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Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions
What is New Life Stories all about?New Life Stories is a way of thinking about our inner development as human beings and about the ways we continue to outgrow our old lives. It is also about:

Being aware of the importance of the stories we tell ourselves

Telling ourselves true, compassionate, and deep stories

Being willing to consider alternative stories

Sorting through our old stories for falsehoods to correct

Telling ourselves the truth

Allowing our lives to unfold

Listening to our soul’s needs

Revisioning our lives through the stories we tell ourselves

Becoming the author of our own lives

Working beneath the surface to bring about changes

Like the Chambered Nautilus, we are forced by our own growth to build larger and larger lives for ourselves. This process is somewhat like the development of the Chambered Nautilus: as it outgrows each home, it must build a larger one. In a sense, the stories we tell ourselves could be compared to those chambers. Sometimes, we need a larger, deeper, more compassionate story.

What are the signals that tell us we are ready to build a new “home” for ourselves? Sometimes the signs are subtle, as in those vague states of restlessness, constriction, sadness, confusion, frustration, dissatisfaction, yearning for “something more.” Sometimes the signs are more dramatic, as when our lives are changed forever by shifts in the outer world or are shattered by loss or tragedy. The old chapter ends, and a new one is begun.

Repairing our old stories and constructing a new story of our lives can bring us new life and energy, new purpose and meaning, new hope and inspiration, so that we are living life at a new level.

What’s the difference between a journal and a diary?

No difference. Both words mean daily. Some people have gotten into the habit of referring to a series of writings that are a listing or recording of concrete events-“I went here; I did that” as a diary, with the word journal referring to recordings of thoughts and feelings.

How do I get started keeping a diary or journal?

Just do it!

First, choose your tools.

If you write on your computer, will you use your word processor or one of the many new journaling software programs? Or will you write with a special, symbolic pen? Do you prefer to write with a real fountain pen, or do you have a favorite ball-point, felt-tip, or rolling-ball brand? What makes you feel happiest as you write? Will you choose one of the pretty blank books available in the bookstores (some find them intimidating or too small), a 99-cent exercise book, a loose-leaf notebook?

If you write by hand, will you use lined or unlined paper, pen or pencil? Do you prefer a compact size small enough to carry around with you or a large enough size to spread out comfortably? Do you need a book that lies flat, folds back on itself, or do you prefer to write on paper scraps and on the backs of envelopes and toss them into a drawer or box?

Will you keep one notebook or several–one for dreams, projects, poetry, memoir, health log, to-do lists? Will you incorporate drawings, artwork, collage, photographs, and memorabilia such as ticket stubs and play programs? You may want to experiment until you find what works best for you.

Let go and honor your inner rhythms.

Let go of the idea that you “must” or “should,” write every day. Let go of the ideal of a rigid self-discipline and write for pleasure. Honor the ebb and flow in your life and recognize that we all have days when we don’t feel like writing. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” but it may also be true that the unlived life is not worth examining. Think of the rhythms of living and writing, and allow yourself to write when it seems “right,” not because you’ve decided ahead of time that you “should.” You may go days, weeks, or months without writing, and still maintain a writing process. When the time is right, you will want to write and will feel a need to do so. If you feel the need for inspirations or prompts to write, there are many good resources available in book stores.

Make yourself comfortable

Find a place or places where you can be comfortable for a period of time. Will you write at a desk, in an easy chair or recliner, a couch, on the floor, in bed? Will you need extra pillows, an afghan, a footstool, a cup of herb tea, a cold drink, a shawl around your shoulders? Do you prefer an outdoor view, a blank wall? Will you need a change of place–several locations to write, and adjustments if you get cramped or stiff over the course of an extended period of writing? Make adjustments if you need to. Will you investigate modifications, such as a pen grip to make holding a pen easier? Voice-recognition software? Audio or video diaries?

Relax

Give up the idea that you need to write “correctly” or that you need to pay attention to grammar, punctuation, or sentence structure. Let what wants to write itself pour out of you. Self-expression is the key here, not perfection. The goal is process, not product. Experiment with periods of very fast writing, and keep your pen moving, even when you run out of things to say. You might be surprised at what comes up.

