What I’ve Gained From Journaling

Like meditating and exercising, maintaining a daily journal is something I’d seen recommended for years. It’s nothing new. I know some people have been doing it for decades. The popularity of the practice seems to have really picked up in the mainstream over the last couple of years, though. Maybe it’s Shawn Achor’s doing. So in this case I’m kind of following the trend, not at the forefront of it. I’m well okay with that, since writing in my journal nearly every day has made a tremendous difference in my happiness, my attitude, my behavior, and my mental health. In short, it’s just about improved everything in my life.

There are bunches and bunches of well-researched articles listing the many benefits of positive journaling, like this one, this one, and this one. I appreciate the fact there is real science and documented results behind the promotion of a healthy journaling habit. I’ll leave it to you to research and read those details. What I know most about and aim to tell you about are the specific ways keeping a journal has helped me.

Most obviously, it helps develop a writing habit. This result will be more important to some people than others, but I do believe everyone can benefit from improving their experience with writing. Even if you only use bullet point notation, which I do sometimes, the process of organizing your thoughts and selecting words that make sense as you put those thoughts on paper sharpens communication skills. For me, it’s trained me to be able to sit and write at least a little something every day. Writing for no other expected readers than myself has also trained me to let the words flow, to get my thoughts out without pre-editing or stopping to correct myself. I’ve learned to be content with what I write without feeling I need to edit and revise everything endlessly.

It’s a meditative practice. Taking a few moments to pause and be still while reflecting on life and things has helped me focus. I notice I feel more centered afterward, and that feeling lasts into the next day (at least).

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My current journal. It’s almost full. The next one is waiting behind it.

My journal is an excellent way for me to document things I’ve learned throughout the day as well as my own achievements. It’s a record of progress. Much like an exercise journal or diet tracker, the journal is a device that allows me to recognize accomplishments I’ve made that make me a better person. It also gives me opportunity to review my goals and intentions. Sometimes that leads to admitting I could do better. That’s still learning. Still improving. If I have made progress, I feel good. If I have had opportunities to improve, I feel motivated.

Also, the process of  writing down lessons I’ve learned reinforces them for me. There’s science that explains this, too. Basically, bringing the learning experiences to mind repeats the events once, then, with the action of writing it down, I “tell” it to myself, repeating it, effectively, two more times. Putting these experiences in my journal, reliving them, secures what I’ve learned in my memory.

Repetition of other positive experiences — people I’ve helped during the day, people who have helped me; pleasant moments, even meals, enjoyed; recognition I’ve received, and gratitude I’ve expressed to others or they’ve shared with me — increases my happiness in the same way. And here’s something: those good, happy memories are doubled, because now I not only have the memory of enjoying it the first time, live, but I also have a happy memory of remembering it and recording it and feeling good about it a second time. So what was good the first time around is doubly good for the feeling of joy the memory of it can bring.

And what wasn’t good the first time around? Surprisingly, when looking back, even experiences that seemed negative or exceptionally stressful tend to not be so terrible once I’ve got past them. I caught part of an interview on NPR a couple days ago where retired paramedic (and now author) Kevin Hazzard talked about having to deliver babies:

“It’s one of those things that it’s not good until it’s all over with. Don’t forget, these are people who are enduring a natural childbirth, so they aren’t happy to see us. There’s no joking with a woman who is way deep into a natural childbirth and is going to do it on the living room rug. She’s not in the mood to smile or necessarily even be cooperative. … All of a sudden there’s this child and everybody is smiling. … It wasn’t one you always looked forward to, but it was one in the end that everybody always seemed to enjoy.”

Now, I ain’t delivering babies, but tough things I go through in a day generally turn out like that. Not so scary once it’s all over. Sometimes there’s even a positive result. Journaling has helped me maintain perspective, and appreciate just about all the things I experience.

Similarly, journaling trains the brain to look for positives, and, when looking back on the day, to realize how good the good things were and how minimal and unimportant the negative things were. Or how they weren’t negative at all. Since I’ve been journaling, I find myself applying this knowledge as I go through the day. I’m more open to opportunities and much less worried about challenges as they come up.

Another way keeping a journal increases my personal joy is by providing a mechanism for me to recognize how fortunate I am. It provides a medium for expressing gratitude, if only to myself, so I stay cognizant of how much there is that’s good in my life. Bringing these things to mind, it then spurs me to act graciously, with compassion, humility, and appreciation of others.

