Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Tell Your Story — Transform Your Life: Journaling Tips for Writers

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Journaling is an amazing tool. Since most journals are a private conversation with ourselves, never to be shown to anyone else, they can allow us to open up the memory bank of the past and find the wounds hidden beneath the persona we wear. Author Henry Miller admitted that writing helped him to draw "the poison" out of his system.

Isn’t that what we want? To get the poison out? To dig down to the deep, dark secrets which control us and prevent us from finding happiness?

Those secrets could be about any stressful experience – a divorce, a rape, an unsafe household, an abusive relationship, a natural disaster. All of these and more can cause trauma. But keeping it secret seems to be even worse than the original trauma. In fact, psychologist James Pennebaker learned that, for journaling to work, we must "really let go" as we journal.

But there are some guidelines:
  • This exercise is about expressive writing, in that writing without emotion isn’t helpful at all.  Instead, the expectation is that you will choose a subject close to your heart and allow yourself to FEEL emotion as you write. This is the most difficult part, since we tend to avoid deep emotion because it hurts. But without feeling, words don’t mean anything.
  • Write without editing. Let the words flow. Feel the sorrow or pain or embarrassment and write it down. Cry if you must. But let the words on the page draw out “the poison”. Recognize that, even though it may hurt, the wounds of the past need to be opened and cleaned, so they can heal. 
  • Pick an experience if you can. If there isn't a single experience, try to find something that resonates with you. There could be a thousand tiny pieces of that puzzle, all adding up to unhappiness.
  • To start, find a quiet, peaceful place, somewhere you feel safe and comfortable. Set a timer and write. Don’t edit. Don’t worry what someone else will think. Don’t allow yourself to be dragged down into the abyss. Just let whatever comes come. 

When you’re done—after at least fifteen minutes—ask yourself these questions:
  • Did you express your deepest thoughts and feelings? 
  • Do you feel sad or upset?  Or happy?
  • Did you write something valuable and meaningful? 

Follow this procedure for at least seven days. And, remember, you do not have to share anything you discover about yourself with anyone.   

As we work through the revelations of our daily writing, we must keep in mind that we should not be in a hurry to “fix” anything. It’s not just about space to write. It’s about allowing a space and time for the understanding to come. 

This process of this self-reconciliation is not just a one-time occurrence, done in a few moments of time, plugged into a busy schedule. Instead, it is done over a lifetime, with hurtful/painful things surfacing for examination and healing. In fact, I liken it to the way the grieving process works. My husband died many years ago and, even now, I grieve. The idea that we “get over it”, that events don’t hold power over our emotions even after long years, is a fallacy. Pain is pain, no matter how recent or far ago in the past.

Do not let yourself become overwhelmed. If what you remember causes you pain, work through it only if you can. If it becomes too much, rest for a while—an hour, a day, a week—but don't allow yourself to walk away. This is too important. And, please, if you need to find help, do so. There are professionals who can walk you through the darkest hours. 

I find that I don't need to write every day or even every week. Sometimes a particularly painful memory is triggered and I write for hours but, once I've dealt with it, I may not write again for weeks. But I know the value of the remembering and the dealing, so I go back to it when I need it.

Finding a place in your day for self-care is immensely important, and writing to heal is so beneficial, it may become a habit to keep. 


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or

From Sally: I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Thank you, Sally. I’m writing those questions in my journal ASAP.

  2. You're very welcome, Pam! It's an amazingly helpful tool.

    Best wishes!

  3. Wonderful advice for cleansing the soul. Thanks, Sally!

  4. These are really helpful journaling tips and guidelines. Thanks you! -Kim West