Reflective writing—or journaling—is a helpful practice in helping understand ourselves, and by extensions, the stories we intend to write. Author Jeanne Baker Guy offers 25 ways reflective writing can help you grow as a writer (and as a person).
I owe Writer’s Digest a debt of gratitude. I’ve spent the last 25 years facilitating self-awareness reflective writing classes, retreats, and workshops. You’d think I would have connected the oh-so-undeniable dots, but it took a request from Writer’s Digest for me to note the obvious: There is a direct correlation between all those years of journal writing, and the writing and completion of my recently published, well-received debut memoir, You’ll Never Find Us—the 1977 story of how my children were stolen from me and how I stole them back.
What Is Reflective Writing?
Reflective writing, or journaling, is a way to explore your perceptions and misperceptions, all to reframe the way you see yourself. Though journaling can have a broader meaning, for the purposes of this article, I am using the two terms interchangeably.
Reflective writing is a process enabling you to take a closer, honest look at your perceptions, see the stories you’re telling yourself, and adjust or reframe them accordingly. This journaling method can deepen your understanding of yourself and the world, affecting both through a shift in focus. It opens a door to mindfulness, self-awareness, and conscious contact with yourself. By setting and creating intentional space for receiving your own story, you learn to listen to and trust yourself. What a concept.
I might add, it’s a valuable tool for personal growth whether you’re a writer or not.
Don’t feel like you have the time or inclination to journal, to take a look at yourself? Here’s the rub. For me, not engaging in reflective writing leaves me ungrounded, less than centered, and certainly not empowered. And, true confession, with all the recent activities and excitement surrounding the book plus publication duties, I fell off the reflective writing wagon. I thought I was too busy. When I was asked to produce this article, I sat at my computer and forced words on the document, basically pontificating about journaling. As you can imagine, it didn’t work. I froze.
On Writer’s Block and Negative Self-Talk
If you feel stuck, let me just offer a thought: It’s not “writer’s block.” It doesn’t exist, though I’d like to think that’s exactly what I’ve been experiencing the last few weeks. Resistance is based on (in my humble opinion) fear. Mark Nepo, in an online series I attended, said, “Writer’s block happens when you’ve stopped giving attention to that which is before you. Focus on seeing rather than being seen for your fundamental worth.” I think he’d agree that one way to focus on “seeing” is to go within, rather than seeking an external means to self-worth.
The request I received to write this article catapulted me back into my practice of reflective writing. Rather than trying to power my way through it, I decided to pull out my journal, show up on the page, and see what was really going on inside me. With rare exception, forcing myself, powering my way through a writing assignment—essay, memoir, whatever—doesn’t work. Might work for some, but it leaves me with an overwhelming sense of fraud that shuts me down, opening the door for negative self-talk.
Negative self-talk. Ugh. What a waste of time and energy. The voices in my head chant, “What’s wrong with you? You’re lousy at this. You’ve lost your mojo. You’re a fraud (the old imposter syndrome).” What I’ve learned is my time and energy would be better spent practicing kindness and self-compassion.
Sitting here right now with my journal—feeling so good from pouring all this onto the journal page—awakens me again to the incredible power of reflective writing. I’m taking my own medicine and it’s working. Who knew?! Capturing all these thoughts, seeing these words fall onto the page is, I dare say, electrifying.
Here I am writing in my journal; writing, writing, writing. My pen has not left the page. And then comes the test. I glance at my cell phone lying next to me on the sofa and almost pick it up. Not picking it up is hard. Major distraction. I mean big. Huge. Even as I continue writing, my phone is staring at me. I can feel it begging to be picked up. You’ll laugh but I’m humming now, looking away, pretending it’s not there, attempting to break its spell. I’m smiling, laughing at myself, and playing with the whole scenario. I’ve allowed fun and curiosity, rather than mental flogging, to enter the picture. With focus, writing can be the same: fun, rewarding, filled with curiosity and surprise, rather than blame or shame.
This shift is called reframing. It’s not about a shift in circumstances; it’s about a shift in consciousness and attitude through self-compassion, self-honesty, and accountability. It’s part and parcel of a journal writing practice.
Last night I couldn’t sleep. Thoughts swirled in my head about the publicity and marketing needs of my book. I tried deep breathing. Both the internal buzz and the chastising voices continued. As I relaxed with a few more deep breaths, a new voice said, “Think about the cheese in the refrigerator.” It struck me as so stupid, I laughed out loud. But the voice was fun, goofy, appealing. I began telling myself a story about the cheese in the refrigerator and, sure enough, I drifted off to sleep.
Why, pray tell, am I mentioning this, you might ask? Because (write this down), I believe:
The most important story you’ll ever hear is the one you tell yourself.
It would behoove you to create and listen to your internal compassionate voice. The voice that loves you and has your back. You can find that voice by, yes, journal writing.
