughts. Below are some practical tips on how to keep a journal.
The first problem of journaling is what to call it. A "diary" may sound too pubescent for some, while "journal" may be too rigid. Call it what you want - a record, chronicle, epistle. Be spectacular: The Great Flying Adventures of Myself, The Epic Chronicle of My Life, Confessions of a... For those more comfortable with a keyboard, there is today's modern version of a journal - a blog.
Journaling requires only a few simple tools: a quiet place to write, a pen, and a blank notebook. Use tools that are comfortable and delightful for you.
Bookstores carry a whole variety of blank books these days, allowing the journaler to choose a book according to individual desire, whether you want a leather bound book, a spiral notebook, or a Dukes of Hazard journal. My favorite is the Handstitched Book series, printed by Paperblank Books Company - I like these for their hard, durable covers and the way they open and lie completely flat while you write.
One of the most difficult aspects of journaling is finding time to write. Time doesn't appear magically. I suggest that you attempt to do what you can manage on a routine basis. You might be able to set aside a specific time to write each day. Maybe you can manage a weekly journaling session. Learn to recognize the urge: there will be times when you feel compelled to pick up your journal and write. Take advantage of those times.
Make creativity, rather than perfection, your goal. The temptation is to become too disciplined in the methodology of writing: using writing exercises, focusing on tone, voice, and person, and writing perfectly crafted journals with no scribbles. I once saw a website that recommended the "Sea Breeze Bath Ritual" for journalers. It involved a soothing bath of seaweed, eucalyptus oil, aromatic candles and slathering mashed avocado on one's skin. "Sip your hot drink, savor your bath, slowly relax and then begin your journal."
Lose the techniques. This is not supposed to be a complicated exercise in misery. If necessary, use journal exercises to give yourself a jumpstart, but if you treat journaling too much like a science it will become tedious. The only guideline I offer is to write about the things that are important to you. The great thing about keeping a journal is that you need not have any knowledge of a specific subject or special expertise in writing. The only expertise you require to journal is you.
Faced with that intimidating blank page, what do you write? There is no wrong answer - you can write about anything and any format will do. Your journal entries can be travel guides, to-do notes, sermon outlines, notes from class, decision-making entries, stress relief. Write little insights that you pick up in life or quotes you want to remember. Do you write better when you're happy or discouraged? Some people are event-oriented, others prefer to write about their emotions, while others write about people.
Sometimes a journal is the only way to remember "unforgettable" facts: my wife and I were on our honeymoon in Italy when we spotted a man outside of the Coliseum dressed as a gladiator for tourists, talking on his cell phone. We couldn't take a picture of him without paying a hefty tourist's fee, so it had to go in my journal.
Keep your journaling concrete. That is, make sure you include enough factual material that if you ever come back and read it you'll know what you're talking about. If you tend to write ethereal entries of pseudo-spiritual babble, correct yourself by including concrete facts.
Journaling can also serve as a spiritual discipline as you record your walk with God, insights into Scripture, and inner struggles. Journaling engages your entire being: your physical senses, your mind and thoughts, your spirit's communication with God. Not only can you communicate with God on a different level, but you can create a record of that communion. The Psalms are a record of David's cathartic journaling, and you can write your own version. Several excellent books have been written on how to maximize the spiritual benefit of journaling, including Journal Keeping: Writing for Spiritual Growth, by Luann Budd and Spiritual Journaling: Recording Your Journey Toward God, by Richard Peace.
Keeping a journal has immediate and long-term benefits. As you journal, you will think through decisions more carefully, write more deliberately, and will begin viewing life through different eyes.