Riding the Holiday Waves: Writing for Health

November 29, 2020 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Hello, friends.

How have the first of the holidays been for you? Have the emotions of 2020’s elections and COVID caused these past few days to seem calm, by comparison? Or are you riding those holiday waves that are common to many of us? Do you slide from peak to valley, with ups and downs ranging from anticipation and jubilation to dread and despair?

For me, the rough riding usually begins with the change from Daylight Savings time to November’s extra early darkness. The days seem way too short, and the list of holiday “to dos” way too long. This year–so far–has felt slightly different. I’m not sure exactly why, but I have a few hunches. One is that a bunch of us women were able to check out from some of the holiday hosting stresses. But for me there’s a little more to it than that.  In short, I’m advocating more regular reading and writing for health. Today I’m sharing a bit more about writing (the reading part will follow at a later date).

Last week I shared on social media a moving  article by Janice Nimura on “Wingtips and Shell-Toes.” It’s a beautifully crafted essay on what she gained from her father as well as on how she differs from him. (You can read that essay here.) When I shared the story, I promised to write more about Nimura and her work. Here’s the follow through — and it’s about her journaling.

Author Janice Nimura (Photo Credit: Lucy Schaeffer)

Just a few days after Nimura’s essay about her father appeared, the PBS News Hour  ran a video with her: “The Value of Writing our Way through a Tumultuous 2020.”  You can watch the video and get Nimura’s advice here.  If you don’t have the three minutes it takes to watch the video, you can read the transcription at the same link. Basically, she encourages people to write:

  • for posterity’s sake
  • for their own health and wellness

She says it more more beautifully than these bullet points summarize.  And she does so by sharing a bit about her own journaling habits.

Nimura explains that her research (recently on the 19th-century Blackwell sisters, the subject of her forthcoming book) depends upon journals and diaries.  She asks, how will future researchers know anything about life during COVID, if some people aren’t writing about it??? And what about your children and their children, Nimura asks, when they want to know about your life in the first part of the 21st century??

Nimura’s forthcoming book on 19th-century physicians, Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell

Regarding health and wellness, she explains from her own experience through the years that she has written in her journals to figure things out. She puts down on paper thoughts that need sorting. And she has done so for years–going way back to her adolescence.

Nimura’s interview, on the heels of that beautiful essay about her father, made me feel a little “lesser than” (a little “crestfallen” –to continue the wave imagery). I

have never been one to keep a journal. That is, until recently. In 2019 I began writing morning pages.

So Nimura’s account also gave me a lift of affirmation. And it made me determine to share her account with you.

If you’re already a journaling enthusiast, you can stop reading now. If you’ve tried to keep a journal but never been successful, don’t give up trying. There’s hope.

If you’re already a journaling enthusiast, you can stop reading now. If you’ve tried to keep a journal but never been successful, don’t give up trying. There’s hope.

I’ve never been one for morning activities.  Yes, as some of you know, I’ve long been an exercise enthusiast–swimming, cycling, jogging, walking. But I’ve NEVER been one for morning physical exercise. At least, not until I’ve been upright for at least an hour or two and consumed at least that many cups of coffee.

Morning coffee, black

I kid you not. I only began journaling regularly in 2019.

But you’re a writer, you say. Surely–haven’t you kept journals for years? You travel. Haven’t you kept travel journals?

The answer is yes and no, but mostly no. Someone brought me a diary for a birthday gift when I was still in elementary school. A couple of family members gave me travel journals when I was in college, preparing for a study abroad semester. At least one professor assigned a teaching journal, as I began my career (and I have assigned them to my students). A good friend gave me a journal when I became a mom, to record thoughts about motherhood. But in each case my journaling was short-lived, an enterprise encouraged by someone else.

And in each instance, the brevity of the practice meant the return on investment was less than that first savings account my parents helped me open with my babysitting money. Then, as an adolescent girl, I quickly learned that my immediate needs –make up, jewelry, after school outings–far outweighed savings for the future! Until recently, keeping a journal or a diary was similar–less important than what I deemed my immediate needs. How could I keep a journal as a new mom when I could barely care for my baby and myself??? And when I was traveling, so busy out and about, seeing and experiencing new sights–how could I find time to write?

Now, though, I find myself in a different spot. In fact, I realize now that the daily journaling is as important as the morning coffee. (Well, almost.)

Photo of cover of book by Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way advocates daily journaling

The tipping point? Not one factor but several came together in what might be called “a perfect storm.”  A long-time friend and advocate of “morning pages,” Deborah Cox, directed me to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Her book’s subtitle says much:  “A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.” Deborah and I used the book in a writing workshop we ran in February 2019. Knowing Deborah and her habits of creativity and self-care, and then reading this book, were the trigger I needed.

Writing “on task” while I was a college student

After years of daily writing “on task” for specific book and article assignments, I found something both soothing and energizing in this new “free” writing.  Being less-focused and not “on deadline,” this writing allows me to release concerns and anxieties that are on my mind. Issues surfacing in my crazy dreams go right on the page, and I often generate new ideas for the “on task” writing as well. As Cameron explains in her book, this daily discipline–disciplined in routine but not in content–causes creative juices to flow. And these same juices contribute to mental health.

Of course, none of these insights are anything new. Advocates of journaling have voiced them for years. But if you have not tried some daily writing for your mental health–do it!

2020 isn’t over yet, nor is COVID. You still have time to write for your health and your posterity.  Pick up a journal. Pick up a pen. Give it a try.


If writing doesn’t seem to be for you, then consider reading. Reading practices and some recommended titles will be the topic of a future letter. Social media, as we know, uses unpredictable algorithms. So be sure to subscribe to receive notifications by email when new letter appears.

I’ll also keep you updated on events, such as writing and health workshops with Deborah Cox,  or virtual talks on any of my writing projects.

As always, I’m happy to respond directly to messages as well.

Meanwhile, may you have a happy and healthy holiday season!


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Etta Madden