I started keeping a journal in the summer of 1987, during an ill-fated move half way across the country. I arrived in Santa Fe alone—except for the bewildered dog and cat—without a job, without prospects for a job, without knowing anyone, and without knowing why this had seemed such a good idea 700 miles and six months earlier.
One night, in a dimly-lit motel room on the outskirts of town, I sat feverishly writing, pouring out my fear and desperation onto the page, hoping to calm myself long enough to figure out what to do next. It was hard to be there in that emotional truth, and I don’t believe I could have done it without the writing. There was something both disquieting and comforting in seeing what I was saying. No more denial, just relief.
That process did ultimately set me free—and on a path I still travel today: teaching others how to use journal writing to better express and understand themselves. I returned home, and three years later left my post as a university writing teacher to begin conducting journal writing workshops for adults. I designed one of these, Journaling as Spiritual Practice, in response to frequent requests from my students. They wanted to focus their journal keeping on the spiritual dimension of their lives, however each defined that.
The exercises I created were ecumenical in nature—my students and I represented all faith traditions and none—and reflected what is essential to both journal writing and the spiritual journey: authentic expression; emotional vulnerability; and the willingness to discover and tell the truth. Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the writing techniques that help elicit these responses is narrative: the personal stories of our childhood, transitions, adventures, losses, and triumphs.
Picture this: A room full of men and women, sitting quietly in a circle, bringing to life in their journals the significant people, places, and events in their lives. In that silence, you can hear the urgency in the writing, the sudden understanding that stories can give us: This is who I am, these are the people I come from, the events that shaped me. And this is what I think my life is about now.
And while many of our stories may not be explicitly spiritual, the act of telling them—and of discovering what they tell us—surely is. For stories fulfill our basic human need to make sense of our lives, to believe they have meaning and purpose. Stories also connect us to each other, bringing us out of isolation and into belongingness.
Which is what I experienced when I first began writing, then eventually telling my misguided New Mexico story. Truth is, it took me awhile to share it; I felt embarrassed, reluctant. But that’s the funny thing about stories: you tell your New Mexico story and then, sure enough, everyone has a similarly misguided tale to tell you.
For information on when I'm conducting the next Journaling as Spiritual Practice workshop, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.