Friday, July 16, 2010

Making Writing a Habit: Gratitude Journals

On February 2, 2010, I wrote:

If I dream of becoming fit and strong, I must begin to eat less and exercise more. If I long to play the piano beautifully, I must begin with scales and devote time to practice day after day, year after year. If I wish to write or need to write, then I must begin.

The question most often asked by those facing a writing task is how do I begin? My students often hope that I will answer that question with a foolproof strategy. Alas, the answer is neither foolproof nor magical. The answer is simply: begin.

My early advice stands and applies to today’s topic: writing journals. To become a writer, one must write—not just for the heinous documented essay task that some teacher assigns and not just for the occasional job search. One must write every day.

By making writing a habit, you will unlock a never-ending stream of ideas and insights. You will also become better and better at writing.

Gratitude Journals. Some people still like to move pen across paper. I do when I update the gratitude journal that is a small bound notebook filled with unlined, blank pages waiting to be filled. Several nights a week, I reach for this journal on the night table beside me as I sit resting against a mountain of pillows, pen poised above a blank page, replaying my day to select one moment, person, idea, or creature that made a difference in my life that day. I find that I am a more aware and hopeful being when I write in my journal just before unfolding my body under the sheets and letting every muscle stretch taut before yielding to the mattress, the one that seems to know just where my weary bones rest best.

More about Gratitude. One of my favorite writing tasks to assign and one of my students’ favorite writing chores was the Attitude of Gratitude Letter. For the last 18 years of my teaching career, I taught seniors and required them to write a letter to one person who made it possible for them to graduate. I suggested a parent, grandparent, sister, brother, youth minister, friend, or teacher. I invited them to think back to the person who gave them encouragement when they doubted their talents, to the teacher who steered them in a direction such as art or music or science, to the person who provided study time, poster boards, pencils, paper, and notebooks. I also suggested that they write the letter on quality stationery, then roll it like an old-fashioned diploma, tied loosely with ribbon, and give it to the person on the night of graduation. The students warmed to the task, wrote carefully, revised and recopied. The act of saying thank you was a gift to themselves as much as it was a gift to one other person.

Being grateful teaches us humility. Being grateful changes the channel in our minds from dire, dread news to good news. Being grateful helps us grow so consider keeping a gratitude journal or writing a daily letter of gratitude

The Medium. An electronic journal will serve just as well. I find that writing by hand has become more difficult for me. My hands have some arthritis in them so writing by hand for long stretches is not an option any longer. Composing at the computer is easier on my hands and just as effective as writing by hand—except that I tend to delete words and chunks, editing as I go, leaving no trail by which to retrace the development of my ideas. On paper, the crossed out sections are still accessible, but I just do not keep several digital versions alive and well—although it can be done.

Begin to make writing a habit in your life. Write every day. A journal of gratitude is one easy way to begin that habit.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Do not waste time thinking or worrying about GUM for a gratitude journal—or any other type of daily writing, for that matter. Stopping to look up the spelling of a word can constipate the flow of ideas. Continue writing until you have written all the reasons for which you are grateful and until you have provided specific, concrete details to bring the moment, person, idea, or creature to full, three-dimensional life. (For a review of specific, concrete language, return to the posts for April 18 and 25, 2010.)

Reading Challenge:

In the pursuit of the highest quality journals, read one or all of the following:

1. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, a nonfiction account of Dillard’s life in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
2. An American Childhood by Annie Dillard, a nonfiction narrative about Dillard’s childhood
3. Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver, a collection of essays wherein she finds and explains reasons to be amazed
4. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, a memoir about the loss of her husband and the process of grief

Writing Challenge:

Write about the people, ideas, incidents, and creatures in Nature for which you are grateful. Be specific and concrete, but write with abandon—the only audience being you—at least for now.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.