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May 23, 2014
Pebbles, Potholes, and Perspective
Journal Writing: Discovering and Developing Self
by Sarah Hancock

This past week I was asked to give a talk on family history. Not exactly a genealogy buff, I decided to speak about something more in my comfort zone: literally writing my own family history -- keeping a journal.

From an early moment in my mental illness journey, a counselor advised me to keep a journal. Little did she know that I received my first journal as a 12-year-old from my Young Women leader after her lesson on Wilford Woodruff and his diligent journal-writing.

Imagining myself in 80 years with journal volumes filling a library, I set to the task of writing in my little journal. Soon the problem became clear. I had nothing to write.

One entry begins, "Dear piece of paper." The next reads, "Dear Lined Piece of Paper. The third reads, "Dear flowered book of lined paper." You get the idea. When I was 12, writing didn't thrill me. I did it anyway. Never in my wildest dreams did I conceptualize how my journals would influence my life.

She began writing in a journal when she was a 12-year-old. These journals span from 1987-2014. Photo by Sarah P. Hancock.

Brad Wilcox wrote about the values of journal-writing in his talk, Why write it? He argues that there are six benefits resulting from journal writing: thinking, feeling, discovering, expanding the mind, remembering and dreaming.

Watching TV, playing games or pursuing social media does not allow us to develop our own thoughts and opinions. In my experience, writing has also allowed me to purge thoughts and feelings, examine them and move on.

At times when I was really sick, the words I wrote were nothing more than hard-to-read, vile, verbal vomit. Other times I actually arrived at a better mental place through the mere act of scrawling sentiments.

I became pretty good at getting things out of my system via the quill and scroll. Thoughts that bugged me, exited through the ink, warehoused for later. Sometimes I wrote things and shred them, others I hid away in my journal boxes to be discovered later. They've now been rediscovered and make so much more sense, now that I've safely passed through some trials.

Some people think they have nothing to say. To you, I would like to share something I learned as a writing student at BYU. My professor, Dean Hughes, assigned students to write for 30 minutes a day in addition to our writing assignments. If we had writer's block, he advised writing, "I have nothing to say" until we thought of something else to say. The pen had to keep moving.

Another effective way to figure out what you're really trying to think or feel is to sit down at the computer, turn off the screen and just type. If you stop typing to think, the train of thought disappears over the horizon. Set a watch and keep typing; don't stop.

Wilcox talks about how people can learn from journal writing because it "reinforces the idea that each person is important. His or her experiences and feelings are valuable and are worth recording so they are not lost."

It reminds me of an activity I learned about from Martin Seligman. He calls it, "what went well and why."

As I focused on writing what went well in my life, and why I thought it happened, I began seeing more things that went well in my life. It was more than a simple gratitude list when I detailed why I thought things went well.

Sometimes I believed they happened because God was watching out for me or because I found the strength to do something. Soon I frequently saw Heavenly Father's hand guiding my life and found myself stronger than I'd imagined. The more I wrote, the more I looked for things to write.

Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf, once said: "I don't want to live in a hand-me-down world of others' experiences. I want to write about me, my discoveries, my fears, my feelings, about me." When we write, we begin to discover our true self. I've discovered that it's easier to figure out how to change myself after arriving at my own conclusions about what needs to be changed. For me, positive change directly results from journal writing. I agree with Wilcox when he says, "regular writing does make it harder for us to remain passive [about life]."

President Spencer W. Kimball counseled, "Write your goings and your comings, your deeper thoughts, your achievements and your failures, your associations and your triumphs, your impressions and your testimonies" (President Kimball Speaks Out [1981], 59).

Obviously keeping a journal serves as a helpful reminder. Granted, I don't always want to remember what's happened, but I can say having a record of my life has helped me when I forgot who I was and what I believed.

If I didn't have journals spanning the 27 years since I got my first one, my memory loss would have swallowed 95% of what's happened to me. Riding the confused tailspin of self-rediscovery could have had disastrous consequences. Instead I relied on my journals to know who I could trust, effective strategies from my past and steer clear of that which hadn't worked.

Relationships are built on common memories. If you have no memory of the past, those relationships dissolve like a sugar cube under hot water. You might not ever have memory loss, but should it creep into your life as it has mine, you have journals full of memories with which to reminisce.

Dreaming as I wrote in my journal mentally saved me on multiple occasions from the dire circumstances in which I found myself. When surrounded by people who didn't believe in my dreams of going to graduate school and obtain my masters, labeling them as grandiose, I turned to my journal.

When no one believed in my potential (including myself), I wrote about my determination to achieve my goals, solidifying in my mind the decision to attend school. I believe that had I not written my dreams in my journals, over time my dreams could have easily deteriorated like a flag in the sun.

Even if no one reads it, the process of writing a journal helps the writer move forward in life. Writing in my journal helps me move forward in my recovery.

If you'll indulge me, I'd like to close with a quote from my journal. It's dated Sunday, September 13, 2009.

Sometimes I write in here because I feel like someone's actually interested and listening to me when I do. Sometimes I feel like I'm opening myself up to my future family. Sometimes I write to better understand myself and the way I think.

Sometimes I write in hopes that someday a child of mine will be able to feel that they aren't alone and that they are understood by someone who loves them more than anything. Sometimes I write because we've been commanded to keep a record of our lives.

But whatever the reason, whatever the motivation, I'm glad I have; otherwise these past 10-15 years would have been forgotten like water under a bridge, never to be seen again and completely gone with nothing to prove it was there but the slow deterioration of the land around it. Do I need to explain what I mean?

Now I guess I'd better go follow my own advice. It's good for my mental health. Try it! There's no telling what you will discover.

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