The Magic of Daily Writing: journaling over 5 decades

Bad habits are notoriously hard to change and the media reminds us non-stop about the array and difficulty of losing weight, giving up unhealthy eating, quitting smoking and bad behaviors in general. But some habits are amazingly good.

Charley Kempthorne is 78 years old and has been writing a daily journal for 52 years. His story appeared in The Wall Street Journal recently, and caught my attention as a writer and psychologist because I know how hard it is to form and maintain positive habits--and maintain them for more than 5 decades, other than maybe brushing your teeth.

What struck me was his intention at age 26 to become a writer. His first entry ever into a notebook was, "I have decided to be a writer. I will it, thus: I am a writer." The beauty of this statement is that by writing these words he was indeed a writer. One of the things that all academic writing programs as well as how-to books emphasize is that "Writers write." It needs to become as routine as, well, brushing your teeth! Most of us can't follow this regimen religiously for all kinds of reasons. Among them are the worries about having nothing worthwhile to write about, or the fear of others' critiques, or the concerns about selling our words. Not Charley.

The commitment to daily writing, whether he had something to say or not, didn't lead to his hoped-for career in writing. Instead it began a lifelong habit that supports his psychological well being and anchors his life as effectively as his first cup of coffee, which he sips at sunrise when he logs on to his computer to begin writing. His habit is unspoiled by worries about the external world's perceptions because his journal is private and has never been read by anyone else. This allows the ultimate freedom of expression--saying whatever you want, however you want. No judgments here, except perhaps Charley's own.

Psychologically there are benefits to writing without looking back to correct, refine or clarify. Writing thoughts without inhibition or censoring can lead to increased self-awareness and understanding that has a therapeutic effect. Psychotherapists routinely recommend journaling daily as an adjunctive process to self-soothing and self-discovery. Even Sigmund Freud had a journal writing habit which formed the basis for his own self-analysis. Writing, especially when no one else's eyes are involved, can provide the outlet for words better left uncommunicated to others. Anger and disappointment can be expressed in nondestructive ways. Strong feelings once written may provide insight and can be softened, better crafted for more tactful verbal delivery.

But there's more. Sometimes just writing without a plan, without a goal leads to exploration of new ideas, new connections between ideas and the creation of something truly novel. This is creativity in action. As we age our internal storehouse of knowledge becomes huge. True, that retrieval of these bits of information are sometimes difficult, but the storehouse is definitely still intact. Precisely because of our age, especially if you're a boomer or beyond, the possibility for new connections between ideas is limitless. Writing for oneself, like brainstorming, can lead to new ways of thinking and creative solutions. It helps that no one is shooting down your ideas.

I love that Charley's story was told and that The Wall Street Journal understood the importance of his tale. I wrote about the cognitive and emotional benefits of writing after age 60 in my book, The Vintage Years. At this stage in life the opinions of others, the need to sell and market your creations, and the desire to please anyone else is at an all time low. It's true that Charley's habit began early but I'll just bet that now that he is 78 years old the content of his writing is more sophisticated and complex reflecting the fullness of his life experiences. No less important is the pleasure and a sense of meaningfulness that his habit imparts. Bravo Charley!