How to Break in a Blank Journal

This is a guest post from the lovely Melissa Donovan. We’re not related, but we should be! Melissa has some fabulous tips on how to overcome that blankaphobia that can plague us with a new journal. Thanks so much to Melissa for contributing this helpful post. Read on!

The blank page is legendary among writers. Some of us embrace it and the infinite possibilities that it holds. That blank page is ours for the taking, and we look forward to filling it with our wonderful, magical words.

But there are a lot of us who dread the blank page and even fear it. How can we turn it into something beautiful or worthwhile?

And if a single, blank page is frightening, then a blank journal must be downright terrifying: a whole book full of blank pages! And we’re supposed to fill it up with wit and wonder? It doesn’t seem possible.

But it is.

A new journal is an opportunity that we give ourselves. It’s a chance to create, explore, and discover. It’s a place where we can learn and dream. We get to fill the pages with our ideas and reflections.

Our journals are a safe place where we can just be ourselves. Nobody’s going to judge us or grade us. There’s nobody to impress.

Still, a new journal can be intimidating. When I first started journaling, I couldn’t wait to get my pen on a blank sheet of paper. I had so much to say that I didn’t have time to be cautious.

Then, I realized that I wanted to be a profound writer, and I went through several years during which blank pages and empty notebooks brought on a catatonic state. I would stare at them for hours, waiting for an enlightening thought that I could write down.

In time, I learned to tame my expectations. I didn’t have to be profound or enlightened all the time. But if I kept on writing, eventually, little bits of wisdom would appear. I also found that I could befriend a blank journal, make it mine, and make it less intimidating by breaking it in.

Making Friends with the Blank Page

A few years ago, when it was time to start a new journal, I found myself in that catatonic state. I was handling the book, a beautiful and pristine hardcover artist’s sketchbook, and I thought about the journals I had filled with my creative writing and realized that over time, they had become comfortable and familiar, like friends.

So, I decided to make friends with this new journal before I started writing in it.

I started a new tradition. I branded my journal. I got out some colored pens and began what would become my new-journal ritual. Here’s what I did:

The Christening

I had noticed a trend in which people were choosing a “word of the year.” Sometimes these were words that defined the past year but usually they were words that were meant to energize the year to come.

I didn’t choose a word of the year, but I did choose a word for my new journal: “Transformation.”

Later, I would christen another new journal with the word “Manifest.” For some reason, the mere act of writing this word in big, bold script on the title page fostered a sense of comfort and the blank journal was suddenly far less frightening.

Plant Some Quotes

You can write a favorite quote on the cover (front or back), on the first page, or choose several of your favorite quotes and either write them on random pages or write the quotes on the first few pages, so they aren’t blank anymore.

Your new journal will no longer be blank and you’ll have interesting slices of wisdom that may inspire you as you continue adding journal entries.

Draw Symbols and Doodles

I like to doodle and draw simple symbols and images in my journal. Sometimes I get obsessed with a particular symbol, which is why my journal from the late 90s has ankhs all over it.

Sketching stars, moons, stick figures, and flowers throughout a new journal helps break it in and leads to fun discoveries later when you find these little treasures deep in its pages.

Make a Collage

If drawing and doodling isn’t your thing but you love imagery, then turn to the art of cut-and-paste, kindergarten style. Lots of journalers use collage to decorate the outside of their journals, but what about the inside?

A couple of well placed photos or pieces of art (Picasso, for example) can bring warmth, inspiration, and familiarity to a blank first page.

I know many journalers use these techniques throughout their journaling process, so that their journal becomes something between a journal and a scrapbook.

My approach is a little less complicated. I like to mark up my journal just enough to give it a little personality, leaving enough white space so that there is plenty of room for discovery.

The next time you’re faced with starting a new, blank journal and find yourself procrastinating, staring off into space, or totally avoiding it, try breaking it in with words, quotes, and pictures.

Give your journal a little personality so it feels friendly instead of unfamiliar. And then, write.

About the Author: Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She is also the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with tips for better writing and creative writing ideas.

The Art of Recalibration

My Dad has a strained relationship with his GPS.

He calls her “Mona,” and her directional narratives are usually patient. Every once in awhile, my Dad opts for a different route. Say he wants to avoid a dead armadillo blocking the road. Mona then suggests — with escalating urgency — that he perform a U-turn at the nearest opportunity so she can get him back on track.

My Dad is convinced she gets mad at him when he keeps going straight. She huffs in exasperation, her tone reproachful: “Recalibrating…” Mona doesn’t like recalibrating, but she does it when necessary.