Sail with the tide

What’s the best time for you to write? Some people find early morning to be ideal to write because the unconscious is still active at that time and material can filter up from the unconscious to the conscious. Others, however, find that writing at that time makes them depressed or anxious. (If writing brings up upsetting issues or material, you may want to limit the amount of time or pages you spend in writing. You may also want to write with a supportive friend or therapist to process the issues as they arise). Some find bedtime or late in the day to be more appropriate than morning writing. If you have insomnia, you might like to write in the middle of the night when much of the rest of the world is quiet and you can focus your thoughts clearly.

Finally: Enjoy the process!

What about privacy?

That’s your decision entirely, but remember that one of the purposes of journaling is to give you a private time and space where you can be completely yourself without having to think about others’ reactions or judgments. If you think or know that someone else will be reading what you write, you may (without even knowing it) begin to make subtle changes in what and how you write. You may unconsciously start writing to your audience. Many people find it important to safeguard their privacy by being careful in storing and handling their journal. Some use locked boxes or drawers, passwords, codes, or secret hiding places to ensure that unauthorized persons will not be reading. Some people put warnings on the first page. Consider the many traumatic stories journal keepers tell about how violated and betrayed they felt when someone found their diary and read it without permission.

Everyone needs and is entitled to privacy and space, times and places that belong to the self and no one else. Keeping a diary or journal is part of that privacy. You have a right to that. Good boundaries and self-respect call for you to enforce that privacy when you need and want it. Don’t feel you should share your writings just because someone else asks or insists. Such demands may indicate hidden problem areas in the relationship.

One diarist reported feeling horrified when a therapist insisted on reading her entire journal as a way of getting to know her as a new client. She wisely declined the inappropriate request and found a more suitable therapist.

Another journal keeper experienced an unpleasant epiphany about a relationship when her partner asked to read her journal so he could evaluate whether or not she had writing talent. She declined, explaining to him that hers was not a literary journal, and that furthermore, she had no interest in being evaluated or judged by him. She began to see that the issue of judging and evaluating was a big issue in the relationship as a whole, and the partnership soon ended.

There may be many good reasons for wanting to keep your writing private. Some people tend to write primarily when they are angry and upset, and use journaling as a way to work through angry feelings before discussing them with someone else. What you write in the journal, therefore, may not be an accurate picture of what you think and feel most of the time, but may give a very distorted picture that could be misunderstood. In your journal, you may explore fantasies or possibilities that you don’t necessarily want to come true. Perhaps you experiment in your journal by mixing fact and fiction. You might be writing material that has the potential to hurt your own reputation or that of someone else. You may write about situations or people who irritate you or treat you unfairly-employers, employees, business associates, for example-and you may need a private space to “blow off steam” without endangering your career or relationships.

If you have an urgent need to unburden yourself in writing, but have equally pressing privacy considerations, you might consider writing what you must write, then creating a destruction ritual. You might burn your papers, shred and bury them, tear them up and float them on a river, or wrap the papers around a brick and throw them into a lake.

If you do wish to share parts of your writing, consider your motivations carefully. What is your purpose? If your purpose is to communicate deep thoughts or feelings, it might be better to do that in person or by letter. If your purpose is to impress someone with your writing ability, you can accomplish the same purpose by showing another piece of writing that is not a part of your journal. Do you want to prove to someone how much damage has been inflicted upon you, thereby taking on a victim role? Do you hope to bring the other person closer to you? Whenever you consider sharing passages from your journal, use caution and good judgment, and see if there is another way to accomplish your purpose without involving your journal. If you do decide to show your writing to someone else, you will probably want to share only selected passages, not the whole collection of writings.
How can I organize my writing?

You may find that the regular practice of writing brings with it a certain organization of its own. If you keep your writings in one place, in one book or computer file, or even if you use several journals at once, you may find that writings tend to group themselves in certain patterns so that you can find what you’re looking for. Some people write for years on scraps of paper that float all over the house. At some point, they may decide to throw all the scraps into a box or drawer. That’s the beginning of a system of organization. Later, they may begin putting writings in a bound notebook or scrapbook, and they may eventually decide to put even more organization into their writings.

Many people like to keep everything in one book, or at least in one place. Some use the computer for everyday writing, and a blank book for times when they’re away from the computer. Others like to have several notebooks-separate notebook for dreams, one for each creative project, one for philosophical musings, one for goals. Others like elaborate indexing and tables of contents. There is a point, however, at which elaborate organizing systems can get in the way of the full and spontaneous exploration of deeper parts of the self. If you’re spending all of your time organizing, you may be missing the point.

I keep several journals at once-a dream journal, three project journals, a daily record, and journals to each of my children-but I feel disorganized. Is there a better way to do this?

