In the Golden Age of Technology, not only are we reliant on digital devices–they make our lives better! What would a text be without autocorrect? How would we drive anywhere without satellite GPS? Not to mention the internet connection that has allowed the world to go to school, work and “social” functions without leaving the house. In light of all of that, it sounds downright antiquated to suggest journaling as a habit to support schoolwork ….ludacris, even!
Let’s switch gears for a minute. Just humour me and drop all the points I just made. Thanks to the pandemic students of every education level didn’t take standardized tests last year. For the same reason, most students experienced a period of exclusively turning in digital assignments. Long gone were the days of worksheets, handwritten essays, turning in hardback notebooks, and writing out notes by hand. For what it’s worth, without the virtual counterparts of these tools, we couldn’t have gotten through the past year so I’m definitely not slamming these things.
However, virtual education is not without its flaws. In some ways, it’s actually gotten us into some less favorable habits. We’ve all forgotten how to live without those little squiggly blue or red lines underneath our sentences (oops, almost sent an email using the wrong “there/their/they’re” but I was saved by the squiggly lines!) We’ve lost stamina when it comes to writing by hand. Is irregardless a real word?–let me google that! It is current or currant, what’s the difference!? And spelling? Don’t get me started!!! No, really, please don’t make me spell because the words I cannot remember now versus pre-pandemic are really embarrassing. Just to drive the point home, I, a writing instructor and blogger, just had to correct the spelling of “embarrassing” in the last sentence after the gentle presence of… you guessed it, squiggly red lines. There are skills we are not using that we are relying on artificial intelligence for …but we aren’t less intelligent! My IQ is the same now as it was before the pandemic, so why can’t I spell on a 9th grade English level now? (My apologies to my 9th Grade English teacher, Mrs Freeman!!!) The short answer is learning atrophy. “Use it or lose it,” as the old saying goes, is actually completely accurate when it comes to the human memory.
There’s one remedy to this! Journal. Journal like you’re a more-fortunate and modern Anne Frank. Give Anais Nin a run for her money. Release your inner Queen Victoria! Journal the way people with Master’s degrees wrote blogs about cupcake recipes in the 2009 Recession! Silliness aside, it really is the cure to all the learning atrophy we’re experiencing from relying just a little too much on our digital tools.
Journaling is a great way to practice spelling. You may tell yourself know how to spell “neighbor” as you hit allow autocorrect to take the reins, but you won’t truly know if that’s the case or just something you’re trying to convince yourself of until you literally put pen to paper. Ultimately, here’s the thing… whether it’s the STAAR, the SAT writing portion, or the LSAT, you’re going to be expected to write 100% independently of technology at some critical crossroad in your education. There is no autocorrect available for those! You’ll be forced to spell, use correct grammar, appropriate mechanics, and varied vocabulary without accessing search engines or thesaurus.com. There are no visits to Wikipedia to find out what the prompt really means. You can’t text your friend to ask them anything. It’s go time and you’re on your own. You’re going to need to know how to do these things, even if you tell yourself you’ll never use it because “in the real world” you’ll just use tools like Grammarly to all but write for you. Maybe C-3PO will be invented and can write for you. But for now, there’s no artificial intelligence that can replace actual intelligence. There may not be technology that can write and think for us available in our lifetimes! We simply do not know.
The first step that comes before any growth is awareness. Journaling provides you with the self-awareness of your skills. Every time you have the impulse to pick up a digital device to help you write in your journal, (yes, your tangible journal that your hands use a pen or pencil to write in–or even a marker, I’m not close-minded!) you reveal one of your writing weaknesses to yourself. Journaling is the perfect self-assessment tool! This statement is true even if you just don’t know what to write. Writer’s Block has been a human condition since way before the pandemic! That eerie sensation that only hits when you see a blank page that suddenly, you’ve never experienced any event throughout your whole life, and, additionally, have never had a thought in your head. What to write?? How to start??? Better seek a distraction. Mais non, mon amie! (That’s French for, “But no, my friend!”) That impulse to pick up your phone and find that very distraction, or go hunting for the elusive muses of inspiration, is actually just proving to you what your attention span currently is. We all have off days, but if you can’t find some mundane detail to write about in 20 minutes, or you can’t go more than 3 minutes without checking your phone, you’ve got device-induced-attention-deficit-disorder. Turn off the phone, leave your electronics in another room, and spend some time NOT being overstimulated for once. Face your own thoughts. When my students don’t know what to write in their journals, I give them the advice I give myself: describe your current state. I have countless pages scrawled with descriptions of carpetings, tables, walls, and ceilings. From the last year, I have multiple descriptions of every room in my house in the most detailed of minutiae. I have actually filled volumes with describing what my body is experiencing in the moment (a GREAT mindfulness exercise if you want to focus on being present!) whether it’s the current shade of brown the freckles on the backs of my hands are as I write, the way my posture feels, or the sensation of the sun on my skin, I’ve written some of the most boring descriptions that one could ever imagine. If you challenged me to find a way to bore a reader, I’d give you a passage like this from one of my old journals. (July 2020 has some REALLY on-point stuff if you want to be bored!) And what happened over all these countless, snooze-worthy descriptions? Let me show you…
March 2018 – I am trying to write.