I’ve been thinking about recalibration a lot lately. About adjusting expectations. About reconfiguring the game plan.

We humans are a delightfully adaptable bunch. Given the choice, many of us would prefer to stick to the status quo. We prefer stability and comfort, but we adapt efficiently to our changing environment.

The new relationship that is going in a different direction than expected. An illness that requires total re-arrangement of calendar and lifestyle. A treasured job suddenly gone. A relative recovering from a natural disaster on your couch. Winning the lottery (okay, I wish I had to adapt to that one.)

We can take in new ideas, and recalibrate our beliefs. We can take in new information and recalibrate our expectations. We don’t have to stay stuck. We don’t have to defend a way of thinking just because it made sense yesterday.

This is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the past few years. The beauty of staying flexible. The art of detaching myself from my long-held beliefs in light of new information, new experiences.

Lost in the Wilderness

Some friends took me on a hiking trip a decade ago. I was unprepared for the hike, mentally and physically. I was traumatized and never went hiking again.

Then I met the Page. The Page hiked from Georgia to Maine one summer. For fun.

I giggled at the irony of our pairing. The girl who hates hiking and the boy who volunteers for the Washington Trails Association.

A few summers ago, we were at Discovery Park. He said, “Let’s check out that trail.” Immediately the anxiety rose in my throat. Hiking? He wanted me to go hiking?

I took a deep breath, realizing my last hiking experience was a million years ago in a totally different situation. He held out his hand and I looked at his cherubic face, unable to turn him down.

And so we walked. The spring maples were unfurling their bright green leaves, casting spirals of shadow on the trail. The earth smelled vibrant and fertile. It was so quiet — no traffic, no hum of machines. Damp moss cushioned our footsteps. Orange mushrooms blossomed beneath ferns. The enormous pines towered over us, making me feel deliciously small and insignificant. I could forget all my worldly worries here.

After a few minutes, he said, “You look deep in thought.”

“I’m recalibrating,” I told him. “I haven’t historically enjoyed hiking. But I’m thinking it was the circumstances of my last hike I didn’t like. I’m enjoying this. A lot.”

“It’s just a walk,” he said. “In the woods.”

Journaling for Recalibration

Are there places in your life that need recalibration?

Sometimes we forget why we even believe something, or hold a grudge, or do something a certain way. We may take in new information, but dismiss it — or even debunk it — so we can cling to our former ways.

But we are not our beliefs, opinions, grudges. We are flexible human beings. We take in new information, hear new views every day.

Recalibrating your views and beliefs, your likes and dislikes, your way of doing things, is the mark of a secure soul. It’s a sign of personal growth.

Once you get past the discomfort of recalibrating, you start to look forward to it. You realize there’s freedom in saying, “Maybe I wasn’t right about that. Maybe there’s more to this story than I once believed.”

When I’m talking to an opinionated person, I ask for details about their opinion. Why they harbor that belief, how they reached that conclusion. Instead of seeking an opportunity to express my view, I ask questions. I’m listening for new information, points I haven’t heard before — doing research. At the end of a conversation, people are often startled to discover that I totally disagree with their point of view.

Get out your journal and write about recalibration.

  • How do you feel about the idea?
  • Do you recalibrate regularly?
  • Are your beliefs based on facts and personal research?
  • Do you consciously form your views, or were they fed to you by someone else?
  • Where in your life, work, or relationships would you like to try recalibrating?

I’ve gained enormous freedom in recalibrating, and I think you can, too.

The Miracle of Mindfulness

This “Artist Date” business is a real trip.

Seriously — even if you couldn’t care less about Walking in this World, you need to start scheduling Artist Dates for yourself.

What bowls me over more than anything is that we have to schedule an hour with ourselves every week just to remember to enjoy ourselves creatively.

Remember when we were kids? Childhood was different back then — I was talking about this with the Page recently. No Baby Einstein or “play dates” or rigorous athletic/musical/language curricula. On weekends the sun came up and our mothers shooed us outdoors with a broom and told us not to come back until sunset or dinnertime – whichever was later.

I spent years in the woods behind my house in Connecticut, building forts in the fallen trees from Hurricane Gloria. We skinned our knees, cried, and then got on our bikes and rode without a helmet until we cracked our skulls open and had to go home for Band-Aids.

I tamed wild creatures in the forest — snakes and birds and rabbits. Climbed trees and fell out of them. When I was older, we went pool hopping through the neighborhood after dark. We played multi-block games of hide-n-seek. We got dirty and got bored, made new friends, beat each other up, and then rode to the convenience store for Cokes made with real sugar.