Through the benefits I’ve mentioned, my journal has become an incredibly effective tool for self-coaching. It’s like talking to yourself, you know. I think I read it’s even more effective than speaking affirmations to yourself, because of the repetition involved. When writing it down, your brain thinks the positive thought once in order to write it, then again as it reads it back. I write in my journal, celebrating life, detailing accomplishments and goals, and it encourages me. “Wow! Look what you’ve done! Look where you’re headed! You are one lucky guy! Stay strong, man. You can get where you need to be.”

 

What I Don’t Know About Making Progress

A lot has happened since my last post here. Considering how long it’s been, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

The most exciting piece of news is I am now engaged to be married. My wonderful girlfriend, Ashley, accepted my proposal, and we expect to be married sometime this year. I wanted to take this step for a while but had to save up for a ring. Call me old fashioned. I am, in some ways. Ashley makes me so very happy. I love our life together.

Almost as exciting, I completed the first draft of my novel, Dead Man’s Party. I’ve been working on it for almost two years, although that’s counting several months in the middle when I had to take a break from it. I returned to the project last February, fired up and anxious to finish. I learned a lot through the process. I am still learning. It has been fun. Hard work, too. Not only because it’s hard to squeeze writing time in my schedule. A few things in the story wound up different in the end than originally imagined, but I am very pleased with the results. Now I am revising the draft, making corrections, fixing those points that no longer make sense, increasing tension, and strengthening the characters. This might be even more enjoyable than writing the original manuscript. I am thrilled with the way it is turning out. I hope to have a presentable draft ready by May.

There’s been progress at the day job too. I won’t say much about it, but I have received some nice recognition. Should get a bonus in the next couple of months, which will be nice.

I found a terrific group of writers in Charlotte and joined their critique group. What a talented bunch of folks. Thoughtful, caring, and a lots of fun, too. The meetings are refreshing and informative. I’m pretty lucky to have found a group like this.

I hope things have been going well for you, too.

What I Don’t Know About Hot Irons

I started a new writing project today. No, I’m not done with Dead Man’s Party, although I plan to have that completed soon.  This new concept came to me last night, and I believe it is a pretty good one.  It definitely has potential.
I mapped out some of the characters, background, and a general premise for the new thing, then wrote a few hundred words of a beginning.  I like the way it has shaped up so far, even if “so far” is not really very far at all yet.
I’ve done this before, of course.  Some new, exciting idea comes around and sticks in my head, begging for development.  I get caught up, think through possibilities.  That’s how I started at least a dozen other projects.  Never finished them, though.
Some wound up not being such great ideas once I put in some work to refine them.  Others remain as possible future projects, when I have more time or the right motivation to make them worthwhile.
Timing is important in many things, inspiration especially.  Lucky enough to have a day off to develop this new concept, it would be wasteful and regrettable to not give it a shot.

What I Don’t Know About Kevin Hearne

Amidst the regular flow of disappointment that is modern life, some pretty cool stuff happened in 2011.  Ashley and I got to see Gang of Four and Arctic Monkeys; we had a fantastic beach vacation with some of the coolest people in the world; Moogfest gave us an even more amazing lineup than the previous year; and three fun and fast-paced books by new Urban Fantasy author Kevin Hearne appeared on bookshelves.

Hounded, Hexed, and Hammered are the first three books in the Iron Druid Chronicles.  They involve Atticus O’Sullivan, the last living Druid who has survived over two thousand years through his special Druidic abilities and (not always) careful living.  Atticus has an Irish wolfhound, Oberon, with whom he communicates telepathically and playfully.  There’s a new wiki that can explain more, but I recommend you just read the books.  Do it.

From the get-go, people were comparing the Iron Druid Chronicles to Jim Butcher and the Dresden Files.  Because they feature male protagonists who work magic, I guess.  There is some similarity in style, too, but Hearne is more comfortable letting things get a little silly, so there’s more humor in his series.  There was, anyway.  With books four and five, Tricked and Trapped respectively, the tone shifts toward seriousness.  Still plenty of very funny lines, though, and Oberon especially provides terrific comic relief.

Personally, I find the Iron Druid Chronicles to have more in common with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods universe.  With more humor.  And more action.  And a more direct narrative.  So maybe they really are only akin to American Gods because of all the dieties and mythological beings doing things in our contemporary world.  Know what though?  The Iron Druid books are really what I secretly hoped American Gods would have been.

Say what you will about judging books by their covers, but it was seeing the outstanding covers of Hounded, Hexed, and Hammered side by side on display that caught my attention.  They looked like something special.  They certainly were.

