understanding our feelings

Assigning words to our feelings is the beginning of understanding them. The vast majority of them may not add up to anything of significance, but as you consider what you’ve written something of significance may begin to take shape. Writing in a journal “is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t—and, in fact, you’re not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird-Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1995, 41)

 Writing in my journal is often this way.  I don’t know what it all adds up to, but I will, if I just keep writing, exploring, discovering.  Somehow out of the mess, insight emerges. 


it’s hard to think clearly

We have lots in our heads that makes it hard to think straight: we are mad at someone, sad about something, depressed about everything. Journaling can be an outlet for these feelings so they don’t get so much in your way when you are trying to think. “Sometime your mind is marvelously clear after ten minutes of telling someone on paper everything you need to tell him. (In fact, if your feelings often keep you from functioning well in other areas of your life frequent journaling/freewriting can help: not only by providing a good arena for those feelings, but also by helping you understand them better and see them in perspective by seeing them on paper.)”  (Peter Elbow, Writing with Power—Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, New York: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 15)

Journalers know more fully what they mean only after they’ve written about it.

In Genesis 1:1, the Creator spoke the earth into existence. At first it was a shapeless, chaotic mass (Living Bible). Then God separated, ordered, and created until finally he declared it “good.”  Once we take the shapeless, chaotic mass of feelings, perceptions, images, prejudices and define them with words—then we can go back and separate and order it and see what it adds up to.  While the chaos swirls without words or logic inside our heads, the confusion remains.

Use Writing to Discover Meaning


Freewriting is a good place to begin if you don’t know what to write about. You may have done freewriting in school. Freewriting is distinctive from other forms of writing in that a freewriter doesn't stop writing to think. She continues writing whatever comes to mind, even to the point of writing "nothing" if nothing is coming to mind. "To do a freewriting exercise, simply force yourself to write without stopping for ten minutes. . . .The only point is to keep writing" (Peter Elbow, Writing with Power 13).

Typically people freewrite for four basic purposes: to record their experiences, make plans, discover solutions to problems that plague them, or to evaluate their feelings. Rather than beginning with a plan, during a freewrite, the writer discovers his purpose and structure as he is writing. It is amazing how clear your head becomes after spending 20 minutes freewriting.



Looping is similar to freewriting, except that after you have freewritten for a set period of time (10 minutes), take five minutes to read what you've written and underline the thought that seems most significant. This golden thought becomes the topic for the next freewrite.  Repeat this process three or four times in one sitting, or over the course of several days, and see what you discover.

Focus on meaning

As you write, focus on what something means. And as you seek to discover meaning, be honest with yourself. Don’t settle for trite, clichéd, or mindless phrases, try to find just the precise words that captures the essence of what you are feeling. A few years ago, Chuck Swindoll told an audience of 600 pastors that if he heard one more person asking God to “lead, guide, and direct” us, he thought he’d vomit. "Can’t God just lead us? Why do we always pray, 'lead, guide and direct?'" We all get caught at times using religious sounding nonsense. Avoid it in your journal. Figure out the right word for what you really mean. Get specific. Get real.

We have lots in our heads that makes it hard to think straight and write clearly
— Peter Elbow