Journaling is a beautiful and powerful way to connect to yourself and to the language you’re learning. But what to do when you’re stuck and the words won’t flow? That’s what Linda Alley, from No Fear in Writing, is about to tell you. I leave the mic to her!
You’ve bought a beautiful new journal and you can’t wait to use it.
You pour yourself a coffee, close the door and curl up in your favourite spot by the window.
Slowly, you slide your purchase out of its brown paper bag.
The spine creaks as you open it.
You close your eyes for a moment, breathing in the woody scent of fresh paper.
Your fingers caress the smooth, cream pages as you take out your pen and write…
If this has happened to you, you’re not alone.
Just as authors experience writer’s block, the same thing can happen when you sit down to journal – even if you’re not writing for an audience.
So how do you start journaling when your words won’t flow?
Before we talk about how you can overcome this, let’s look at why it happens.
Why We Get Stuck
If you struggle with journaling, take a look at the list below and see which points resonate with you.
You worry that your writing isn’t good enough.
This fear is especially common if you’re journaling in your non-native language. But we often doubt our writing ability in our first language too.
You wonder if you’ve chosen ‘the right words’ to express yourself clearly. Or you ruminate on whether your writing is interesting enough.
Self-doubt causes paralysis. It can stop you in your tracks after a few sentences or prevent you from starting at all. Logically, you know that your journal is for your eyes only. No one is going to judge your writing. But that doesn’t stop you from judging yourself.
Lack of inspiration
You want to try journaling, but when you open your journal you have no idea what to write. Fear of the blank page can be a major obstacle for writers of any kind. But because journaling is freewriting, the lack of structure can freeze you before you even get started.
Not enough ideas
Maybe you don’t have any problem finding a topic to journal about, but you peter out after a sentence or two. Running out of ideas can be just as debilitating as not having ideas to begin with.
Too many ideas
The opposite can also be true. How do you start journaling when your pen can’t keep up with your mind? When you’re not sure what to focus on, it’s easy to slide that brand new journal to the back of your drawer.
How to overcome journaler’s block
Now we’ve looked at what might be holding you back, let’s look at some solutions to each problem.
Journaling through self-doubt
Is perfectionism getting in the way of your journaling?
The first step is to find a way to mute the inner critic living inside your head.
One of my favourite ways to do this is to set a timer while writing.
Your phone works well enough. Or you can go analog and use a kitchen egg timer if you want to avoid digital distractions.
Decide how long you’d like to journal for and set your timer. I’d recommend 5-10 minutes to start with. But you could even go with 3 minutes if 5 minutes feels too long.
The idea is to write without stopping until the timer goes off. This type of journaling doesn’t give your inner critic time to show up.
When you write down your thoughts as they appear, you don’t have time to worry about the quality of your writing.
But what if you can’t remember a word? Or you’re not sure if you’ve used it correctly?
Leave a space or guess, and move on. You can always come back to it later.
It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re writing quickly. Maybe you still have plenty to say when your timer goes off. In which case, carry on. This activity is not meant to be prescriptive. Think of it as a technique you can use to jumpstart your journaling when you need help to get your words flowing.
And if you reread your writing later, you might be surprised.
Removing your inner censor helps you drill down deeper into your thoughts. An honesty starts to emerge that may not have been there when you were journaling more slowly and self-consciously.
Related: 9 Benefits of Journaling in French
How to use journal prompts to find inspiration
Before you try timed journaling, you need a journaling topic. I recommend starting a collection of writing prompts you can turn to on days when you don’t know what to write about.
Journal prompts can be anything that spark ideas.
They could be questions or sentence stems that others have prepared. They might be quotations from books or blog posts you’ve read. Perhaps you want to journal about something that’s happened or a memory that’s important to you. You could even journal about a piece of music. Or a thought-provoking conversation you’ve had with a stranger.
Anything can be a journal prompt as long as it’s something that generates strong feelings.
Take a moment to think about your answers to these questions:
- What are you curious about?
- What lights you up?
- What makes you afraid?
- What makes you mad?
When you come across prompts that inspire you, note them down on a piece of paper and slip them inside your journal.
How to develop your ideas
So what can you do when you’ve got your prompt, but your ideas dry up after one or two sentences?
Of course it’s possible you may have chosen a topic that doesn’t resonate with you. But before you switch topics, try going deeper.
You can do this by asking yourself questions.
For example, let’s say you’re writing about a memorable meal out with some friends. As you’re journaling, you might ask yourself some of these questions:
- When did we go?
- Who else was there?
- What did we talk about?
- What did the food look/smell/taste like?
- Where was the restaurant?
- What was it like inside?
- Why did I love it so much?
You can go even deeper by asking yourself questions about your answers.
Let’s say you especially loved the food because it reminded you of your grandmother’s cooking.
In what ways did it remind you of her cooking? How did that make you feel? Why?
Imagine you’re a little kid who keeps asking their parents why. If you use this technique, you’ll never run out of ideas.
How to focus when you have too many ideas
But what about when your mind is racing with questions before you even start journaling?
How do you choose when there are too many interesting thoughts vying for attention in your head?
If this is something you struggle with, it’s important to remember that there is no one size fits all. Choose a journaling structure that works for you.
You may want to scatter your ideas across the pages of your journal as fragments, lists, word clouds or doodles. Sometimes recording your ideas more visually can help you become clearer on what you want to write about today.
Getting your thoughts out onto paper like this can be very calming. I find it slows down my mind and leaves me with more space to focus on one thing at a time. It also creates a record I can go back to if I want to journal about some of the other ideas later on.
Going back to “why”
Finally, when you sit down to journal, don’t forget to go back to your ‘why.’
Not only the reasons why you’re getting stuck, but why you wanted to start journaling in the first place.
When you reconnect with your why, it’s easier to work through the resistance that comes up when you’re faced with a blank page.
So next time you sit down to write in your journal, take a moment to answer this question first:
Why is journaling important to you?
Would you like some help getting started with journaling? I invite you to join my free challenge. Paper Footprints contains 12 days of journaling prompts for expats, immigrants and slow travellers. Click here to find out more.
Linda Alley is a New Zealand-born expat, writing coach and language teacher currently living in Melbourne, Australia. She helps expats, migrants, slow travellers and other adventurous souls process their overseas experiences through journaling and creative writing. You can find out more about Linda’s work on her website www.nofearinwriting.com
And for the French learners out there, if you’ve tried journaling in French but haven’t found the inspiration or the motivation to stay consistent, and you’re reading this article at the right time, I’m running a free “Journal in French” challenge from August 23 to August 27, 2021, exclusively via e-mail.
You can sign up for free here –> Journal In French Challenge