Kevin Hearne is pretty much the kind of writer I would like to be.  Not only for his boyish (though bearded) good looks, nor for the impressive brogue he can switch on instantly, but for three particular reasons:  he’s smart, he’s prolific, and he’s a totally nice guy.

He produces completely engaging novels and short stories at an unexpected pace, giving his readers a little something to enjoy every few months.  That’s smart and prolific.  The dialogue in the books is clever.  The mythology is well-researched and thoroughly developed, with enough explained to the reader to make everything believable.  The characters and their relationships are also well-formed and delightful.  Smart, smart, smart.

Mr. Hearne shares A LOT with his fans through his blog and social media.  He posts updates on his writing, inside perspectives on getting published, and simply goofy thoughts and memes.  He actually responds to fans.  Online, his personality is always positive.  I was lucky to have Mr. Hearne include Charlotte on his summer book tour, which he arranged and paid for on his own.  He was exceedingly kind in person.  He patiently answered all sorts of questions and frankly explained the work that went in to writing and publishing his books.  He was funny, quick, grateful, and gracious.  Totally nice.

Me and Kevin Hearne at Park Road Books
That’s me with Kevin Hearne, super-cool author of the Iron Druid Chronicles! I should have held the book up so it showed the cover. Guess I was too excited.

Earlier I made my case preferring his work to others; allow me to balance the scales a little.  The IDC are not as literary as Neil Gaiman’s books.  They sure are entertaining, though.  Don’t let anything here mislead you to believe these are silly stories.  Obviously a lot of care goes into crafting the books and the characters.  Perhaps it is his experience as a teacher, but there is a lot to be learned from his books, too, and not only about the various pantheons and cultures.  I find a moral or two or at least some applicable wisdom in each of the Iron Druid books.  That’s smart, prolific, AND nice.

Truth is, it was while reading the first three Iron Druid books that I decided to get serious and write a novel.  I’d been working on an idea for a couple of years, and the Iron Druid Chronicles proved to me a UF series could successfully have the mix of humor, action, emotion and history I wanted to include.  Kevin Hearne continues to be an inspiration, and I thank him for it.

What I Don’t Know About Plotting a Novel

Most of you know I am working on completing my first novel.  Right now I have about 3/4 of the first draft done, and hope to finish it by October.  With my day job and other responsibilities the time I am able to make to work on the book is limited.   My writing process isn’t always as quick as I’d like either. That’s a major reason I haven’t been posting a lot here or in other social media lately.  I figure every minute I spend on blogging is time taken from the book.

Being so close to actually finishing this project feels great.  This book, by my best count, is the ninth I’ve started since about 1993, and will be the first to reach the end.  Of course, once the first draft is complete I’ll still have a lot of work to do, going back and revising.  I already have several things in mind to change, add, and take out.

As I’ve been writing the book, characters have filled out and situations have developed I hadn’t considered originally.  It’s been fun and occasionally puzzling winding the story from one point to the rest.  This morning, while working on the increasingly intense third act, I had an idea to switch something major.  It’s a good idea.  A really good idea.  It makes the story more interesting.  It also means I’ll have more of what I’ve already written to change.

That’s okay.  Since getting serious about this project, I’ve read a lot on the craft of writing for both instruction and inspiration.  It was not exactly news to understand that writers approach their work differently.  Some create detailed outlines before beginning their draft, others simply start writing and let inspiration take them wherever it will.  Some writers, like myself, try a method somewhere in between.

I had a basic premise, a setting, and a title that suggested a story.  I worked to make sure I had a beginning and, most important, an end.  I wanted to believe I could trust luck and talent to create an ending once the story worked itself out, but since my goal was to finally — FINALLY — complete a novel, making sure I had an end relieved some of the anxiety associated with the grand project.  Several important scenes in varying degrees of specificity were imagined to fill out the middle and move the story from the beginning through to the conclusion.  It approached an outline, but was not particularly thorough.

I’ve revised a little bit as I’ve gone along.  Mainly dialogue.  I did restart the novel completely after already writing three chapters.  It was the right thing to do and the book is better for it.  I also removed and reworked a chapter far into the book.  That also made the story stronger.  Most of my revision, though, I am saving until I get the basic story written.

The idea that occurred to me today will change the plot a little.  It will require adapting passages I’ve already spent a lot of time and effort trying to get right already.  Oh, but it really is better than what I originally had planned.  Flexibility, I’ve been reminded many times, is an important quality in many circumstances.  For a writer of fiction, I think it may be necessary.

