In the nearly half a century I’ve been writing, I’ve logged well over a million handwritten words,. Much of that writing was in postal letters I prolifically wrote from elementary school on and mailed to friends around the world.
Then in the mid-1990s came computer journaling and emails. I’m long-winded in my emails and narratives so, all told, there’s no counting just how much I’ve written, especially including my decades as a journalist for newspapers, news services, magazines and other publications. Practice is essential to improving any skill. My writing craft is better because of it.
A novelist teaching a workshop I attended 10 years ago encouraged writers to splurge on a journal you love. If you love your journal, you’ll be more apt to write in it.
That’s how I ended up learning to quilt. When I mentored middle- and high-school student writers, I sewed quilted journal covers using fabrics with themes that reflected their passions in their favorite colors. I loved seeing my mentees use the journals I made.
Later I sewed each high school mentee a quilt to take to college. That meant making five quilts. But what better way to encourage kids to write than by making them a cozy quilt to keep them warm while they’re journaling?
But even had I not been called to write, journals provide me with a place to dump in longhand what’s making me happy, what’s troubling, what the Lord is doing in my life, the cries of my soul. Sometimes I don’t really know what’s going on til I read what I’ve put on the page. Often I’ll journal something the Holy Spirit reveals, and in short order, the Spirit brings confirmation through a sermon, Scripture that pops up in seemingly random fashion, a billboard, a license plate, a soap label, a song expressing the exact thought.
Times I’ve been in particular need of a touch from the Lord, He chases me in ways reminiscent of two favorite movies. In the George Burns film Oh, God!, God gives a special assignment to grocery store assistant manager Jerry Landers (whose wife, Bobbie Landers, doesn’t believe him). In the Steve Carrell film Evan Almighty, God gives news anchor-turned-politician Evan Baxter a clarion call to build an ark through a series of odd events and messages, including 614 (referencing Bible verse Genesis 6:14 regarding Noah’s Ark) that turns up everywhere from his office phone number to the weight of a staffer’s new baby.
Throughout the Bible, God calls His people to remember what He has done for them through the generations by reviewing their history marked by His faithfulness (which comprises much of Deuteronomy). Rereading journals that detail how Jesus has shown up over and over helps build my faith.
From a standpoint of writing craft, it’s said we use a different area of the brain when putting words on paper with a pen versus typing thoughts into a keyboard. Handwriting seems to help me connect dots to see the big picture and small details of God’s hand in my life and in those around me.
How it began
I began journaling as a second-grader when my grandma’s church friend Mattie Pearl Wiggins gave me for Christmas of 1972 a five-year diary, covered in bright satiny fabric, its pages edged in gold like a high-end Bible. It easily fit in a 4-by-5-inch gift box. Mama explained to me that it’s for writing whatever I want in it.
So I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote. Each page was to cover that date over five years, hence allowed only five lines per year. But some days I wrote across half the page. On others I taped extra paper to the tops of the page and kept writing.
That little book provided therapeutic outlet for a little girl growing up in the ‘hood with a mentally ill mother and a grandmother beset with deep, abiding anger and advanced dementia. Four-plus decades on, it grieves me to revisit it, especially pages detailing events I had mercifully forgotten.
In time I graduated to calico-covered 6×9 bound books of a hundred pages. I quickly filled three.
Roaming the aisles of the Louisiana Tech bookstore I discovered narrow-ruled, stiff-backed chemistry lab notebooks. Those were perfect for journaling. But in the early 1980s they cost around $2.50,. If I wrote two lines per lined space, however, each would last way longer. So I started micro-writing, leaving no margins as I regarded that as wasting space I’d paid a premium for.
In time, I discovered stitch-bound notebooks went on sale every August at a tenth the price of the chemistry journals, so I switched to those.
From that first journal in elementary school, my journals have narrated joy and anger, high highs and low lows. After 1987 when I began my walk with Christ, the notebooks included sermon notes, lists for intercessory prayer, quotes that struck me as funny or profound, desperate cries from the heart and pleading with Jesus about life, loved ones, dreams, regrets and burdens.
I journaled the most during international travel. In 1983 I went on a student exchange to England, my first flight in a giant Pan Am jet, with two aisle and a lot of seats across. I wanted to remember all of it forever. So I started writing about, well, everything—the clouds, the ocean below, the roaring engine, what the kids across the aisle were doing, the university sweatshirt of the cute tall guy whose head came close to touching the ceiling. When the flight attendants dimmed the lights, I turned on the one above my seat and kept writing. Hours later, the house lights came on and shades went up, sun blasted the cabin, and I heard an elderly lady across the aisle say to her husband, “Look! She’s still writing!”
From journals to books
After I came to faith in Christ, two voices in my life shared prophetic words for me: It’s important for me to journal.
My 1984 journal from a summer in Europe provided fodder for writing my first book, Village of Bridges. It’s a coming-of-age chaste one-way love story novel about Robin Gatch, a girl from a Louisiana ‘hood headed on a trip of a lifetime to study in Rome. As Robin travels by train from London, she meets a New York exchange student from the same hard-knocks life and falls in love. The rest of the book entails her quest to find him, get him back—and then forget him.
Village of Bridges served as the first of two dry runs before my most recent release. Journals helped me flesh out the nonfiction Circle of Hope: An Inspiring NASCAR Journey (the second dry run). Circle of Hope details the lives and struggles of underdog drivers in NASCAR’s elite racing series.
My most recent release is Victorious: The Impossible Path to Peace, a non-fiction book that draws from my years as a journalist covering one of the world’s historically most violent places, Colombia, where I found enduring peace comes through radical forgiveness. (Here’s the promo video.)
That’s how journaling has helped me Improve and grow as a writer, journalist and follower of Jesus. Here are others’ takes on the subject:
The Artist’s Way author Julia Cameron centered her classic book around “morning pages”—three pages of daily handwritten stream of consciousness that set the stage for the day and enhance creativity. Pastor Peter Scazzero, author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, uses journaling in conjunction with an active life of prayer and contemplation. He journals his feelings to God and asks Him how He might be speaking to him through his emotions. Here’s an insightful Wikihow on journaling.
A time to write…and a time to shred you’ve written
Over the years I wrote out childhood and adolescent and, later, young adult angst, rendering journal after journal so toxic to read that after I saw a Beth Moore social media post, I opted to do as she had done: I got out the shredder.
All those years I wrote details of my pain-filled life, believing for some reason I needed to record it for history. Each journal served its purpose as a desperately place to dump feelings about my life that seemed so unfair, so weighted against me, so beyond my control, so utterly hopeless.
Years of journaling taught me effective ways to build sentences, organize thoughts, communicate a subject, and now to see God’s hand in hindsight what at the time I couldn’t see at all. But because of 2 Corinthians 5:17, I’m not compelled to keep them. The shreds of eight journals went out on a Wednesday trash day.
Though I didn’t know Jesus, He certainly knew me. Amid that agony and rejection, I can see His faithfulness reaching through to carry me through even harder times until Sept. 16, 1987, when I reached the end of myself. Alone on a bench at the University of Costa Rica, at last His love melted my resistance to handing Him all of my brokenness with a simple, spontaneous, heartfelt prayer: Lord, I don’t care what You do with my life. I give You everything. Just make me feel better.
And He did.
I kept that journal.
©2022 Deann Alford