The Journal as Alter Ego

By Tina Jenkins Bell

When it comes to maintaining healthy emotional balance and sound mental health, the struggle is real for writers. This is a particular reality after being trapped in our homes for nearly a year during the pandemic with only our minds--- pregnant with creativity, self-criticism, and frustration--- and Netflix to turn to. COVID may have even exacerbated the mental strains some writers face, and created new challenges for others. In America alone, there is a long history of writers who have battled with their brain. 

Great American playwright Tennessee Williams, in The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, conjured up mentally ill heroines. Williams may have portrayed these women so well due to his own issues with alcohol, drugs, depression, and a sister who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In addition to Williams, these writers also waltzed with mental health disorders.

  • Sylvia Plath - depression

  • Ernest Hemingway - depression, borderline and narcissistic personality traits, bipolar disorder and psychosis

  • Virginia Woolf - depression and psychosis

  • Mark Twain – bipolar disorder and depression

  • Ezra Pound – narcissistic personality disorder

  • Leo Tolstoy - depression

  • Stephen King - depression, alcohol, and drug abuse

  • Anne Rice – depression

  • Carrie Fisher – bipolar disorder and drug addiction

  •  JK Rowling – depression

Though some believe King’s depressive state and use of drugs and alcohol contributed to his 1980s best sellers, like Pet Sematary, Firestarter, and Christine, mental health challenges are certainly not a prerequisite to being a great author, poet, playwright, or other type of writer. However, studies do suggest that writers can be predisposed to mental health challenges.

Dr. Arnold Ludwig of the University of Kentucky conducted a study, which can be found in Methods and Madness in the Arts and Sciences, to analyze the relationship between mental illness and cultural influence. He discovered mental health illnesses, such as bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia, stemmed from the brain’s frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is also the same area where creative thinking emanates. It is responsible for the working or short term memory we writers depend on as well as brainstorming, planning, and decision making. Surprisingly, the frontal lobe even prompts writers to choose certain events or details over others when creating, according to “Psychologically speaking: your brain on writing.” So, it seems our ability to spin worlds and characters from thin air can come at a cost.
Writers don’t just create irony on the page; we live it since our minds can be both the source of our work and our kryptonite. But, not to worry, there is a helpful response for circumventing mental strain while enlisting a powerful confidante who never tells (as long as you’ve got the right hiding place): the journal or diary.

A Healthy Mind Is the Equivalent of a Productive Writer
Personal journaling is a proven method for clearing the mind of chaotic litter. It is the place where you can store your angst or experiences and either review or forget about them. So, a book reviewer gave you a negative review, opining your novel’s subject matter was older than stories in the Bible. Don’t swallow your anger and frustration. Write it down in your journal. You just received a fifth rejection for a short story, and the last one was accompanied by a snarky response. Write it down in your journal. Your day job is revving up with greater responsibilities, leaving less or no time to write. Shed your frustrations on the pages of your journal.

Journals are not one-dimensional tools, saved only for the prickly thoughts that haunt you. On the contrary, personal journals can be used to chronicle daily life occurrences, from the mundane to the magnificent. Three of your short stories were accepted in one week. Write it down. You just hired the agent of your dreams. Write it down. You signed a contract with a publisher for your first, second, third, or fourth novel. Write it down. 
Personal journaling allows writers to unclog their minds to focus on producing more stories, novels, articles, plays, or poetry. The three most common ways to journal include freewriting, utilizing prompts, or composing structured lists or mind maps. 

The personal journal is a safe place for expressing all sorts of emotions without judgement. When in the throes of mental strain, writers can turn to their journals to store their feelings and control negative thoughts, and concerns. The journal can be used to record priorities, manage anxiety, cope with depression, and reduce stress. Writing things down can lift spirits and bring clarity to the mind. 

Writers and other individuals have used journals to track their emotions and feelings. I, for example, have journaled since I was ten and know journaling to be salve for the mind. I have reviewed my journal for numerous reasons including: checking for personal progress; tracking issues that I need to resolve, like repetitive problems my friend refers to as the “same devil in a different dress;” and keeping my eye on priorities. Lorraine Hansberry, who battled depression, journaled. Hansberry used her journal to record her infamous annual lists, “Myself in Notes,” where she itemized her likes, dislikes, regrets, hates, and victories. 
According to the article “Journaling for Mental Health,” journaling has the capacity to help writers:

  • Clear the mind to encourage positive thinking.

  • Shift negative mindsets to enhance senses of well-being.

  • Reduce symptoms of depression and other unease by letting bad, uncomfortable feelings die on the page. 

  • Become more self-aware through self-analysis.

  • Improve working memory.

Make connections between thoughts, feelings, and actions.

“Whether you’re keeping a journal or writing as meditation, it’s the same thing. What’s important is you’re having a relationship with your mind,” says Natalie Goldberg, who explores Zen practices and is the author of Writing Down the Bones

A Personal Journal, Not Your Story Journal
Many writers are already familiar with the story journal, the place where we record stories, scenes, dialog, and ideas. The personal journal and the story journal have different purposes and in my estimation deserve their own distinct paper-bound homes. My personal journals may be covered in flowers, butterflies or adages, like “write now” or “be present,” whereas my story journal is a plain hard-covered, black Moleskin. 

Beyond those guides, I prefer not to suggest how often or when to journal. I journal several times a week but not always daily. Individual writers can make up their own rules as for the frequency, privacy, subject matter, or kinds of narratives saved for his, her, or their personal journal.   

One final note: personal journaling is no replacement for therapy and doctors if you feel you’re really in trouble, but it can be cathartic and make a difference in your daily well-being. 


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