We survived. But then somewhere along the line we stopped being spontaneous, stopped “playing.” We replaced “What should I do today?!” with “What has to get done today?”

I know, I know: You’ve got bills to pay, children to feed, a job to endure. No time for frivolous, spontaneous fun.

I get it. So at the very least, schedule a To Do item for yourself. Get out your iPhone or your Filofax and make a date.

For me, the Artist Dates have been all about mindfulness. We do a lot of rushing in this society, a lot of multitasking. Multitasking is particularly damaging. Instead of doing one thing well but slowly, we do two things half-assed (as my mom says).

Artist Dates can be the antidote to this too-much-at-once-ness.

Becoming Present

I was talking about Artist Dates with my friend Kerry, who chose to spend one of her recent dates going to a local grocery with a ridiculous produce section — seriously, acres of apples — and chopping, washing and cooking for four hours in her kitchen. She was fully present with the preparation of food — just basking in the smells and colors, slicing and dicing. Feeding her soul in the process.

I spent my last Artist Date in a state of muddy bliss. The sun was out Saturday for the first time since November, and my new yard/garden/patio is in desperate need of some love.

I rolled up my sleeves and spent several quiet hours pulling weeds methodically and digging in the dirt. Not planning or rehashing, not fretting or trying to get it done.

I was mindful of each weed. I fully soaked in the vivid colors of my new plants, smelled the fresh earth and rosemary. Felt the sun on my face. It was amazingly restorative. I was bursting with creativity afterward, like my well had been refilled.

When we’re mindful of our surroundings and fully present with what we’re doing, time stops. It’s so clichéd, but we appreciate the little things. We very literally stop to smell the flowers. And in doing so, we replenish our creative selves.

Not a bad way to spend an hour. Afterward, you can journal about the results. Go schedule yours now!

Journal Prompts for Time Travel and Culture Tripping

I have a little check in for this week’s chapter of Walking in this World.

Even if you’re not doing the Julia Cameron program, there are some fun journal prompts below you can use on your own. They have us taking a look at what cultures, places and time periods besides are own strike our fancy.

Is it just me, or does this chapter feel disjointed? It reminds me of the “seafood fiesta” sushi roll that the Page always gets at Marineopolis – all the ends and pieces from making other rolls, crammed onto a bed of rice.

The readings and tasks both feel useful, but unrelated. It’s strange.

Oh and while I’m in a critical mood, I just have to say that I love Julia Cameron but once in awhile I wish she’d call it quits with the clever. Every single sentence has to have some play on words. It gets annoying, especially when she stretches to finish the pun: “Do you like period movies — or movies, period?”


Anyway! Onward and upward.

Task: Geography

So I don’t understand what this task has to do with the chapter topic of “creative breakthroughs.” But here are some things that came out of that exercise for me, which was kind of fun to think about.

Other worlds I enjoy

What culture other than your own feels like home?

New Orleans, gypsy caravans, sailing vessels, Zen monestaries, India, Japan, bohemian NYC, North Beach surfer central

What age other than the one we’re in resonates with your sensibilities?

Probably the first half of the 1900’s – hanging out with those bohemians and loose-lipped artists, the beat poets and jazz — all the stuff before internet and cell phones.

Beyond that I can’t help but think about what it would be like to be a woman in any other time than now. Especially a woman like me: independent, brazen, and refusing to be tamed. I’d have been branded a Witch, for sure — especially with my existing Pagan leanings and the ability to talk to animals.

(Actually, that might have been fun. Aside from the whole burning at the stake thing.)

So although I think it would have been cool to live in a lamplit world, I couldn’t swing the whalebone corset gig.

What foregin cuisine feels like home to your palate?

Japanese, Morroccan, Greek, Southern Italy, India. Any place with sun-drenched fruit trees, close to the ocean.

What exotic smells give you a sense of expansion and well-being?

I’m a big smeller. Have I ever told you that? In an alternate life I would have been one of those professional sniffers that develop perfume and other scents. I catch a whiff of something as I walk by, and it’s not just that I smell something fruity or flowery — I smell Vaseline Intensive Care lotion (the one in the yellow bottle).

So I’m big on scents.

Some of my favorite exotics: sandalwood, amber, jasmine, narcissus, violet, gardenia, green tea, nag champa, cherry blossom, olive, and Amarige perfume (which I wear).

What spiritual tradition intrigues you beyond your own?

Native American, Buddhist. Although I consider a little bit of both of those “my own.”

What music from another culture plucks your heartstrings? (gag)

Oh so many: Middle Eastern sitar, Moroccan, Irish folk music, Flamenco guitar, anything out of New Orleans, Hawaiian

In another age, what physical age do you see yourself being?

