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Record keepers: Experts discuss benefits of pouring thoughts, ideas onto paper

Wrapped in a red coat on a cold Saturday night, Holly Charlton sits on a stool at the Replay, talking to some friends. Then, out of nowhere, something stirs her, and in an instant, Charlton plucks a journal from her purse, flips it open and begins to write.

"I started journaling by jotting notes and ideas down when I was about 10," says Charlton. "I've been an on-again, off-again journal-jotter for about 14 years."

With blue and black Sharpie brand pens, Charlton scribbles down whatever strikes her on the pages of her Moleskine journal. For Charlton, 24, the journal helps her record private thoughts. For others, journals can serve as a dumping ground for daily events, anecdotes, ideas and goals.

Trish Jess, a suppliers buyer for KU Bookstores, says Moleskine journals still attract a loyal audience.

"They sell steadily," Jess says. "There's always a group of people who are going to want the tangible thing right in front of them, instead of the electronic experience. The paper matters to them."

The paper matters to Charlton. One of the reasons she started keeping a journal in the first place was for the aesthetic value of filling a book with her own handwriting. However, she's since grown to treasure the thoughts the journals have preserved. And Charlton, a self-professed overthinker, says writing her thoughts down is cathartic.

"Thoughts consume you," Charlton says. "Journals consume your thoughts."

It's a journal's purging nature that makes it a good therapy tool, say psychologists. For some people, journaling can be a coping method keeping them stable when life is not.

"There's a version of automatic writing that can work well for folks who have ruminations, or thoughts that they go over again and again that are worrisome," says David Barnum, a clinical psychologist at Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Barnum has been advising patients to journal since he started his practice more than 10 years ago. "I'll have them use journals to get control of those troublesome thoughts."

There are two ways in which Barnum draws on journaling to treat patients: informal diaries and clinical interventions. With informal diaries, Barnum has patients jot down thoughts — the negative sort that randomly recirculate, against a person's will. Theoretically, the act of writing negative thoughts down reduces their occurrence.

Barnum also uses a version of journaling called clinical intervention. This method is more focused and usually targets people working through serious health problems or life-threatening illnesses.

"With journals, they can capture aspects of that experience so they can make sense of it rather than having it overwhelm them," Barnum says.

Barnum has one caveat: Journaling too soon can hobble recovery for those who aren't ready.

"For some folks, if you use journaling at an incorrect time in the healing process, it can be a little overwhelming to read their own thoughts," he says.

When people aren't prepared to confront tangible thought streams via journals, Barnum will sometimes have them write without reviewing entries.

Dr. Jon Progoff advises against this, saying it's ineffective and will not help patients achieve change. Progoff is the director of The Progoff Intensive Journal Workshop, a traveling workshop that hops from state to state teaching people how to journal.

Designed to help people improve lives through writing, the workshop pulls in all sorts of crowds — nurses, teachers, counselors, writers. For two days, those crowds write in a structured workbook called The Intensive Journal. The book is broken into more than 20 subsections. "Dream Log," "Steppingstones" and "Dialogues" are some of the titles.

The book is intended to provide people with a structure, making it easier to find and understand key life themes. More important than the book, though, is the feedback.

"There needs to be a feedback process," Progoff says. "Otherwise you're just getting it out, just doing a core dump, which has some benefit, but is just the first step. If you're just writing, there's not that next step of benefit that occurs when reading it."

Most people who keep journals don't reread entries, Progoff says, which means they aren't journaling correctly. But try telling that to Charlton, whose free-spirited journaling habit is what makes it so right for her. For some, journals will remain a way of capturing the day-to-day flow of life: the flurry of spontaneous thoughts, unstructured lists, witty dialogue and interesting anecdotes; a litany that causes people, like Charlton, to a whip out journals on a whim, to make sure they get it all down.