The Key to Journaling Without Fear

As a girl I had a diary that locked, a place to secure the inner turmoil of my 10-year old self. It was pink, not my favorite color. There wasn’t enough space in the daily pages. I soon lost the tiny key.

But the message stayed: Recording my thoughts, no matter the flavor (miserable or joyous) was a worthy endeavor. The journal could be a private place, just for me.

In my writing workshops at Kripalu, I differentiate between writing for others and writing for oneself. The latter is freewriting, an opportunity to get messy on the page. Messiness means freedom to misspell, rant, and go off topic. The journal becomes a place (to paraphrase Swami Kripalu) where we can observe thoughts  without self-judgment.

I practice Julia Cameron’s popular method called Morning Pages, which she describes as “three pages of longhand, about absolutely anything. The pages are to be written first thing in the morning and shown to no one. There is no wrong way to do them. I like to think of them as windshield wipers, swiping away anything that stands between you and a clear view of your day.”

The benefits of a journaling practice are well documented. Guests in my workshops provide their own reasons: to feel less alone, to recognize my anger, to get out of my head, to practice hard conversations, to make sense of problems, to release anxiety, to see the bigger picture, to capture a moment, to clarify questions, to recognize patterns, to listen to myself.

“The wonderful thing about journaling is that it is not a diary,” says memoirist, retired actor, and Kripalu Yoga teacher Lisa Jakub. “It is not a record of this happened, and then this happened. A journal is a place for us to dive into our emotions about our lives. We can dissect our own experiences and understand their purpose. And those are feelings that we own, they are ours, and we have the right to put them on paper.”

I was lucky to claim this right early on, I realize. I had busy, trusting parents and no siblings in the house. When I left behind the lock-and-key diary and moved on to loose notebooks, I carried this trust with me. My stack of journals grew and gathered dust, page after page of meandering, cathartic scribbles.

But a journal might not feel like a safe space to divulge. The fear of being found out is common among would-be journalers. What to do with this anxiety? Cultivate illegible handwriting? Acquire a safe deposit box?

“I've had my journal read,” says Lisa. “And then she had the audacity to write in it with her own comments! I understand how painful that is.”

Julia Cameron provides one solution: Burn your pages.

“I say that Morning Pages are a form of meditation,” writes Cameron. “And just as we cannot repeat a meditation, we do not need to review our Morning Pages. I often joke, ‘First cremate the pages, then worry about the body.’ I have had people burn, shred, and bury their journals. Speaking for myself, I saved them for many years, saying, ‘If I ever write a memoir, I'll need them.’ However, when I did write a memoir, I found that I didn't consult the journals. My memories were vivid, probably because I had written Morning Pages. I believe the pages render us present in our life. So I believe in ‘write them and let them go.’”

Lisa says, “I actually love burning my writing and I do it frequently.” When composing her recent memoir, Not Just Me: Anxiety, Depression, and Learning to Embrace Your Weird, Lisa didn’t need to consult her journals either. “I cared more about what Present Day Me felt about the events than the exact details of each and every scene.” 

Was she concerned about privacy when writing for others? “While I was obviously opening myself up to criticism and that was terrifying, it was more important to me that I was digging into some universal human experiences,” says Lisa. “We all worry that we are weird and don't fit in. In being honest and sharing my fears and failures, I felt like I was allowing other people to do the same. I was giving them the permission to be brave and own their words, too.”

Lisa says she writes because it's “a deep form of connection,” and that's more important to her than worrying that someone won't like what she wrote. “There is such strength and courage in vulnerability. Inevitably, the things that have been the scariest to put on paper have been the things that allowed me to grow into who I was meant to be. ”

What if our fears persist, whether writing for others or for oneself? “The fear of someone reading your journal isn't actually real,” says Lisa. “It's real fear, for sure, but it's fear of the blank page, fear of what you might put down on that page, and fear of what might happen once you write it down and make it real.”

The fear of someone else reading your work is just “a prettied-up excuse for not writing,” she says. “Might someone read your journal? Sure. You might also walk outside and get hit by a bus. But the risk of getting hit by a bus is not enough to stop us from venturing outside and having all those wonderful experiences, right? So don't let the fear of someone reading your work stop you from writing your truth. The beautiful experiences that come out of your courage and honesty will be totally worth it.”

Lara Tupper journals, sings, and teaches in the Berkshires. Her autobiographical novel, A Thousand and One Nights, is about singers at sea.

Find out about upcoming programs with Lisa Jakub, Julia Cameron, and Lara Tupper at Kripalu.

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Lara Tupper, MFA, is the author of two novels, Off Island and A Thousand and One Nights, and Amphibians, a linked short story collection forthcoming in 2021.

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