I have a hard time with age questions. I guess I consider myself ageless. Either that, or I refuse to grow up.

I was thinking about this yesterday when musing to the Page that whenever I sell anything on craigslist, it always ends up being bought for a little kid. Because I like turquoise footstools shaped like frogs, giant hedgehog pillows, and bookshelves covered in graffiti art. Why should kids have all the fun?

In another culture and time, what is your sex?

Hmmm — I’m kind of rocking the girl power, so I’d probably stick with that. Although if I went back in time to the aforementioned days of gas lamp light, I probably would have been a guy so I didn’t have to spend my days knocked-up and doing laundry in the kitchen.

Do you enjoy period movies? Or movies, period? (double gag)

I hate period movies, especially if the actors have British accents. Also I hate when Americans make movies about other countries and the residents are speaking English, but with an accent. Yes, it’s 1945 Germany but we’re also speaking English, with a German accent, like Dieter the Waiter. And nobody on screen thinks that’s weird.

Yes, perhaps my refusal to suspend disbelief ruins lots of potentially great films for me. But even without anything pre-1975, I manage to watch at least half a dozen movies a week.

So I guess I enjoy movies, period.


That was a fun exercise. It makes me thing about my cultural leanings as I decorate my new little creative nest (a.k.a. The Situation Room) to be a fluffy womb of color and textures. It’s part India and part NYC Bohemian. And the fresh pineapple I’m eating tastes a bit like Hawaiian magic.

What did you discover this week about your sense of geography?

Discovering a Sense of Momentum

“Creativity thrives on small, do-able actions. This week dismantles procrastination as a major creative block. The key to a creative life is sustained, consistent, positive action. This is possible for all of us.”

(I’ll have to take your word for it, Julia.)

Inertia is a harsh mistress.

Ever notice how easy it is to keep going once you’re moving? And how difficult it is to start moving once you’re stopped?

That’s our good ‘ol friend Inertia at work. She’s a temperamental beast, that Inertia. But at least she always plays by the same rules so we know what to expect.

I’m looking forward to digging into this week’s chapter. It is exactly what I need right now. Procrastination and blockage have my logjam in an uproar. And that’s not a euphemism.

I’ve been overwhelming myself with doing nothing. The nothing builds and builds until it’s this unwieldy beast gnashing at my throat. Time to defang the monster, as I like to say.

When I’m engaged in a creative project, I tend to jump in with both feet, work like mad, become deliriously inspired (operative word being “delirious”), not sleep for a week, burn out, and abandon the project wholesale.

As a wise friend always asks me, “How’s that working for you?”

(Okay, you got me — it’s Dr. Phil.)

Apparently this week we’re going to learn how to appreciate baby steps as a method of overcoming that paralyzing overwhelm and practice sustained moderation in our art. Sign me up.

Task: Easy Does it, but Do It

“Most of us have many small areas where we could benefit from a little housekeeping. List five areas you could neaten up. What we are after with this task is the experience of using stuck energy in a productive way, however small. “

This task may not be the best advice for me since I just moved and at least one of the rooms and one of the closets (because I have more than one of each now!!!) are still in a state of disarray. More accurately, it looks like a bomb went off. But I’ve been working non-stop at settling in.

What I need is to do something other than housekeeping. Especially since I have OCD and once I start cleaning I’ll come to nine hours later, aligning the carpet fibers so they all face the same direction.

So I got out my folder of snippets and went to work making my previous journal’s table of contents (example below).

I compulsively gather out-of-context magazine quotes and headlines, as well as directionals from boxes and other found words. I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember, and no magazine is safe around me when I’ve got an x-acto knife in one hand and rubber cement in the other. I have stacks and stacks of torn out phrases like “it’s spring, do you know where your bloomers are?” and “Unblock your head.”

This is one of my all-time favorites:

I sat down at my awesome new table in my new crafty nest (I’ve decided to call it The Situation Room, which I heard used in an espionage film last week). I dug through the piles of quotes, searching for ones that captured each section of my last journal. “Rejoice and recharge.” “Things that shine.” “Spread some sparkle.” “Stop talking, start DOING.”

The sorting itself was a beautifully Zen process. When I’d finally chosen my handful of quotes, I went to work cementing them down and drawing the TOC. It was so much fun, and it’s been a long time since I got my hands dirty.

Strangely, when I stepped away from my little completed project, I got in front of my computer and wrote two blog posts, a BIG DIG email, and a few notes for the upcoming week’s Artist Date.

Absolutely bonkers, since I’ve only opened blank Word documents lately if forced at gunpoint.

