At some point in my 20s, I read The Journals of Sylvia Plath and fell instantly, violently in love with the incredible prose they contained. Her writing was absolutely stunning, every sentence electric with meaning and saturated in raw emotion. I’d been a fan of her poetry since my days as an angsty teenager. Now, here were her private writings and they were everything I would have hoped they’d be — cohesive, expressive, and so elegantly written.
I’m not sure anything else I’ve ever read has made me feel so inspired as a writer… or so inept.
I’dkept journals of my own since I was a teenager, and I knew they weren’t anything to write home to mom about, but I also thought that’s what journals were supposed to be — boring and of little interest to anyone but the person who wrote them. Sylvia’s journals opened my eyes to what private writings could sound like. They also became the new standard to which I aspired.
It didn’t take me long to find out I’m not Sylvia Plath. And it took me until my 40s to realize that that’s perfectly OK, especially when it came to the journaling I do just for myself. In the interim, though, I’d agonize over my private writings as if I genuinely expected them to be published and read someday.
Overthinking my journaling made it less effective
When I was still in grade school, I was considered very gifted, especially when it came to words and language. I got a lot of credit for being an advanced reader for my age, but for some reason, no one much noticed my writing. That meant no one ever ruined writing for me the way they did everything else by trying to force me to take it seriously.
My writing was just for me, and although I occasionally liked to make up stories and write them down, journaling was the type of writing I enjoyed most. I loved the act of filling up page after page with all my random, childish thoughts. I’d talk about everything from what happened at school that day, to my hopes for the future, to the details of the strange dreams I’d sometimes have at night.
I never worried about how the writing itself sounded because it was never intended to be read by anyone other than myself. If something was interesting enough to me to write it down in the first place, then that was all that mattered.
I didn’t realize it at the time but spending so much time journaling as a young person helped me eventually grow into a self-aware adult. It taught me to be honest with myself about how I was feeling and translate my scattered thoughts into written material that was cohesive and coherent, if not exactly exciting.
When I started agonizing over how it sounded, my journaling became about something else. It stopped being about me and started being about making a particular impression on other people. This became, even more, the case when I switched entirely from writing in old-fashioned paper journals to blogging online on LiveJournal, MySpace, or Blogger.
Sharing what I wrote with other people was enriching in its own way, but it also silenced the once-helpful inner dialogue I used to have with myself.
I rediscovered private journaling about a year ago
An online friend I’d initially met on LiveJournal years ago had been talking about how she’d gone back to keeping a personal journal just for herself. She was doing it via an app on her phone, and she couldn’t stop raving about how much it was helping her.
It made me miss the experience of keeping a private diary when I was a teenager, and I wondered if I might like it just as much as a 40-something. So, I tried a couple of different apps. Eventually, I found one I especially liked because it let me do things like add .gifs to my entries or track my moods, and I started writing in it daily (or as close to daily as possible).
Not only was it fun, but it became very helpful at helping me process emotions that were difficult or unclear, especially during a year that was confusing and hard for everyone. I didn’t feel as much need to talk my poor husband’s ear off about things that were repetitive or not relevant to him and his life. I think that made my relationship a more pleasant experience for both of us.
But I was still trying to sound like Sylvia Plath, writing like I expected somebody else to read it and be impressed by it someday. At first, I figured maybe that was just a product of having spent the last decade-plus writing for a living. Then I realized that despite looking forward to writing in my journal each day, I often felt the urge to skip it on days I couldn’t think of anything artsy or fascinating to say.
I gave myself permission to write whatever was on my mind
Sometimes I had things to say that were truly important, and they poured out of me in complete sentences that were polished and beautiful. But most days, all I felt like writing about was boring minutiae absolutely no one else would ever care about. I wrote about it anyway because it was in my heart to do so.
As a result, the vast majority of my journal entries from the past year are anything but juicy. I wrote a lot about my freelancing, my schedule, and whether I’d been doing a good job of keeping up with my personal writing goals. I wrote about paying bills, shopping for groceries, and planning meals for my family. Sometimes I vented about silly things that frustrated me or even sillier things that made me smile for no particular reason.
Before long, I realized I was slowly getting to know myself again. I don’t think of myself as a very positive person, but my journal told a different story. I found I was frequently, consciously grateful for simple, little things in my life like how delicious a particular apple I’d eaten had tasted or how much I’d enjoyed some random movie I’d watched the night before. I noticed I often felt the urge to celebrate small accomplishments I’d made or to appreciate everyday moments I’d shared with my husband, as well.
Occasionally, I’d even wind up recording ideas that seemed unimportant at the time but eventually inspired other more serious writing pieces. That turned out to be very helpful in generating lots of new ideas for blog posts or even professional content for clients. The whole experience helped me rethink what made a particular piece of writing important versus unimportant, something I wish I’d done a long time ago.
I still don’t sound anything like Sylvia Plath when I journal
I sincerely doubt I ever will, either. But I am starting to sound an awful lot like the expressive, observant person I used to be when I was still young, long before I decided it was time to become a “serious” writer.
That said, I know many other writers who say they hate journaling and just can’t get into it because they can’t stomach how boring they sound. All those boring little things are the stuff of life, though, and they’re part of what makes us all human. Learning to embrace them for what they are can help you come to know yourself and better understand what motivates you in life.
I would never have thought that learning to honor the tiny details of the day and make room for them in my writing life would help me develop my more serious side. That’s exactly what happened, though, so I’d strongly encourage other writers to do the same. You never know what beautiful things could start to happen as a result.