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Journal To The Self: An Interview with Kathleen Adams

The renowned teacher of therapeutic writing explains the healing power of words.

Kathleen (Kay) Adams LPC is a psychotherapist and clinical journal therapist in Denver, Colorado. Since 1985, she has pioneered the use of writing as a tool in therapy, personal growth, human potential, and beyond. Adams is the author/editor of ten books in the field of therapeutic writing, including the best-selling Journal to the Self and Expressive Writing: Foundations of Practice. She directs the Center for Journal Therapy [] and its professional training division, the fully online Therapeutic Writing Institute []. In 2013, she launched the Journalverse [], an online learning community for journal writers and facilitators worldwide. In an poll, Kathleen Adams was listed (with Anais Nin and Anne Frank) as one of the three most significant influences on contemporary journal keeping.

I recently spoke to Kay Adams about the healing powers of personal writing, and how journaling became her life's work.

MM: When did you start keeping a journal, Kay?

KA: I was 10 years old and my favorite aunt gave me a little five-year diary with a lock on it for Christmas. I was thrilled because I knew I wanted to write and I thought keeping a diary would be the first step to becoming a real writer.

MM: You wanted to be a writer at 10 years old? How did that realization come to you?

KA: When my sister, who is three years older than me, was in first grade and learning how to read, she would come home from school and teach me everything she had learned. As a result, I learned how to read when I was three. I loved books, stories and words and used to make up stories and tell them. As soon as I learned to write, I started writing stories and just knew that’s what I wanted to do.

MM: Fictional stories?

KA: In those days, yes. Most of them were modeled after what I was reading and my favorite storybook character at the time. In fourth grade I started with a series of girl detective novels similar to Nancy Drew. When I was in junior high, I read Gone with the Wind eight times in a row. I didn’t do it just because I just loved the book, although I did, I did it to intentionally teach myself.

The second time through, I read it specifically to learn about the characters. The next time I looked at plot and another at transitions. I didn’t intentionally set out to give myself a graduate course by deconstructing the writing process, but I do remember intuitively knowing that I was studying the craft of writing because I wanted to write good books.

MM: When did you discover the cathartic effects of journal keeping?

KA: By the time I got to junior high, I started to have emotional drama with hormones and puberty so that’s when it became a catharsis for me. I got a clear sense that I wanted to pour my heart out, have that emotional outlet and find emotional balance. I learned very quickly that I could soothe myself with my writing by telling myself my deepest secrets, concerns, and fears, and then give myself comfort.

MM: Where does the comfort come from?

KA: It’s about being the witness to ourselves and for ourselves. We can hold the larger context together by having a simultaneous perspective of being in the moment, being the wise self or observing ego, and knowing that you have the strength and resilience to get through it. It’s the concrete manifestation, the ink on paper or pixels on screen, which provides a tangible reality that we can relate and come back to.

MM: Seeing words on paper anchors us?

KA: I think so. It happens because we have the opportunity to organize our thinking into language, which is a higher function than the instinctual nature of feeling or thinking. To write it down and place it into form is a process that is both cognitive and emotional. I notice this often with my clients and students. One of the biggest healing components is the ability to see what I say. It’s like what E.M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

MM: Is there a spiritual component to this witnessing process?

KA: For me there is. A long time ago, I tapped into the enormous opportunity for my intuition and spiritual connection to find and have a voice through writing. That’s something I do intentionally, although sometimes I just let it happen and know it’s going to be there anyway. Even when I’m writing a to-do list, it’s a blessing and prayer because I work with intention and focus, and have gratitude.

That said, I don’t think it’s a necessity or prerequisite that one have a spiritual focus or intend a spiritual outcome in journal keeping. For those seeking an active spiritual life who are aligned with their own spiritual intentions, it can be like a turbo booster and help them move through challenge and difficulty in a much more accelerated, but organized and gentle, way.

MM: Can journaling can replace therapy?

KA: Probably, if it is done with therapeutic intention, awareness and discernment. There’s a big difference between writing and therapeutic writing. Sometimes that difference is articulated and sometimes it’s intuited. I’m a therapist who has specialized in writing as a form of healing and have done so for the entire 25 years that I’ve been practicing, so I don’t know what it’s like to not use writing as a primary tool.

MM: Are there dos and don’ts with journal writing?

KA: Yes and no. I think the biggest ‘do’ is to be real, be honest, and be yourself. The biggest ‘don’t’ is not to have any expectations that it look a certain way. On the other hand, there are popular methods that recommend writing at a certain time of day, for a certain amount of time, or a certain number of pages. Some people need structure and it works great for them but I get a lot of referrals from therapists with clients writing journals who are stuck. When they come to me, I ask how we can build a bridge between where they are and where they want to be. The often say, I read this book and followed this method and am getting more depressed. So I say, let’s try something else, let’s disabuse you of that idea and find the best way for you. That permission is really important.

On the therapeutic side, I teach a model that I developed while working with highly traumatized patients in a psychiatric hospital. It’s called the Journal Ladder. These patients loved to write but would re-traumatize themselves even with very specific intentions of healing through writing. They often found themselves just miserable, immersed in the traumatic memory in their body. When I suggested that we slow down, they said, don’t take away my journal, it’s my lifeline and what keeps me sane.

Now, the first therapeutic premise, as with all medicine, is to first do no harm. If it’s making you feel worse, that’s a signal to stop and take another look. So my task was to find a way to keep it safe. What I discovered almost without exception is that they were free writing in an unstructured, unbalanced, uncontained and unpaced way. There’s nothing wrong with that except for the fact that highly traumatized people usually didn’t know how or when to pace themselves and contain it.

So I started looking at the role of structure, pacing and containment in writing and offered them a simple contained sentence stem such as, ‘Right now I want,’ ‘Today I feel’ or ‘What I’m most afraid of is.’ I told them to finish the sentence, put a period at the end of it and just stop. Then if they wanted to write more, they could write for five more minutes, or another sentence. This structure gave them the freedom to take it in small pieces, which is very therapeutic.

MM: It’s interesting that free writing would take them deeper into the trauma instead of freeing them from it.

KA: Yes, It’s the nature of free writing to be free from all the rules. That’s why we call it free writing. That’s not a bad thing but we need to have other options. People think that therapeutic journal writing is about venting everything on the page all at once, just one big splat, and that’s going to be healing. But it isn’t. It can be, but not necessarily. When there are choices and permission to explore a lot of different ways to write, it becomes a much richer, more dimensional world.

MM: What do you say to people who think their lives are too boring to write about, or who fear becoming navel gazers?

KA: I think we each have a million stories within us. People who have “boring” outer lives very often have rich interior lives. They would discover this by exploring their imagination and the privacy of their own thoughts, asking ‘what if’ questions like what if my life were rich and fulfilling, what would I change or what would be different and better than it is today? We just need to give ourselves the choice to say it or explore it. As writing teachers we’re always hoping people find that place within that is authentic and real.

In terms of navel gazing, yes, writing will take us to an interior place where we ask deeper questions. If I am only mired in my own self-interest that does get boring and self-defeating fairly quickly. I often work with people who write the same thing over and over in a kind of circular loop. So I help them turn it into a spiral and move it up and out, to get some altitude, depth, and breadth into it. Ask how can it serve the world? What is its higher purpose? How can I use this self-awareness and become more generous about what I am discovering? That would be a good place to begin.

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