What I Don’t Know About Writing a Blog

It was mostly the guru from Guam, but there were plenty of others, including a synthpop DJ, a weirdo from Texas, and a couple of great guys I know (one living in the metropolis that is Belmont, NC, and the other currently in the Netherlands) who made me think I wanted to write a blog.

Why Blog?  It depends on your purpose.  Mine?  I enjoy the exercise of writing, turning ideas into combinations of words that might make sense.  And sometimes I feel like I have something to say that someone else out there might find helpful, or interesting, or funny.

But are you required to have an admirable purpose to blog?  A couple of years ago, when  I decided I wanted to give blogging a serious go, I thought so.  There’s enough “blah, blah, blah” in the world.  I believe it’s only considerate to not clutter up the bandwidth or take up other folks’ time without a reason.  And I believed a blogger definitely had to have a point to make to be taken seriously.  That’s what all the blogs I admired did, anyway.

My perspective on that has changed.  I see now that there are plenty of good bloggers out there not taking themselves too seriously, and having a good time with it.  If there’s a purpose for them, it’s self-expression.  Good enough reason for me.

I’ve read a lot from notable names in the — forgive me — blogosphere that lay out sort of rules on how real blogging is supposed to be done.  You have to find a niche.  You have to post with frequency, at least daily.  Your posts can’t be too lengthy.  First drafts are good enough, the important thing is to get them out there.

You know what I’ve seen, though?  Over the few years I’ve been paying attention, it looks to me like success in blogging is like it is in nearly any other pursuit.  Those that have the most impact, that are clearly differentiated from the ordinary – they don’t care about the rules.  And the folks with all the rules?  Their own achievements just aren’t all that impressive.

Okay, I do realize I can’t go six months between logging in and posting and still consider myself a blogger.  I also realize I sometimes take way too long to compose a post.  I’ve at least learned to edit and not make my posts too lengthy (save that for the books), and I am getting better at those other issues.

So here’s to exercising the blogging muscles.  I hope my writing and your reading will be worthwhile.  But I’m not going to worry too much if you don’t take me seriously.

What I Don’t Know About Sabbaticals

I had the day off from my job last Friday, and like most of my days off I’d given myself a more than adequate list of things to accomplish.  More than anything, I’d been looking forward to having a full day in which to write.  I felt like I was getting a good start on the day by knocking out some housework, figuring I’d get that out of the way to better devote the rest of the day to my creative work.  Then I went to the computer.  Possessing best intentions, I somehow got distracted.  I realized I wasn’t feeling motivated to do what I’d been craving the time to do.  I procrastinated, taking care of other minor tasks, teling myself “once I finish this other thing,” then I’d get down to writing.  But it never happened.

It got to be lunch time, so I ate.  I watched TV while I ate.  Then I watched TV after I ate.  You may not know this about me, but I don’t like watching TV, especially when I know time is slipping away, and there are so many more important things to be doing.  It’s that feeling of needing to make the most of the time I have that compells me to fill my days off with expectant to-do lists.

I realized I was tired.  All morning, even as I knowingly avoided moving forward with my writing, I grew more and more upset with myself.   Fortunately, about halfway through the day, I chilled out.  No sense beating myself up.  Wasting time?  Maybe.  Maybe using the time to rest is really what I needed to do.

Back when I was studying for the ministry, I prepared a sermon based on some passages in the book of Jeremiah.  Jeremiah was one of the Old Testament prophets, sent by God to give some pretty dire messages to the Israelites.  Specifically, Jeremiah let the people of Jerusalem know that if they didn’t straighten up, God was going to destroy the city through terrible means.  What was the terrible thing the people of Jerusalem were guilty of?  Not honoring the sabbath, the day of rest.

Honoring the sabbath is one of the 10 Commandments.  It’s number four, as a matter of fact.  If the commandments were given in order of importance, it might be interesting to know this one comes before honoring your father and mother, to not kill, to not commit adultery, and to not steal.  God wants people to take a break once a week.  And He was more than willing to punish people if they didn’t.  Not only Jeremiah, but the books of Ezekiel and Nehemiah illustrate some gruesome ways sabbath shunners met their ends.

I’m not really fearful of divine retribution, but the idea that it’s not only nice for folks to rest once in a while, but necessary, is one I can easily agree with.  I still don’t understand how I can be extremely inspired when I don’t have the time to write, but then extremely unmotivated when I am afforded the time, but I do understand that sometimes things just cant be forced, and occassionally it’s okay to let myself just do nothing.

Today, though, is for writing…!