A beginner's guide to writing therapy

A beginner's guide to writing therapy

Write this way

Text: BURO London

Editor: Rachel Au

In an age of perennial disorder, take refuge in the humble notebook

I've always found notebooks to be undeniably sexy. Specifically battered, handsome leather-bound ones. They always seem to lure one back for more. More to-do lists, half-baked thoughts, quotations, things to remember, ideas, non-sensical doodles that you look back on and try to ascertain WTF you were trying to draw.

I've come to rely on a plethora of notebooks dotted around my house—some sexy-looking, some not so much—even more during lockdown. When human contact is scarce, thoughts are more jumbled than a vintage fair in East London, and when constructing any real sense of order (both world and personal) seems impossibly out of reach, it's a great comforter.

Scrawling notes down on a page is less finite than pure diary-form, whereby a person dutifully records their day, at great length. Beautifully hand-written prose bleeding out onto a page, with a whisper of desire that these words really should be found. And printed somewhere for all to see and "umm, and ahh" over. Notetaking is more of a freestyle endeavour—there's a greater sense of urgency. Only you can really dissect its logic.

Or, as Joan Didion puts it:

"We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind's string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker."

That's not to omit writing notes as a container for your thoughts and feelings entirely. For some, it really is more akin to journaling (often written in first-person), and an integral form of self-care.

"I'm an avid collector of stories and thoughts and impressions, and have siphoned my own, along with other people's in the form of quotes or things I've been told onto pages of notebooks for over 20 years now," says writer and podcaster Madeleine Spencer. "I've amassed over 30 and counting."

There's a ritualistic element to her practice, often documenting ideas and ruminations at night when her "mind is whirring." This act, she finds, is "enormously cathartic and forcing order where perhaps there was a bit of chaos. During lockdown, I've been delving back into my archives and was rather amazed at how accurately they captured the sense of my life at various points."

The purpose your notebook serves is your own making. For instance: Marilyn Monroe's hastily written jottings (almost unreadable) contain poetry, recipes and fragmented ideas. In one notebook, she writes a single line, "having a sense of myself"—like a grounded reminder, to go back to, to practice and channel every day.

Or, perhaps your notebook is more a creative pursuit. Grace Coddington, for example, scrawled sketches from the front row of her favourite looks in her beloved Smythson. Grimes is currently selling drawings from her notebooks in an LA exhibition this summer, entitled 'Selling Out.'

And this is why one notebook is not nearly enough for most of us. Our thought-streams are vast and complex, sometimes in conflict with each other.

Journalist and author of The Matchmaker, Catrionna Innes, has four on the go at any one time. "I keep notebooks for everything," she says. "I have a regular diary where I just write about my day and thoughts, one for writing a stream of consciousness when I wake up in the morning—which I read was good for creativity. I also have a 'one line a day' notebook and then a normal notebook I just carry around with me for when I have ideas about books, and I just love looking back on it. It's also quite interesting to see what I was thinking about before lockdown or last year. I think it helps you see how far you've come." 

Ultimately, however you want to frame it, putting pen to paper is far more gratifying a habit to cultivate than turning to your iPhone Notes app. Writing something down can help clear the mind, let go of stressful thoughts and enable you to better process your feelings around a particular situation.

"In a way, it's similar to talking a situation through with a friend," says Lily Silverton, mental health and wellbeing coach (you can listen to her new podcast, Priorities, here). "Maybe you are writing something down about how unhelpful something is to you, or even, how ridiculous it seems." Adding that, "it also helps you clarify your goals, priorities and intentions, and so is a powerful way to ensure you to stay on track to the life you want to lead."



Diana Raab, author of Writers and Their Notebooks, lays down the basics for us:


"Some use it as a tool for survival or travel, some see it as a muse, and for others it's a habit they may have carried with them since childhood."


"[There are] no rules. Do what feels right. Writing is one way to communicate with yourself. One of the most magical aspects of writing for healing and stress-release is that once you make the decision to put your pen to the page, you have no idea what will emerge from your subconscious mind. It's all a magical process of self-discovery."


"Typically, when people refer to note-taking, they're referring to taking notes at a meeting or in a class or workshop situation when someone else is speaking. Notes are usually written in the third person. Journaling, on the other hand, is usually written in first person. There are two types of journaling. One is called automatic writing or stream-of-consciousness or freewriting where you write for 15-20 nonstop and see what emerges. Prompt-directed writing is when you're given a subject or prompt to write about."


"Notebooks, journals, or daybooks, their motives are the same—to capture and document thoughts, sentiments, observations, ideas, ruminations, and reflections before they vanish."

This story first appeared on BURO London.