That Julia, she is just full of useable wisdom.

It reminds me of that little blind spot we all have in our eyes — how sometimes you physically cannot see something by looking directly at it. You have to look away, focus on something else, and your peripheral vision picks up the missing information.

Creativity is like that. Sometimes you can’t look directly at your project, especially if it’s bugging you. You have to indulge in some other activity, absorb yourself elsewhere, in order to move it forward.

So go polish your shoes and put your receipts in order. I’m off to arrange some carpet fibers.

Discovering a Sense of Boundaries

Time for my Walking in this World Week 6 Check-in.

This week was interesting to say the least. At first when I was reading the chapter and thinking about it, I felt like it didn’t apply to me. I think I’m good with boundaries, with making sure to take care of myself. And then I realized that’s due largely in part to working through this program the last time.

The last time I did this program, I had no boundaries. Especially to my creative work. I put other people first, without exception. My writing suffered, my mind suffered. My life suffered as a result.

Then I worked through Walking in this World and made a paradigm shift. I finally got that whole “put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping another” plane crash scenario. Ohhhh…. right. If I don’t take care of me, I’m no use to anyone else.

I used to suffer from a paralyzing panic disorder. I had to take tranquilizers to get on the subway. Going to restaurants or rock shows, no matter how much I loved them, was painful and unpredictable. I was doped up or terrified at any given point.

Then I started working with someone on meditation, on breathing. On setting boundaries and voicing them. I practiced these tools relentlessly. The miraculous happened: I didn’t need medication anymore.

I haven’t had a panic attack in almost eight years. I can feel it rise up in my chest, threatening to claim my airway, but I breathe deeply and use my voice. For example, I’ve learned I have only 20 minutes of tolerance for a grocery store on a Sunday afternoon. The chaos overwhelms me – playing bumper cars with shopping carts, crying children, stockers running up and down the aisles, loud music.

If I’m with someone else, I tell them before going in. “I’ve got 20 minutes. If you need more time, I’ll wait for you outside.” I’ve learned to reconize when I’ve reached my limit. I’ve learned to say, “I cannot be here. I need air. I have to go.”

I can’t emphasize how difficult it was for me to set boundaries like this — especially when another person is concerned. I would regularly put myself in compromising positions so I wouldn’t inconvenience anyone else. I never asked them for anything, just to hear what I was saying and let me leave.

Yet that little act took a whole lot of practice and strength. It still does. Especially since people without panic disorders don’t understand, even when they love me. “Just relax. I’m almost done.”

I am relaxed. And I’m trying to stay that way.

Too Much Input

The section of the chapter on “Inflow” hit home for me.

“Our energies are drained not by coping with our output of creative energy but from coping with the ceaseless inflow of distractions and distresses that bid for our time, attention and emotional involvement.”

Also known as “too much input.” I feel this at least once a day.

I never thought about it until I read this paragraph — I’ve never felt “exhausted” or “drained” from working hard and long at my creative dreams. If anything, I feel more energized — even after 12 hours at the computer madly pouring love and attention into my writing, my photo, my design, my code.

I am drained not by exhausting myself through too much creative work, but by the constant onslaught of input from the outside world.

This factor explains my aversion to Twitter, and to a lesser extent, Facebook. (At least with Facebook you can pace yourself.) It all just feels like so much input. I’ve discovered that in order to be creatively engaged, I need to unplug from the outside world. Sometimes even softly playing music is too much.

I need a sensory deprivation tank — just lukewarm salt water and silence.

When a creative artist is fatigued, it is often from too much inflow, not too much outflow. When we are making something, we are listening to an inner voice that has many things to tell us — if we will listen. It is hard to listen amid chatter. It is hard to listen amid chaos. It is hard to listen amid the static of ungrounded and demanding energy.

Creating boundaries and controlling inflow are of course intertwined. We need to draw boundaries and defend them in order to stem the vicious tide of input. It’s easier said than done. Just try taking a couple of weeks off from updating your site and see what happens. 😉

This sentence so clearly captures exactly what I’ve come to believe and rely on as my own truth:

No contact on demand.

As the Page says, “I have this cell phone for my convenience, not yours.”

I don’t want anyone in my life to be surprised when I don’t answer the phone. I don’t want them expecting that they can have instant access to me 24/7. And unless they’ve got cupcakes in hand, they best not drop on by without warning.

A Room of Your Own

Now this task made me smile. Why? Because I just moved three weeks ago into a new apartment — with my own room. The Page and I moved from a 300′ sq. studio off Broadway to a 700′ sq. two-bedroom triplex that feels palacial. It has a garden and a little yard and a shaded patio in back smothered in green growth. It’s fabulous.

