Keywords: The Madeleines of Journal Writing

Before starting this post, I went into the closet in my office in search of three plastic sandwich bags full of folded slips of different colored paper with words typed on them. I’ve used those bags (and words) in my own creative writing exercises as well as in writing workshops. I found one bag full of lime green nouns, one bag full of fuchsia verbs, and one bag full of teal adjectives. I opened the teal bag without recalling what kind of words were inside and pulled out new. New is good—and so apt for the beginning of a post!

I’ve been playing around with individual words and phrases for decades. My Stance Keyword Comparison Checklist was an outgrowth of a long-term fascination with arranging and grouping words that seem to evoke a concept or a mood or an attitude or a way of being. Sometimes it’s easier to gauge your reaction to a list of keywords than it is to read through narrative descriptions. A single word can send you off on a journey, much like the madeleine that sent Marcel Proust off in Remembrance of Things Past.

When I was a substance abuse counselor, I used a two-page handout called “How Do You Feel Today?” It consisted of 140 words that described feeling states, each one illustrated by what was essentially an emoticon (although I’m pretty sure the handout pre-dated emoticons). It wasn’t in color, but it looked a little like this example (without the misspelling).

Then I came across a laminated poster based on the same concept, but with far fewer than 140 feeling words and emoticons. It was standard practice at the beginning of group sessions at the clinic for everyone to take turns checking in to let the group know how they were doing and what had transpired since the previous week. I wondered what would happen if we switched to using the feeling words poster in place of the usual check-in. So one day I stuck the poster on a wall and asked everyone to take a long look at it before sitting down so they could find the word that best represented how they were feeling or the state they were in at that moment.

The results were amazing and quite profound. Check-in took a fraction of the time. No one felt compelled to elaborate. And we all agreed we had a much better sense of what was going on with each person than we’d had with the standard check-ins. My take was that having to come up with a single word caused them to really focus and get in touch with how they were doing on a deeper level. It helped them make a transition so they could be fully present at the start of the session. It seemed that previously it had taken the entire check-in period before everyone was “present.” So, by unanimous agreement, we stuck with the feeling words check-in from then on.

Keyword Journaling Exercises

Keywords can be incorporated into a number of different journal writing exercises and techniques. A few suggestions:

  • Use a single keyword or a string of keywords as a prompt for timed flow writing.
  • Mind-map a keyword (as an option, when your mind-map is complete, finish with a period of timed flow writing).
  • Make a grab bag like my plastic sandwich bags by cutting out slips of paper and writing keywords on them. Pull one out at random to use as a writing prompt.
  • Create a sentence or a question around a keyword to use as a writing prompt.

Enneagram Keywords

You could make a list of keywords (positive, negative, and neutral) that describe your type and then experiment with using them in one or two of the exercises.

Or you could click on these lists of expanded keywords for the Aggressive, Withdrawing, andCompliant stances. Since you can print the pages, you could easily cut out the words and turn them into slips of paper for a grab bag.

One of the great things about keywords is although they’re small, they pack a lot of punch.


6 responses to “Keywords: The Madeleines of Journal Writing

  1. Joycelyn,
    It is amazing the power of a word as we intuitively delve in to dissect it when it gets our attention. That’s one of the great benefits of journaling: you can use one word and write deeply into a new place you’ve never been before. So combining the two tools, journaling and key words, carries a strong symbolism to who we are and where we are right now.

    I have chosen your post, Key Words: The Madeleines of Journal Writing, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 9/10/12 for all things journaling on Twitter;
    I will post a link on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, my blog and website Refresh with Dawn Herring, and in Refresh Journal, my weekly e-journal:

    #JournalChat Live is every Thursday, 5 EST/2 PST, for all things journaling on Twitter; our topic this week is Your Journaling: For the Wiser.

    Thanks again for sharing the power points of Key words in journaling.

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    Host of #JournalChat Live and Links Edition on Twitter
    Author of The Birthday Wall: Create a Collage to Celebrate Your Child

  2. Dawn, thank you so much for your comments and for sharing this post! Yes, I agree keywords are incredibly powerful. One keyword is really all you need as a prompt for journaling. I will definitely check out your e-journal. It looks like you’re doing some really good and thoughtful work.

  3. Joycelyn,
    I wasn’t able to access an email for you, so I shall inform you here that your post, Key Words: The Madeleines of Journal Writing, has been chosen for #JournalChat Pick of the Week! That essentially means that your post will be the journaling resource for next week’s #JournalChat Live which will take place on 9/20/12 at 5 EST/2 PST for all things journaling on Twitter. Our topic will be Your Journaling: Word Power as we discuss the power of paying attention to words we are drawn to and discerning what wisdom they have for us in our journals. Folks sometimes pick a word or a few to focus on each year to keep themselves going in the right direction. I think our journals are the perfect place to explore what these words mean for us right now.

    You’re welcome to join us for next week’s #JournalChat Live if you are able; please let me know if you plan to attend (my email: so I can inform folks when I announce the topic next week on the social networks.

    The topic for the chat will not be announced until Monday.

    Thanks again for sharing the power of words and where they can take us in our journaling practice.

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    Host of #JournalChat Live and Links Edition for all things journaling on Twitter

  4. Pingback: Journal as Path | Nine Paths

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