Commentary: Blank Pages, Free Spaces

As a child, there was nothing I loved to do more than write. Everywhere I went, I carried a pink polka-dotted Target notebook that ensconced the inner workings of my mind. In it, I scribbled down my thoughts, my observations, and my wonderment. I couldn’t wait to write in it every day. But as I grew older, and school writing assignments piled up on my desk, the notebook was lost somewhere along the way.

Today, journaling is an art that has been lost in the chaos of our fast-paced modern world. The inclination to document our lives has long been a part of humankind, and journal-keeping is no stranger to society. Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, and William Wordsworth were all avid journal keepers. But nowadays this desire manifests itself in a quicker, more efficient form: social media. We are constantly chronicling our lives in the posts, tweets, and pictures we share. But social media is an outward platform lacking many of the key benefits that private journaling provides and is not always beneficial for those who participate in it.

For many students today, the word “writing” triggers feelings of dread. This is largely because of the rigid structure and polished expectations associated with academic writing assignments. And while academic writing teaches students valuable ways to communicate ideas efficiently, its narrow parameters do not allow for much creativity and certainly do not encourage risk-taking or experimentation in young writers. How often do high school students have the opportunity to explore their thoughts and express their ideas freely — without judgement, time constraints, or the fear of a bad grade? The answer, in my experience, is almost never, and that’s exactly what prompted me to dredge out the tattered, polka-dotted journal from my youth and pick up my pen once again.

Journaling provides a safe, pressure-free environment for self-expression — something virtually impossible to find on social media platforms or in academic settings. It gives us the opportunity to slow down and reflect on our lives and communicate our thoughts in the midst of the pandemonium that oftentimes characterizes our hectic lives; it allows the space to sort through and explore our minds without the prospect of a stranger’s criticism or a teacher’s assessment. Journals can be shared or can be kept private, but it is the writer’s choice because the content comes from the writer’s soul and ultimately belongs only to the writer.

“When you’re writing, you can be completely honest, because the writing’s for you and you alone. And you don’t have worry about being censured or criticized by others,” said James Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading researcher in writing therapy.

In fact, journaling has long been utilized as a form of self-care and is even “prescribed” by psychologists as a therapeutic method for those dealing with extreme anxiety or trauma. Pennebroker explains that the process of writing down our emotional experiences and traumas can help alleviate the stress associated with these situations, and in turn can improve our overall mood.  “What it seems to be doing is reducing general stress levels… People sleep better after they [journal]. People come to understand the situation better,” he said.

Furthermore, the powerful healing tendencies of journaling are not limited to just our emotional health. A New Zealand study examining the physical effects of expressive writing shows that journaling can actually accelerate the speed at which physical wounds heal. Other studies suggest that writing about emotions can lead to a higher functioning immune system in patients suffering from conditions such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and HIV/AIDS.

You don’t have to write about highly emotional or life-altering events to experience the benefits of keeping a journal, however. Simply recording ordinary, everyday events and experiences can lead to life improvements such as increased creativity, memory, and communication skills. In fact, one study shows that people who wrote about even the most mundane conversations or activities felt happier in their daily lives. More benefits of journaling include better sleep, improved problem-solving skills, and higher self-esteem.

By the time I got to Andover, writing — in any form — began to feel increasingly like a chore. An activity that I once cherished as a child started to produce feelings of stress and anxiety. I got to the point where I would rather sit through a hundred exams than write a single paper. I felt so much pressure to “do it right” that my mind became paralyzed and I spent painful, unproductive hours trying to generate a few paragraphs. There were too many simultaneous variables to satisfy: I needed to sound smart but not obtuse, to be succinct but not overt, to make bold assertions but only with properly formatted evidence, to be original but not far fetched. Essentially, I felt I had to write perfectly, which made the whole process unpleasant and inauthentic.

Journal writing helped me both to rediscover the joy in writing and to find my own words again. As soon as I opened up that notebook, words and thoughts that had been tangled up in my mind for so long poured out on the page in a wave of relief. And while my output was certainly no work of fine literature, I no longer felt repressed and instead found the joy and stress-reducing benefits of writing once again. As a side benefit, my academic writing assignments came easier too, now that my mind had the space to roam freely in my journal on the side.

The prospect of journaling may seem daunting to some, or even an utter waste of precious time to others, but I urge you to take the time out of your packed schedules to record something solely for the purpose of doing it: solely for yourself. Whether it be in the traditional pen and paper format, typed out on a laptop, or even recorded in voice memo, journaling can be one of the most powerful forms of self-care and personal growth available.

Juliet Gildehaus is a three-year Upper from Concord, Mass. and an Associate Sports Editor for The Phillipian. Contact the author at