THE BLOG
09/11/2015 07:00 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2016

The Importance Of Keeping A Daily Journal

How do the events of our childhoods affect our adult passions and mold who we become? Some believe that childhood sets the stage for the trajectory of our lives. This has definitely been true for me. When I was 10, my grandmother and primary caretaker committed suicide in my family home. It was an overdose of sleeping pills. My parents were at work, and I was the one who found her. It was 10 o'clock in the morning. I cracked open my grandmother's bedroom door, and she lay completely still with an open book on her chest. On her headboard, lying on its side, was an empty bottle of pills. The sheer curtains swayed in the breeze as if waving good-bye. I called her name, but she didn't answer. With a child's intuition, I sensed that something was wrong. I ran out to call my parents at work.

Within moments, my parents, an ambulance, and the police pulled into the driveway. Commotion took over our quiet suburban neighborhood. My grandmother was taken away on a stretcher, never to be seen again. I did not understand the permanence of death, and my parents protected me from the experience; they didn't allow me to attend the funeral. Instead, my mother handed me my first journal -- one by Khalil Gibran with quotations across the top of each page. My journal became my best friend and confidante. I poured my deepest sentiments onto its pages. Little did my mother know that her seemingly benign gesture set the platform for my life's work as a writer.

Many children take such events in stride. Only looking back from the adult perspective do we realize the gravity of our earlier experience. It was the 1960s, long before therapy was commonplace. For hours on end, I sat on the floor of my walk-in closet and wrote about how I missed my grandmother, reflecting upon all our special times together. Writing helped me come to some level of peace about losing her. That was the beginning of my understanding that the practice of writing really does heal.

Healing Through Words

When confronted with trauma, life transitions, or epiphanies, many authors have found that writing empowers and facilitates the healing process. D. H. Lawrence sat at his mother's bedside while she was dying and wrote poems about her. He also began an early draft of Sons and Lovers, his novel in which he explored the complicated, loving, and painful relationship between him and his mother. Marcel Proust wrote Remembrance of Things Past while sick in bed with asthma. Flannery O'Connor wrote some of her best stories while dying from lupus. I wrote my first book, Getting Pregnant and Staying Pregnant: A Guide to High-Risk Pregnancies, in 1983 while on bed rest with my eldest daughter.

When life takes an unexpected turn, journals can become our best friends. Poet Langston Hughes said, "When I feel bad, I write in order to keep from feeling worse." Writing to feel better is probably the most common reason why people crack open their journals. These days, therapists sometimes suggest journaling in conjunction with talk therapy. Since my grandmother's death, I've pulled out my journal during other difficult times, such as while navigating a turbulent adolescence and three pregnancies laden with bed rest. Acknowledging its transformative results, I once again turned to journaling during my two bouts with cancer.

Indeed, the challenges surrounding illness can become a catalyst for writing.

During graduate school, one of my writing mentors told me, "When it hurts, write harder." Writing provides an emotional release to vent about issues related to your work or personal life. Sometimes the loss of a loved one reveals inner turmoil or uncovers secrets that are brought to the surface during the writing process. Writing helps clear your mind while increasing your awareness. And, after finding my grandmother's journal many years after her passing, I realized that writing can provide insights into our ancestors and their legacies. Sometimes journals even turn into books, such as my first memoir, Regina's Closet: Finding My Grandmother's Secret Journal.

Write from Your Heart
The most important aspect of using writing to empower is to write from your heart. Dig down into your own emotional truth and write like nobody is going to read it. In this way, you will get a window on what is important to you -- not only what inspires you, but what irritates you, too. When you come to these realizations, you'll be able to tap into a deeper sense of self-discovery, one that will lead to a sense of well-being and, ultimately, happiness.

The best way to start writing for healing is to find a pen you like to write with and something to write on that inspires you and pick them up and use them. Write for fifteen continuous minutes about whatever pops into your mind. You might decide to write a letter to a deceased loved one, relate details about a personal obsession, or chronicle some other life-altering experience. Perhaps you'll want to jot down what you're grateful for or what can you do to place yourself on a path to greater joy. It's okay to begin writing about one thing and have it take you someplace completely different. The beauty of journal writing lies in its spontaneity. The idea is to just let it rip and get the words onto the page. In and of itself, this is a transformative and empowering experience.

Whatever the events of your childhood and your experiences since then may be, through the process of writing about them, you'll come to a better understanding. Although the debate continues as to whether we're shaped by nature or nurture, writing helps us learn more about who we truly are. In a sense, our experiences prepare us for greater growth. And knowledge, as a wise individual once said, is always empowering.

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