Perhaps, perhaps not. If the system is working for you, why change it? Each mind is constructed differently, and your systems will work best if they are in harmony with the ways you think and live. If you’re stressed by having several journals, you may want to think about consolidating into fewer, easier-to-manage units. Otherwise, use whatever works best for you. Keep experimenting until you find what fits.

What should I look for when choosing a blank book?

That’s a very personal question, with no wrong or right answers. You may feel that a spiral notebook brings back old writing memories and gives you a scholarly or business-like feel. Additionally a spiral notebook gives some people a sense of “disguise,” in that it doesn’t scream “journal” or tempt anyone to pry.

Some like loose-leaf notebooks because they can carry a few sheets around with them easily and write wherever they are. It is also easy to add other papers, souvenirs, and collages in a scrapbook fashion.

Some feel perfectly comfortable with the beautiful blank books sold in stationery and book stores. Others find them intimidating, especially if they’re just beginning.

You might want to write on loose typing paper and bind it later.

Some like to write only in a computer, and some carry a laptop with them wherever they go. Some like to write in one big file in their word processing program, and others like the wildly popular Life Journal.

Pens are also an important issue for some journalers. An elegant, perfectly balanced, free-flowing pen used only for journaling can be a lasting joy.

Keep looking until you find a format and tools that appeal to you. Let writing be a way to please all your senses and furnish you with inner nourishment and delight.
What if I want to keep a journal but don’t have any self-discipline?

Welcome to the club! Many journalers don’t have much self-discipline, but find that writing becomes such a pleasure or relief or healing for them that the writing process keeps pulling them back day after day so they develop a consistent practice. If you’re finding the process engaging and if you go deep enough to make occasional discoveries about yourself and your world, you may find that self-discipline develops naturally.

It is also important to remember that self-discipline is about self-liberation, not bondage. The whole idea of self-discipline is to free us to enjoy life. It’s not something grim to make our lives a perpetual torment. It’s not an endless round of self-denial and deprivation.

Just because the words “diary” and “journal” both refer to daily writing, doesn’t mean that you have to write every day. Your schedule may include variations that make some days different from other days. There may be times when you’re simply too busy or exhausted to write. Let yourself accept that about your life. If you’re living “real” life, it’s quite possible you don’t have a smooth schedule. You may be fighting corporate dragons or dealing with real personal challenges that require every ounce of your energy and attention at times. “Real” life includes ups and downs, highs and lows, good days and bad days. If you don’t live fully, what will you have to write about? If you turn inward and live only for your journal, you may soon run out of things to write about. Ideally, you will have a balance, an ebb and flow of living and writing, living and writing. Don’t be too concerned when your own unique existence seems to require an extended period of one or the other. When you aren’t writing, you may very well be processing a lot of material at a deep level while you go about your daily activities. In due time, it will surface and be available for your writing.

Above all, let go of guilt. Don’t use journaling as an excuse to castigate yourself for real or imagined failings. Don’t feel the need to push or punish yourself for not writing “enough,” whatever that is. Don’t set quotas for yourself, or insist that you produce something every day or every week.

Write when you must write. That is all. Let your desires and needs move you, not some schedule or some idea of “what should be.” If you feel blank and blah and empty and dry as can be, then maybe that is a signal from a deep part of you that you need to replenish yourself before you feel ready to write. “Priming the pump” with quotations and prompts is fine, but constant pushing will only wear you out and make you feel less and less creative. Go on about your life and the need to write will soon strike you. Honor your empty spaces, and honor the empty places in your journal.

What is narrative therapy?

Narrative therapy is a new way of looking at how we understand our experiences and our lives through the stories we tell ourselves. It focuses on the way we build our lives with stories, how we give words to our experiences, and how the stories we tell ourselves build our world. “To tell a story is to construct a life,” wrote Deena Metzger. In other words, we are the stories we tell ourselves. Making stories out of our experiences liberates and empowers us, gives us a framework of meaning, direction, purpose, and intention.

Many of our stories are “why” stories that attempt to explain and give meaning to experience. “…if we possess our why of life we can put up with almost any how,” said Nietzsche. When we begin to question the idea that there is only one true story in any given situation, then we become free to make story revisions and to make up new stories to give ourselves a framework of meaning and direction so we can live our lives with purpose and intention. Story revisions can help us come to terms with the ups and downs of life, can help us cope with illness, difficulties, and challenges, can help us heal. “All sorrows can be borne,” said Isak Dinesen, “If they are seen as part of a story.”