I’ve turned the second bedroom into my own little creative nook and every single item in it fosters my creativity. My journals, my guitars, my cameras, my favorite books. All my art journaling materials, finger paints, glitter in tiny glass jars, pressed flowers, live plants, and drawing supplies. Stacks of beautiful paper and artwork made for me by my friends.

I’ve discovered having a room of one’s own is not a luxury, but a requirement for sanity and productive flourishing.

Also on my top ten list of places for solitude is the ferry or the train. Back in Boston, I used to hop on the commuter rail, especially during NaNoWriMo and ride the line end to end. Sitting at a little table writing by hand, watching the world go by through the windows. Few distractions and endless time to be alone with the page.

In Seattle I can do the same thing on the ferry. Breathtaking views, hours of fresh air, no distractions. All for about $5.


Okay so I did my Morning Pages every morning, as I mentioned in my last post. I also found a new cafe in my new neighborhood that I’m SO excited about. I’ll tell you all about it shortly.

I went on my Artist Walk in my new neighborhood. Right now the cherry blossoms are in full bloom and the air is intoxicating. I’m still learning the lay of the land, and I look forward to more walks, Artist and otherwise, in this neck of the woods.

For my Artist Date, I went to a fabulous garden center. I spent at least an hour trolling the ailes, touching and smelling everything, planning my new garden and my new patio. Plant nurseries fill me with peace and tranquility. They feel very healing.

The garden center I went to was very expensive and kind of snobby so today the Page took me to Flower World and I bought a ton of new plants. Before signing off, I’ll leave you with a photo of my new babies, born of my Artist Date:

Diffenbachia, creeping fig, rosemary, variegated pothos, escargot begonia, red hot and snow queen hibiscus.
Escargot begonia. Don't know which is better - the leaves or the name.
I just love the hodgepodge of leaves on this Red Hot!

See you in Week 7!

Journaling Benefits for Cancer Patients

The is a guest post by Jennifer Miller from the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. Many thanks to Jennifer for sharing her expertise on this helpful topic!

For decades, teachers have been encouraging their students to write down their thoughts. In fact, so-called “journaling” has become a requirement in many school English classes.

But writing down how one feels doesn’t just benefit healthy adolescents, says a 2008 study published in The Oncologist.

It has also been proven to help cancer patients in the throes of treatment to better learn to cope with their diagnosis and understand how cancer has changed them and changed their lives.

The study, conducted at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University, encouraged patients who were waiting for an oncology appointment to take 20 minutes to complete an expressive writing exercise.

Study leaders weren’t looking for the facts about the patient’s cancer but for words that told how they feel about living with cancer and what lies ahead.

Previous studies had shown the researchers that this kind of writing would have health benefits. The outcome of the Lombardi study concurred.

Cancer patients note that when they took the time to write, it forced them to think about family, work, spirituality, and the future, but not in a negative way.

By analyzing the themes, words, and phrases of the writings of 63 participants, researchers were able to determine that most (60) of the essays indicated a positive transformation in the writer, resulting in improved quality of life.

Choosing Journal Topics for Patients

Potential writers wonder how to start journaling and how to keep the journal going.

Researchers say that there aren’t any particular guidelines writers should follow and that journaling needn’t be an everyday thing. Journal writing should be flexible and fit the emotional needs of the cancer patient.

The writer may simply not feel like writing one day while on another they may write several pages. That’s okay, psychologists say. It’s not a school assignment and shouldn’t be treated like one. Rather, journaling should be viewed as a positive outlet, even though all the writing inside that little book may not be of a positive nature.

If a writer needs some journal prompts to get started, a good thing to write about might include the benefits of the illness including how it has caused the patient to reconsider relationships, work, religion, and other aspects of life.

It might help to write about the people who have surrounded the patient during their ordeal and how they’ve provided physical and spiritual support.

And if death is inevitable, as is usually the case with mesothelioma patients, it’s okay to write about what the future holds.

Some patients may want to write about the rigors of mesothelioma treatment or the reactions they get from strangers who recognize they’re bald and suffering the effects of chemotherapy.

And it’s perfectly acceptable to write about the unfairness of a cancer diagnosis and the anger, denial, and sadness that go with it.

There’s no doubt that cancer is life-changing, but addressing those life changes through writing can do a world of good.

All in all, most psychologists agree that regardless of what lands on those pages or how many times a week the patient takes the time to jot down a few words, the results will be positive and just another important step towards confronting cancer.

