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The art of keeping a journal

It's the ultimate wellness hack for the digital age – dumping your thoughts down on paper. 

There is something fundamental about pen and paper. Something that a keyboard and a word processor will never attain; the crisp feeling of the page, the scent of new paper, your pointed fingers clasping the pen and the smooth visible stream of inky words created by your own hand. Writing is a sensual experience. A mindful activity. 

Keeping a daily journal is one of the most beneficial, yet often overlooked, experiences we can add to our routines. 

American author Joan Didion's 1968 essay On Keeping a Notebook provides a fascinating insight into the magic of journalling. After finding a note scribbled in an old notebook, Didion questions its existence: 

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

While Didion's sentiments are rather lofty, they speak to the deeper reasons that drive our behaviours; why some of us search incessantly for answers and others simply accept life on life's terms. 

There are many reasons why people keep journals. Some like to document their travels, while for others a journal is simply a vestibule for their mind chatter. 

Author and podcaster Tim Ferriss speaks often about his daily journalling habit, which has become one of his morning rituals. 

"I don't journal to 'be productive'," he writes. "I don't do it to find great ideas, or to put down prose I can later publish. The pages aren't intended for anyone but me."

Ferriss quotes author Julia Cameron, who provides perhaps one of the best reasons for keeping a journal: "Once we get those muddy, maddening, confusing thoughts [nebulous worries, jitters, and preoccupations] on the page, we face our day with clearer eyes."

The late gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson wrote a letter to a friend in 1958, well before he achieved literary acclaim or notoriety for his decadent lifestyle, in which he revealed: 

"I find that by putting things in writing I can understand them and see them a little more objectively. For words are merely tools and if you use the right ones you can actually put even your life in order, if you don't lie to yourself and use the wrong words."

If you're not already in the habit of scribbling your thoughts each day, why not give it a go? We'd be interested to hear where it takes you.

James Mitchell is a Sydney-based journalist and the editor of Wellness Daily.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain