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The Art of Journaling: Five Favorite Books

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Part of Our Mini-Series on the Craft of Writing.

For more than a dozen years, I kept a journal specifically for responding to writing prompts that I hoped to one day turn into essays for publication. I used prompts from books such as A Writer’s Book of Days and Writing Creative Nonfiction. During those same years, and in another notebook, I jotted down funny comments my kids made, activities I watched them participate in, and vacations we took. I thought of these notes as a diary of childhood, a record of facts and events I didn’t want to forget, but not as a writing journal per se. As my children grew from preschoolers to high schoolers, entries to my childhood diary increased while my responses to writing prompts became more and more sporadic; those one-line prompts didn't always strike the right chord to get my creative juices flowing. I started to rethink “journaling” and how I spent my writing time, and turned to these books for guidance:

The New Diary by Tristine Rainer (1978, 2004; Jeremy Tarcher/Penguin)

Journal to the Self by Kathleen Adams, M.A. (1990; Grand Central Publishing)

Keeping a Journal You Love by Sheila Bender (2001; Walking Stick Press)

Leaving a Trace by Alexandra Johnson (2001; Little, Brown, and Company)

Creative Journal Writing by Stephanie Dowrick (2009, Jeremy Tarcher/Penguin)

Two of these authors, Adams and Dowrick, are trained psychotherapists; their books include suggestions to help readers on their spiritual journey or to work through illness and trauma. Rainer, Bender, and Johnson are writing instructors; their books emphasize that journal entries can be a source of material for further creative development. And one author, Bender, includes a chapter on community building and tips for forming a writing group. Despite such differences, similar themes run through these books. Each offers a selection of journaling techniques and tools, writing exercises, prompts, and examples of journal entries.

Beyond the tools and techniques, however, I also found encouraging words and a new way to envision my journaling projects. Rainer’s The New Diary, considered a classic guide to journal writing, encouraged me to reread both my writing journal and my “diary of childhood” with an eye toward plot and patterns. Another classic, Journal to the Self, took me back to the basics and reminded me that journaling should be fun, while Bender’s Keeping a Journal You Love you love helped me to create a calm, peaceful setting for reflection. Creative Journal Writing reassured me that journaling is about process, not outcome. Not every writing prompt or every journal entry has to yield a publishable essay! And in Johnson’s Leaving a Trace, I found words that captured and reaffirmed my urge to write: the desire to leave more than a factual record of events for my family.

Whether you are just beginning to keep a journal or have been journaling for years, these five books will provide creative tips and techniques. Best of all, these authors will help you see your journals in a new light and with renewed purpose.

For previous parts in this series, please see:

The "Backwards" Research Guide for Writers

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction

Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers

Your Child's Writing Life

Mamas Writing Motherhood: A Conversation on New and Best Books on Craft

Karna Converse is a freelance writer who’s written everything from technical documentation and price proposals to newsletter articles, devotionals, personal profiles and essays. Her essays have been published in a variety of regional and national publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Notre Dame Magazine, the Cup of Comfort and Chicken Soup anthologies, Our Iowa, and on Iowa Public Radio. She and her husband are parents to three young adults. Karna is a former blog editor, senior editor, managing editor, and editor-in-chief of Literary Mama.

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