Walking in this World: Week 2 Wrap-Up

I have been in bed for five days this week with a horrible bronchial infection so this update will be brief. I hope the rest of you are faring better with Week Two activities!

Check in

How many days this week did you do your Morning Pages?

Only five. I was too delirious with fever two of the days. (Although I can’t say the days I did manage to write were entirely coherent.)

Did you do your Artist’s Date this week?

No – my plans fell through entirely on account of being sick.

Did you get out on your Weekly Walk?

Yes, thankfully. As always, it fed my optimism and increased my perspective.

Any issues significant to you in your self-discovery this week?

I guess the main issue brought about by my illness was the intense guilt and discomfort I felt at “letting down” my audience by not checking in like I intended to. It was seriously more painful for me than the feverish days in bed and the hacking cough. I had so much to share and so many revelations I wanted to write about. But I simply couldn’t.

So what is the lesson here? One of self care? Of dedication? Of forgiveness? I haven’t quite figured that out yet. Perhaps when the DayQuil haze clears. In the meantime, I ask your forgiveness as I dedicate myself to self care. And Throat Coat tea.

Discovering a Sense of Proportion

“If we are thinking about a life in the arts, we’d better have ‘something to fall back on.’ Would they tell us that if we expressed an interest in banking?”
~Julia Cameron, Walking in this World

Welcome to week two of Walking in this World. Julia prepares us: “This week inaugurates an ongoing process of self-definition. As you redraw the boundaries and limits within which you have lived, you draw yourself to a fuller size.”

In his book Creative License, Danny Gregory asks, what if we treated drawing like we treated driving? We’d put people in a car. Those who showed an instant knack for it would be encouraged, taught, guided, and eventually lauded. Those who didn’t have an instant natural ability for steering and parallel parking would be told to make other plans. Pick up a bus pass and a good pair of walking shoes.

Meanwhile we’d build centers of celebration for the drivers who picked it up quickly and heap instruction and encouragement on them. All the walkers and bus-takers would put these drivers on a pedestal, assuming theywere blessed with some innate magic that the rest of us were lacking.

But art is a learned skill.

Yes, some of us are born with stronger urgings toward one medium or another. Some of us are blessed with perfect pitch or an ear for language. Some of us can draw what we see without thinking about it. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t learn to sing and draw. Or that we can’t learn to play guitar well enough to entertain ourselves in front of the campfire.

I once believed that if I couldn’t be awesome at something, I shouldn’t bother trying. I was surrounded by ridiculously talented musicians, some who’d been practicing daily since birth and others who came out of the womb with perfect pitch. I had neither. My philosophy was, “Why bother?”

I would never hold that philosophy now. But as a young person I was tender and inexperienced. (And perhaps a little defeatist.)


“I hope you don’t think you’re a writer,” the man who hired me dolefully warned.

I responded, “Oh, I am a writer. I hope you don’t think I’m a journalist.”

When I was a child, I never dreamed of becoming a writer; I already was. I knew this like I knew how to breathe.

What I dreamed of becoming was a gypsy. I would play guitar and live in a purple cravan pulled by a giant white horse named Pearl. I could paint his hooves silver and braid feathers in my hair. I would make music all day and sleep under the stars at night.

As I grew up, my infatuation with music evolved. I started piano lessons very young and played throughout my youth. When I finally got my hands on a guitar, the casual fling became true love.

Surrounded by talented musicians, I grilled them for knowledge. They taught me chord progressions, how to read tablature. Some of them had less-than-wholesome intentions, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to learn to play. One boy gave me a Rickenbacker electric and taught me 12-bar blues. Another taught me hippy folk songs on a beat-up acoustic. And a crazy friend at Berklee taught me Janes Addiction on bass.

I even signed up for an elective – flamenco guitar. I hung batik tapestries on my walls and braided feathers in my hair. My gypsy dreams were coming true (minus the horse).

Somewhere along the line, surrounded by talented people, I felt small. I felt invisible. So I gave it up. I disappeared into a notebook, behind a camera. I still listened to Django Reinhardt obsessively and even named one of my foster cats after him. But I stopped making noise, stopped making music.

It makes me sad now, to think about it. Sad that I spent so many years silent. I picked up my guitar every once in awhile (a black Takamine acoustic with a purple and turquoise butterfly on it) and played long enough to get respectable calluses. Then I’d abandon it all over again.

Then of course in a sweep of synchronicity this weekend, my dream was reborn. The synchronicities are my favorite part of the Artist’s Way and Walking in the World. As Julia assures us, when we speak our dreams, the Universe rushes forward to make it happen.