For 13 years, I worked at Indiana Bell Telephone Company. Several of those years were spent as a residential customer service representative, where I learned to listen to, “read,” and care for the customers. Journal writing provides a similar foundation for you to listen to, read, and care for yourself—engaging in self-compassionate, loving self-talk as opposed to those nasty-ass voices in your head that tell you you’re not good enough, not courageous enough, that you don’t know what you’re doing, that your writing sucks.
How Do You Practice Reflective Writing?
Use a pen you like. Handwritten is the preferred method; it is believed by many there is a stronger heart/hand connection and freedom from the computer’s ominous blank page. However, computer or audio are viable alternatives. Better something rather than nothing. Find a way that works for you.Buy or create a journal that makes you happy and allows room to write.Find a spot you can settle into.If you like, add music of your choice, light a candle, etc.Date a blank page, set a timer (10-30 minutes). Begin. Let go and write whatever comes to mind, whatever you’re noticing, whatever, even if it’s “I have nothing to say.” Kick your internal critic to the curb and write.Keep your pen moving across the page; if you find yourself stopping, editing, or daydreaming, choose instead to write what’s happening. Literally, “I am daydreaming, I’m thinking about x-y-z” or “I keep editing my words and am noticing how hard it is to write stream of consciousness.”Having a dialogue with your Self on the page works as well.
Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way morning pages is one journaling method: three 8½x11 pages of stream of consciousness writing every morning. There are also many variations on this theme.
Another method is using timed prompts to help move you forward, reframe, or, “ReStory” your life, as I say in the workbook I co-authored with David Rackley, Seeing Me: A Guide for Reframing the Way You See Yourself Through Reflective Writing. This ReStory Reflective Writing Process™ is a helpful path to self-awareness—what every writer needs!
Why Choose Reflective Writing?
The list is long but here are just a few ways it can help you grow as a writer (and as a person). It helps you to:
1. Explore your perceptions and your misperceptions—all to reframe the way you see yourself.
2. Access your core: What story are you telling yourself about your life? I’d say that’s a pretty important question.
3. Learn discernment and be able to distinguish those “voices” in your head that have your best interests at heart from those that don’t.
4. Focus on you. Without taking care of yourself, how can you be authentically good for anyone else? It’s not a narcissistic adventure. It’s a healthy practice of self-awareness.
5. Show up for yourself; when you value yourself, you’ll value your writing.
6. Learn the importance of self-care.
7. Establish a practice of loving kindness and self-compassion.
8. Learn there is no blame or shame here. Repeat after me. There is no blame or shame here. Conscious contact with yourself requires taking the loving path so you can move forward as a writer.
9. Become more honest with yourself. You become strong enough to lovingly look in the mirror and see what’s really there.
10. Be more willing to risk, to explore your fears. You become your own best friend and become a personal growth detective in the process. If done in a compassionate way, it can be rewarding.
11. Learn vulnerability. This is a KEY to writing. Your vulnerability empowers others to do the same.
12. Replace fear and resistance with wonder and curiosity.
13. Observe those habits that do not serve you well: sidetracking, distractions such as email and the internet, multitasking, and the call of the refrigerator, to name just a few. They will not go away permanently, but the more you notice them, write about them, and come to terms with them, the greater the odds you can get back on your chosen path, value your time and energy as a writer, and practice better habits as a writer.
14. Experience the freedom to “dump” on the page with no expectations, an excellent practice for writers (a bonus from my longtime friend Leilani Rose).
15. Train yourself to show up to write.
16. Practice intentionality—getting intentional and honoring the intentions you value.
17. Experience the importance of self-awareness and personal development as the foundation for writer’s growth.
18. Get rid of the fog you’re suffering from because of all the stuff that’s rolling around in your head that keeps you from writing.
19. Establish a practice of pen to paper that gets your juices flowing.
20. Realize that there is much to say, much to discover.
21. Honor yourself: As a writer, you can experience aliveness by honoring and implementing that which calls to you.
22. Open up a dialogue with your innate wisdom.
23. Open the door to new possibilities.
24. Keep you from growing stagnant.
25. Learn to own, not disown, your Self. You’ll recognize your worth. You have a voice and courage within you to write and be heard.
You’ll find you have a rhythm, and get into a flow by allowing yourself to go deep into reflective writing—give it up, let go—your pages are for your eyes only. Remember, it’s not about a shift in circumstances; it’s about a shift in consciousness and attitude through self-compassion, self-honesty, and accountability.
A writer friend, Dr. Christina Wells, recently commented, “I want to journal my way into one of several projects. I have several things hanging over me—some stories, some essays, a novel without much structure. I need to see where I am drawn.”
Journal your way into your writing! I love that. Let your reflective writing be the doorway, the path to becoming a better writer. What do you have to lose?
If you want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down and write 10,000 words or so a week, this is the course for you. Build Your Novel Scene by Scene will offer you the impetus, the guidance, the support, and the deadline you need to finally stop talking, start writing, and, ultimately, complete that novel you always said you wanted to write.