Revising and rewriting our life stories amounts to a “revisioning” of our lives. This revisioning gives us a new picture of our lives–where we are and where we want to go. Revisioning gives us a new view of ourselves and our experiences, as well as a map for navigating the world. We become open to positive change, to new interpretations of the past, and to new possibilities for the future.

How can I use the principles of narrative therapy in my own life?

You can “re-vision” your life story in several ways. One way is simply to think about yourself differently and to explore and test new stories, explanations, and hypotheses in your mind. The goal is for you to become the author of your own life.

Psychotherapy is an excellent way to examine the stories you tell yourself and the effect they have had on you. A good therapist can help you explore your past story, identify the elements in it that chafe and confine you, repair your old story, or perhaps help you construct a completely new, more liberating story.

A warm and supportive group experience can also give you the guidance and structure you need to begin rewriting and reinterpreting your life. Group therapy can provide you with the tools you need to sort out the false from the true story. Far from being a second-class modality, group therapy is the treatment of choice for many growth issues.

One of the most powerful ways to reap the benefits of narrative self-therapy is through keeping a diary or journal. This form of therapy is available to you all hours of the night and day, whenever you want and need it, and is as close as your pen or laptop. Aside from the price of your writing tools, it’s free, portable, and provides you with a record of your inner growth.

And of course, combining two or more of these methods increases the healing power of the work. Different ways of working appeal to different people, but the more you can combine them, the more benefits you’ll receive.
I have too many problems, and my situation seems hopeless. How can the New Life Stories techniques make any difference for me?

If you’re miserable and hopeless, what do you have to lose except your misery and hopelessness? Why not make an experiment? In good faith, work with the hypothesis that working with your life story can make a positive difference. Contact and spend time with people who have already transformed their lives or are in the process of doing so. Ask for help. Talk to other people. Ask them about their old stories and their new stories. Ask them how they’ve changed their lives Read others’ life stories and note how they have pulled themselves out of despair. Learn from the free help given by 12-step groups and various religious organizations. Sometimes even a small shift in perception can make a big difference in how you cope with the seemingly impossible. If you don’t ask, how can you receive?

Sometimes I read published journals and get discouraged when I compare my writings to others. How can I feel better about my writing?

Relax. Journal writing is not a competitive sport! Comparisons will only make you miserable! It’s great to read others’ published diaries because they can give you guidance and a sense of belonging, but if you read with an eye to evaluate your writings, compare, and judge, then you’re not connecting at a deep level with what is being communicated to you.

Reading others’ stories is one way of “listening” through reading. Superficial listening (or reading) has to do with evaluation and looking for flaws, with judging and disputing. Deep listening seeks to understand, to unite with, to receive without evaluation. Consider and hold ideas in exploration before making a decision to accept or reject. Deep listening includes the ability to hold opposing ideas in one space at the same time.

Read with compassion-first for the writer, then for yourself. Read for commonalities rather than differences, and remember what you are reading are small selections that have been culled from a much larger pool of ordinary or “mediocre” writing. What you’re reading is the best of the best. The writer you admire and envy has had his or her share of “wooden prose days” just as you do.

How can I find a group to support me in the work I’m doing in building a new life?

You may want to look for a support group or a 12-step group to help you get started. Many religious organizations offer free support groups of one form or another. Therapists offer group therapy to help you accomplish your goals. Although these groups may or may not use the language of narrative therapy, they are fundamentally about building new lives.

I’d like to write, but I don’t have any talent for that sort of thing. I can barely write a sentence that makes sense.

No talent needed! Nor is rewriting your life about making sense. Writing is simply a tool to allow you to focus on what works in your life, on what needs to be changed, and on your vision for the future. No one is going to evaluate the quality of your writing, and you needn’t do so either. If you can put a few words on paper or make a list, that’s good enough. If you really hate to write, there are many other ways to do this work. See other parts of this website that explore non-writing methods of New Life Stories.

I’m too self-critical. Whenever I start writing, there’s a part of me that keeps telling me that I can’t write, that what I write is stupid and meaningless.

Ah yes, the inner critic, the inner censor-what Virginia Woolf called “the angel of the house.” We all have a part of us that is self-critical. It is as if we have tape-recorded “voices” playing in our head, reminding us over and over of our deficiencies and failings.

