Nishta J. Mehra, author of Brown White Black, shares how the simple act of journaling can serve as an anchor through life’s turbulence.
I started keeping a journal as soon as I could write; actually, a little bit before that, as my very first journal opens with my parents’ handwriting, taking down stories and poems (featuring lots of ponies) from my dictation. That journal, covered in a fabric patterned with bows against a background of blue, now lives in a giant plastic storage bin along with 40 others, ranging in size and shape, some with lined pages, others unlined, each one an archive from a particular sliver of my life.
Journals are an end in themselves, a way of engaging with my own mind and discovering what I think.
These days, my journal is a spiral-bound notebook with a recycled cardboard cover. I appreciate the way that the spiral allows me to tuck a pen into it for safekeeping, so I never find myself without a way to write things down. I journal nearly every day—to recount events from my own life and the world around me, to think through a problem or question I have, or to copy down quotations from books I’m reading, fragments of poems, or songs stuck in my head.
When I reach the end of a journal, as I will with this one soon, I flip back through the pages to trace the arc of my thoughts and reflect on this particular season of life. Then I affix a strip of masking tape to the front, labeling with Sharpie the dates that it spans for easy reference in the future. And into the big plastic bin it goes.
As a nonfiction writer, I am often asked “How do you write with so much detail about the past? How do you remember everything?” The truth is, I don’t remember everything. That’s where the journals come in. But it would be disingenuous to imply that I keep them only for that reason, and I honestly don’t believe they would bring me nearly as much joy and pleasure if I did. The journals are an end in themselves, a way of engaging with my own mind and discovering what I think. Writing in my journal is a ritual that brings comfort and solace, and also revelation and growth. I learn so much about myself through the page.
Journaling in the classroom
For these reasons, I have made journaling the cornerstone of my classroom teaching practice. In a few weeks, I will enter my fourteenth year of teaching English to middle and high school students, and the very first thing we’ll discuss on the very first day of class is how and why we journal in Ms. Mehra’s class—paper journals, always private to them, inside which they can write or draw whatever they want.
I will never ask my students to hand their journals in. At the end of the semester, I will ask them to type up and polish excerpts of what they’ve written down, but what they share with me will be their choice. We will journal in class every day for 10-15 minutes. They’ll always have a prompt, but whether they respond to it or not is up to them. I ask only that they engage with their journals quietly the whole time and not disturb their classmates. I will, I tell them, always journal along with them.
I can tell you that the more you give to it, the more you’re likely to get out of it.
At this point, they’re usually looking at me somewhat incredulously, wondering if there’s a catch. Some students will be on board from the start, kids who have already filled notebooks with song lyrics and doodles; others will be skeptical as to how journaling can help improve their writing skills, which they’ve been told need work.
I ask them “Why do you think we’re doing this?” and they throw out ideas, which I write on the board: So we can write without feeling pressure; to write about what matters to us; to develop our voices. Then we look at several sources that confirm their guesses, including an article that breaks down the neuroscience behind the benefits of writing by hand, first-hand accounts of famous artist’s journals, educational research about the benefits of “low stakes writing,” and testimony from past students about their experience keeping a journal in my class. “Just give it a chance,” I say. “I can’t control what you put in your journal, but I can tell you that the more you give to it, the more you’re likely to get out of it.”
Though I’ve been doing this for a while now, each year I am surprised that it works. It works.
Though I’ve been doing this for a while now, each year I am surprised that it works. It works. Sure, some days none of us are feeling inspired and we’re all just copying song lyrics into our journals. At times, I’ve even had students fall asleep during journaling time. But there are just as many days that they ask “Can we have five more minutes?” when I tell them to start wrapping up their thoughts. We’ve done fun creative writing warm-ups that they all wanted to share in a circle, laughing and giving their classmates snaps for a silly Sandwich Ode (which then led to philosophical debates about whether or not a hot dog counts as a sandwich). We’ve also had incredibly powerful conversations about core values, what they wish adults understood about teenagers, and what they worry about and hope for their futures.
Just as my own personal journals end up creating an archive for me to comb back through as a writer, our classroom journal time allows us to build a classroom space that allows for difficult, important conversations later on in the semester, conversations about race and privilege and literary canons and how history is recorded. But the journals are not merely a means to an end; for my fifteen-and-sixteen-year-old students, they serve as a safe place to capture their thoughts and feelings without judgment or repercussions. At the end of the semester, their journals allow them to learn about themselves, perhaps being surprised at the power of something they’ve written or at the realization that they have changed in ways they feel good about. Yes, the journal-writing ends up building their overall writing skills (this shows up in the more traditional kinds of academic writing they also do in class), but ultimately, the journals are for them. Maybe they’ll remember something we discussed in class, but let’s be honest—probably not. But if I can teach them the value of journal writing, perhaps it’s something they can turn to later in life when they really need it.
These days, when time feels strange and the future especially uncertain, journaling has taken on a particular power for me and my students. When school went virtual in the middle of the spring semester, I started hosting optional journal time via Zoom each week. I wasn’t sure if any kids would show up, but they did, and Thursday night journal time became a ritual we all treasure. So much so, in fact, that they asked if I would continue through the summer, which I have. We meet for about 30 minutes, catching up and checking in at first, then taking about 10-12 minutes to consider a prompt or art activity I’ve designed—sometimes imitating a poem, other times responding to a news article. We mute ourselves so we can listen to our own music or eat snacks without disturbing anyone, but I love looking up and seeing their heads all in a grid, hunched over their journals, the glow of the computer screen filling up otherwise darkened rooms. After writing, we move into a five-minute meditation, which I play from my computer while we all turn off our cameras. Then, to close, we’ve developed a gratitude practice, each of us sharing something we’re grateful for before we sign off.
These days, when time feels strange and the future especially uncertain, journaling has taken on a particular power.
Pretty much every week, when it’s my turn, I tell them how thankful I am for them, that they continue to join me on Thursday nights to do the work of thoughtful reflection, maintaining an essential sense of community from afar, and putting words and images down on the page as a kind of salve against despair.
Nishta J. Mehra is the first-generation daughter of Indian immigrants and the author of two essay collections: Brown White Black and The Pomegranate King. She works as a high school English teacher in Phoenix where she lives with her wife Jill and their children Jesús and Shiv. Connect with Nishta on Twitter & Instagram @nishtajmehra or via her website.