On Saturday, the Page took me to see my favorite band, Devotchka, for my birthday. And in that dizzying swirl of accordian, theremin and xylophone sang my velvet-clad gypsy guitarist. Sweet, soulful Nick Urata, strumming song to ignite my heart.

For a few hours I disappeared into that world of bells and dancing, with sequined girls dancing on ribbons above the stage. I emerged dazed and dreamy, with a promise to return to making music.

Then yesterday, while killing time in an antique mall, I stumbled – quite literally – across a classical guitar.

I hear you, Universe. I’m listening.

Walking in this World: Week 1 Wrap-up

This post is part of Week 1 of Julia Cameron’s program, Walking in this World. Please join us! Get all the details here.

Hi kids! Hope you are enjoying the program thus far.

I will be posting much more frequently about the program in the upcoming week. I had a few unexpected major disruptions this week (are they ever expected?) so I was offline more than I intended to be. Didn’t mean to leave you hanging!

(In related news, the Page and I are moving next week. Tres exciting.)

I’ve updated the sidebar with blogs who are participating in the program. Some will be posting on their site, some are doing it alone in private. (That sounds sordid.) If you would like to be included in the list, leave a comment with a link to your site and I’ll add you.

Speaking of comments — please feel free to talk to one another! This is not a teacher/student gig. This is me inviting a bunch of lovely people over to have crumpets and tea in my kitchen. So talk amongst yourselves.

I was asked if I’m going to set up a Yahoo group or anything for communication. I’m not. But if you have an idea for something like that, by all means run with it! Your level of involvement is totally up to you. I’d love to set up a forum for this but I simply don’t have the resources right now. If you have time and energy, go for it. I’ll be happy to post about it here — or any other ideas you have.

Other options are Facebook and the comments section on each post. Comments are a great place for discussion and you can post to one another if you want to ask for feedback or answer a question. I’ll be more active on comments and Facebook this week as well. So jump right in!

Do Nothing

How did you like the “Do Nothing” exercise this week? It can be pretty scary if you’re not used to it. These days we’re all pretty connected, bombarded with stimuli in a constant barage of sensory input. Sitting still in silence is a revolutionary idea.

I have to remind myself over and over that it’s okay to rest. To take time out. I’m a total Type A personality, and while I’m proud of my productivity, organization and accomplishments, I often burn myself out. I take on too much, go like crazy, and then wonder why my body, soul and creativity have shut down. Balance is not one of my strong suits.

Julia says: Even God rested. I figure if God can rest, it’s probably okay for me to take a little break. I’m obviously not that important.

Julia goes on to say,

“The ego hates rest. As artists, we must service our souls, not our egos. Our souls need rest.”

What a great reminder. And it’s amazing how restorative a brief break can be. Doing nothing, and “doing it thoroughly,” provides us with the space between the notes. Without space between the notes, music would just be noise.

I’ve also been looking for ways to “rest” while performing a task — the concept of “mindfulness” in practice. Chopping vegetables, which I do often, is a perfect meditation. I can turn off my brain and just be present. Be aware of the knife in my hands (safer for a klutz like me, anyway!), enjoy the rich color of the ruby bell peppers, inhale the spring smell of cucumbers being split, sink into the satisfying crunch of fresh garlic on the bamboo cutting board. Chopping vegetables can be intoxicating.

Julia talks about making soup in this way, and I found it endearing to connect with someone else on that level. There’s few things I enjoy more than a rainy Sunday afternoon making soup, listening to the radio, and reading a good book. That is my soul at rest.

My ego is not always thrilled with the idea, but I try to give my ego Saturday. Saturday is for To Do lists and scrubbing the floors. For organizing the upcoming week’s work, for writing. Sunday is for soup.

One of my favorite parts of this week was Julia talking about needing “windows to the world of wonder:”

“We all need a window for the imagination. We need a time and a place to stare out the window at the snow. Artists have stared out of windows and into their souls for a very long time. It is something in the staring-out that enables us to do the looking-in.

As artists, it serves us to consciously find windows to the world of wonder – we must locate places that open the trapdoor in our imagination and allow the breath of greater worlds to enter our too-claustrophic lives.”

Where are your favorite “windows?”

I’ve got a few: plant nurseries and greenhouses. In particular,

As for how my walk fed my optimism and sense of perspective, I’d say it did both. Walking always makes me feel better. It helps me vent excess energy, and it gives me that fresh air/exercise buzz that’s good for the whole mind and body.

How about you?

How’d it go for you? Any surprises? Breakthroughs? Blocks? Tell us in the comments. Or post on your blog if you have one.

I hope everyone is enjoying the program so far. I’m psyched to start Week 2 tomorrow!