July 2018 – I am trying to find something to write about while journaling in my room…
January 2019 – I am writing this in my bedroom in the morning.I sit down to write this on the floor next to my bed, on the short, off-white carpet that lines this apartment from baseboard to shining baseboard.
September 2019 – I sit down to write this on the floor next to my bed, on the short, off-white carpet that lines this apartment from baseboard to shining baseboard.
December 2019 – I am gazing at the shadows on the apricot-colored, popcorn walls in between writing this. Ideas are not flowing to me right now. My room smells like home to me…kind of like nothing, but vaguely of lavender-scented laundry detergent and clean cat fur.
June 2020 – The light hits the popcorned walls of my bedroom in a way that makes me feel nauseous. It’s not just the motion sickness caused as a result of the ceiling fan being a little loose, rotating the light on the walls in such a way that it gives off a fun-house-mirror effect of slight movement. It’s the way that I’ve had no visual reprieve from describing these same walls throughout my house in ages. I’d rather be describing the dizzying effect of the cheap and childish carpet of the university lecture hall that my Senior Capstone took place in.
See what happened there? I had to get creative. My imaginative juices had to stew and come up with different ways to describe, elaborate, and detail things that I had written about before …all without any help from virtual tools. It took a while, but gradually, I became a much better writer. My descriptions expanded to include the five senses. My vocabulary increased because I made mental notes every time I heard or saw a word that could describe my bedroom walls that I hadn’t already written ten times before. I taught myself how to pay attention to little things like shadows and light just so I could fill-up the page. That Writer’s Block had nothing on the internal competition to take that vast, white space and fill it with my chicken-scratch, just so I could say I did it.
My handwriting is rarely pretty. At least once per non-lockdown year, I get asked where I learned to write in script or cursive because my handwriting gets more illegible and frilly the faster I write. But I can write fast and I can write for extended periods of time without stopping for a hand cramp. That’s a rare ability in people these days. Oh sure, everyone and their mother can text like the wind or type correctly in a short amount of time, but give a little pencil and paper and see the true endurance of a writer! It’s sure not as neat as Times New Roman but it’s neat that I can write no matter the medium. Here’s the thing… this is not a skill that is unique. There’s no Olympic Gold Medal for the sport of Handwriting. Anyone can write on paper. All you need is some paper, a writing utensil, and a flat surface! It’s downhill work from there as you find a way to focus on something boring and train your mind to focus on turning that into an opportunity for imagination and wit. Anyone can teach themselves how to organize their thoughts and writing more coherently …and how to string it all together when you’ve written without an eraser handy.
When you have nothing interesting to say and an entire piece of paper to say it, you’ll teach yourself how to answer a prompt in totality. For the same reason, you’ll teach yourself how to describe small and dull details into something at least slightly more interesting and in more words. You’ll also give your eyes a break from blue-light and your mind a break from the distractions we are constantly accosted by. You’ll build up your writing skills in a plethora of ways. Your confidence will go up because you trudged through your goal of journaling, and you are a better writer than you were the day you started! By the time you have to write for a standardized test, or get to a certain word count at the eleventh hour, it’ll be a piece of cake. After all, if you can find 100 ways to describe your bedroom wall then you can definitely handle the college admission essay about “a challenge you faced in your life and what you learned”.
And one more thing? If you only take away ONE point from of this article, let it be this: there is no such word as “irregardless”. Thanks for reading!