We were all mesmerized by Michelle Obama’s deep, honest reflections in her 2018 memoir Becoming — so much so that her 10-city tour, which sold out arenas with seating upward of 20,000 guests, was extended into this year. Fans were moved by Obama’s live telling of what she calls “the story of my humdrum plainness, my tiny victories, my lasting bruises, my ordinary hopes and worries. It’s the story of who I am, truly, and I’m proud of it — blemishes and all.” But each of her rock star events, which visited another 21 cities in the U.S., Canada and Europe, and included appearances by A-list celebs like Oprah, Rachael Ray and Robin Roberts, was anything but humdrum. The historic tour even had its own soundtrack: an epic, streamable playlist curated by Questlove called the Michelle Obama Musiaqualogy. Obama’s memoir, available in 24 languages, was the biggest selling book of last year, moving over 10 million copies.
But it wasn’t the hyping of the book that made all this possible. It was the storytelling at the heart of it. “I am proud of what I’ve created. I’m proud because it is candid. It’s honest. It’s totally and utterly me,” Obama shared in a video on her Instagram account before hitting the road. The author’s words gave us not only the story of her life from her Chicago girlhood to becoming our “forever first lady,” but intimate insight into her feelings along the way. She cites her journal, written when she was in her 20s, for helping her recall the feelings of being young, in love and on fire. “It was a tumultuous time filled with change, and I found that writing my thoughts down helped me navigate all the transitions,” she writes.
Now she’s offering us our own navigational tool with Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice. Released this month, the memoir’s companion volume includes 150 quotes and questions designed to help us uncover our own personal stories — plus plenty of blank pages.
Journaling’s mind-body benefits: Boost your calm, your mood and your immune function!
Keeping a diary isn’t just a navel-gazing exercise. Journaling can help you cope with stress, depression and anxiety, according to experts at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Writing down your feelings in a judgment-free zone can help you see the root of a problem and brainstorm solutions. Expressive writing can even boost the immune function of people with certain illnesses including asthma and arthritis, according to the American Psychological Association — if they use it to uncover, understand and learn from their emotions.
Part of the value is the writing itself, according to Mia Mitchell, an English instructor at Bennett College, a historically Black liberal arts college for women in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Mitchell teaches a class based on the “Transform Your Health: Write to Heal” workshop offered at Duke University’s Center for Integrative Medicine. Her students learn that there is no one right way to journal. She guides them through expressive writing, a style designed to help them release emotional upheaval. Transactional writing is for sharing feelings or ideas with loved ones. Affirmative writing helps the author see what’s good in her life and hopeful in her future.
The students in Mitchell’s class have all sorts of epiphanies in the process of writing about deeply emotional experiences. “Some have never felt comfortable speaking about things they’re writing about. They see how the journaling allows them to confront those things,” Mitchell says. Writing therapeutically allows them to uncork bottled up emotions, but also to pour them out in a safe, contained way.
Making sense of our lives, getting unstuck and celebrating growth
Kendra N. Bryant is an English professor at North Carolina A&T State University who specializes in contemplative writing. She says reading past journal entries helps us uncover impressions, analyze events and make some sense of our lives. It shows us patterns that keep us stuck but also highlights where we’ve grown.
“The writing holds you responsible,” Bryant says. “The first step is getting it out of you and getting it into the universe. But now that you’ve read it, what are you going to do?” A journal is a reminder of the promises you’ve made to yourself and a record of the progress you’ve made. That’s why many find that having a specialized journal devoted to exercise, money management, nutrition or other pursuits helps them further their goals.
If you’re ready to set out on your journal journey, Obama’s book includes prompts to inspire your writing and quotes for you to respond to. You can also use a notebook or a diary app to simply free write — allow thoughts and feelings to flow, uncensored and unstructured. Don’t worry about grammar and spelling, Mitchell says. “If you get bound by that, then that censor starts to set in.” Instead, just scribble for 10, 15, 20 minutes without even pausing to think.
You may uncover emotions you hadn’t consciously recognized: latent fears, hidden resentments, unspoken hurts. But you may also realize you’re actually accomplishing more than you think you are. Things aren’t as bad on the page as they sometimes seem in your mind.
Sometimes Mitchell has students write about their experiences from someone else’s point of view. Research shows that this technique creates a little distance that is especially helpful for people dealing with trauma. “The idea is to change your perspective,” Mitchell says.
“Writing [Becoming] has been so personally meaningful and illuminating for me,” Obama shared in an Instagram post ahead of the release of her memoir. “I hope youʼll also think about your own story, and trust that it will help you become whoever you aspire to be. Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”
As you begin to journal, you, too, can trust and own the process.