Document This Time

You might feel like life is mundane and you have nothing significant to say right now. Keep a journal anyway.

A photo of a woman writing in her journal while her laptop is on her lap.

TThese are scary times, but they’re not exactly exciting ones. Unless counting toilet paper rolls is your idea of a raging Friday night, you’re probably not living your most thrilling life right now. So why in the world would you want to record it?

It’s a fair question. But weirdly, I can’t think of a better — or more necessary — time to start journaling.

First, there’s the big-picture rationale: We’re in an unprecedented time in American history. If, like me, you’re fascinated by stories of how people lived during World War II or after earthquakes or through the Depression, know that you are helping to create the narrative of this moment. Document your experiences for posterity. What have you gone through? What have you learned about yourself, your neighbors, your nation? What has surprised you? Angered you? Captivated you?

On a more personal level, we’re spending a lot of time in our heads right now. Psychologists have found that journaling can help combat anxiety, depression, and stress and that freewriting exercises can help us maintain our mental health.

And on a practical note, journaling can be productive. This is an opportunity to meet yourself where you are and assess what you’re doing with your life. I’ve been thinking through a lot of my priorities and don’t want to forget what all of this alone time is helping me realize.

There are all sorts of ways to get started. You might try the time-honored tradition of “morning pages,” featured in the creativity bible The Artist’s Way, in which you basically write whatever the hell comes to your mind for three pages right after you wake up. I’m also a big fan of Nicole LaPerla’s “future self journal” prompt, which asks you to think about how you want to be in the world and how you can get there.

I’ve been doing it for a while, but the experience is especially striking to me right now. It’s helping me parse the various lessons I’m gleaning from living through this pandemic and think through how I can make those lessons stick. For example, I’ve become hyperaware of how much exercise contributes to my general well-being, and I’m using my journal to help me stay active, even when it’s tempting to stay on the couch and watch another episode of Tiger King.

It might feel awkward at first, but the longer you keep a journal, the more in tune with yourself you’ll become. In her new book Buy the Fucking Lilies, Tara Schuster writes that looking back at your past entries is a powerful way to notice patterns in your life — for instance, you might find that you’ve been complaining about going to bed too late for months or that you’ve consistently felt lonely in the company of your partner. “It’s harder to believe my convenient lies when I see the truth written down, over and over again,” Schuster writes.

So start right now. Get a pen and paper, and write. You might begin by simply recording your day: What did you laugh about? Who did you talk to? How did you move your body? But as you keep at it, let your mind enter less comfortable places. Write down your fears, your past traumas, and your biggest dreams. You might feel like you don’t have anything significant to say about this experience, but your goal right now isn’t to come up with a life lesson. Rather, it’s simply to get your thoughts out of your head and onto the page. I think you’ll be surprised at how doing this will improve even the darkest times.

Novelist and essayist. Director of the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Find out more at http://nicolepeeler.com.

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