Don’t let this part of your keep you from writing if you really want to write. It may be a part that wants to protect you, wants you to be as perfect and blameless as possible, wants you to get ahead in the world. Of course, it’s going about its task in a counter-productive way, but how can you work with this force instead of against it?

Strange as it might seem, talk or write to this part of you and tell it you will listen to its admonitions AFTER you’ve written what you need to write. Then you can graciously invite it in to help you edit and polish, if you’d like. You can use its talents and strengths at an appropriate time instead of allowing it to block you in the early stages of writing. First, just get something on paper. As you get to know and respect this aspect of yourself, it may feel more accepted and cause you less trouble.

I feel constricted and stifled by the rules of grammar and the need to write complete and “correct” sentences. How can I loosen up?

You’re right. One of the purposes of keeping a journal and writing for personal growth is to get free, to throw off unnecessary constraints, whether literary or emotional.

Although it may feel self-conscious at first, try making an effort to write in sentence fragments, perhaps using lists. See how that feels, and note your reactions when you “break the rules.” Try writing a few sentence fragments, then do a freewrite with the thoughts and feelings that arise from doing that. Invent a character that deliberately flouts grammatical rules, then experiment with what it feels like to write in that way.

You might want to dialogue with that part of you that insists on “correctness,” and ask it what it is trying to accomplish. See if there is an easier or better way to reach the same goals.

I’m so overwhelmed, I don’t know where to begin.

That’s a great place to begin-right where you are right now! In fact, it’s the best and only place there is. At the top of your blank page, simply record the date and write “I’m so overwhelmed, I don’t know where to begin.” Take a deep breath and let your hand write whatever flows from your mind and heart. Write quickly, write without thinking, and keep your pen moving. If you’re typing, type as fast as you can. Don’t resist and don’t be afraid of what you might write, but allow anything and everything rise to the surface and make itself known. Simply getting everything out and on paper can make a situation seem less overwhelming because you’re reducing it from the “vague immensities” to “concrete doables.” Try making quick lists-lists of things that bother you, lists of fears, list of things to try, lists of possible solutions (however outlandish they might seem-remember, the idea here is to mobilize your creative functions). Especially try making a list of small concrete actions that could make your situation better–make one phone call, clean one drawer, scrub one counter, put away one file, write one thank-you note, walk for ten minutes. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamotte tells the story of how her brother became overwhelmed in writing a report on birds. The task seemed enormous, and he couldn’t get started. His father advised him, “Just take it bird by bird, Buddy, bird by bird.” All the old clichés apply here-“step by step,” “one step at a time,” “just take it as it comes.” After all, these sayings became clichés because they’re such good advice.

If you hate to write, you could talk into a tape recorder or ask a friend to listen to you for a few minutes. You could also brainstorm and make lists on video tape.

Remember, taking even one small action can make a big difference in how you feel and how well you cope. One small step can lead to another and another and help you remember that you can do something positive for yourself.

How can I get my son and daughter interested in writing and keeping a journal?

Let them follow your example. Let them see you writing. If you keep a journal, speak enthusiastically about writing, and provide them with opportunities, they’ll likely want to write too. You might give them age-appropriate journals and let them know they can keep their writings private just as you do. As with your own journaling, let writing be on an as-needed basis, not a regimented affair with its own pressures and guilt. You might also want to read books and see movies with them that feature journals and writing (Harriet the Spy is a good example). Give them a variety of stickers and art materials to add to their journals, and experiment with collage and other innovative journaling games.

 

How can I keep the journal-keeping habit going? Sometimes I feel like writing, but what about when I’m too tired or can’t seem to write?

Remember that writing is a habit, and that habits can be built. Even though the words diary and journal both mean daily, it is important to remember that there is no reason you “have” to write daily. Journal keeping is a tool to serve you and your life, not vice-versa. The purpose of writing is to enrich your life, not to add guilt and apprehension to your daily experience. Appreciate the fact that your life has its own unique rhythms, and may not respond to a schedule superimposed upon it, however seemingly benign. The times you are not writing, when you “cannot” write, when you are too busy or too tired for writing are just as important as the times when you do write. These are important “seasons” when you are living the material for later reflection. There is a certain balance and swing in these two phases-the living and the writing (the later reflection). The silences in your life speak as eloquently as your words. Let them speak. Let them have their day. Let them have their special place in your life. Honor them.


Copyright © 2006. All rights reserved. Ellen Moore, Ph.D.