Become a Writer Today

Unlocking Creativity: How Journaling Can Transform Lives Behind Bars

April 03, 2023 Bryan Collins Season 2
Become a Writer Today
Unlocking Creativity: How Journaling Can Transform Lives Behind Bars
Show Notes Transcript

In this week's episode, I interview a creative writing instructor who works in a local county prison to instruct inmates on the practice of journaling. 

Tina Welling is a big believer in the therapeutic power of this practice. She's also a big believer in the link between creativity and nature. Those are two themes that she addresses in her recent books. I'm going to cover both in this week's podcast episode.

I was particularly fascinated to catch up with a writing instructor focusing on journaling because journaling is a fantastic practice for anybody, particularly for writers. 

  • It helps you get into the habit of writing regularly. 
  • You don't have to ask permission from anybody to journal. 
  • It enables you to express yourself through the written word.
  • And it will give you source material that you could use later on. 

Best of all, you can't get journaling wrong. After all, when you write an entry, usually — unless you decide to do something with it later — it's for you and you alone.

In this week's episode, Tina Welling explains how she teaches prison inmates how to journal. She also talks about the link between journaling and therapy.


Tina's website.

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Tina: For me, it's not a regular thing. I don't journal every day. I don't use it as something I must do. I use it to understand what's going on with me. So, if I have an issue, maybe with a relationship or just some concerns, I just pull out a journal that's handy. I look for a blank page, and I start writing.


Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan: Journaling is a fantastic form of writing practice. Hi there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today show. In this week's episode, I interview a creative writing instructor who works in a local county prison to instruct inmates on the practice of journaling. Tina Welling is a big believer in the therapeutic power of this practice. She's also a big believer in the link between creativity and nature. Those are two themes that she addresses in her recent books. I'm going to cover both in this week's podcast episode.

I was particularly fascinated to catch up with a writing instructor who focuses on journaling. Because I believe journaling is a fantastic practice for anybody, but particularly for writers. Think about it this way: it helps you get into the habit of writing daily or perhaps regularly. You don't have to ask permission from anybody to journal. Also, it helps you express yourself through the written word. But not only that, it will give you a source material that you can potentially use for your fiction or your nonfiction later on. Best of all, you can't get journaling wrong. After all, when you write an entry, usually — unless you decide to do something with it later — it's for you and for you alone.

Now, I've been keeping various forms of journals for years. I've used paperback notebooks, expensive Moleskine notebooks, copy books, and so on. A lot of them are stuffed in a cardboard box in the attic or loft in my house. These days, I use a dedicated journaling app which is called Day One. Day one is fantastic if you want to take journaling to the next level. Basically, when you open up the writing application, it presents me with today's date. It also shows me different entries on rows on the same date last year or five years ago. Using my phone, I can add rich media including photographs. It even provides writing prompts that can help me get started with journaling. So, if you want to use a digital tool, I recommend checking out that one. But as I said a few moments ago, you don't necessarily need to use any specific tools because you can't get journaling wrong. You can simply use a notebook.

If you're also interested in learning more about how professional writers use journaling, check out the Masterclass by David Sedaris. I took his masterclass some time ago. In the master class, which we talked about in this week's episode, David describes how he writes journal entries that are several 100 words in length each morning. He writes them up like scenes in a novel or in a work of fiction. They have character descriptions. They have dialogue. They have turning points, and even a little bit of a plot. Then sometimes he'll go back and read through his old journal entries, and decide what he can turn into essays or pieces for the radio and subsequently into a book.

In this week's episode, Tina Welling explains how she teaches prison inmates how to journal. She also talks about the link between journaling and therapy. I hope you enjoy this week's interview with Tina. If you do, consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store. Because your reviews and ratings will help more writers find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. You could also share this show with somebody else who you think will enjoy learning about the therapeutic benefits of journaling.


Bryan: My guest today is the writing instructor, Tina Welling, who is the author of Tuesdays in Jail and also Writing Wild. Welcome to the show, Tina.

Tina: Thank you for having me, Bryan.

Bryan: It's fun to talk to you. I understand you're a prolific journaler. One of your missions in life is to teach people how to use journaling as a type of therapeutic process — specifically, prison county jail inmates. But before we get into that, how did you get into writing? What's your background?

Tina: I just love to read so much, that finally I got to a place where I wanted to do what was so helpful to me — putting feelings, experiences, thoughts into language. There's something about pinning that down that lets you build your inner life.

Bryan: I would certainly agree. Were you writing fiction on the side of a job or a family for years?

Tina: Yes, I had two sons, and I owned a resort shop here in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was kind of interesting. Because in my free time, I'd be writing and really spending forever deciding where the commas should be and the periods should be. Then when I would be doing my ledgers at my business, there was no question at all on those ledgers for those periods though.

Bryan: You can't make that mistake with a spreadsheet.

Tina: Yes.

Bryan: Did you spend a lot of time writing short stories and novels before you move to nonfiction?

Tina: Yes, I wrote just about everything. I tried my hand at poetry, essays, short stories — always the short things before I ever tried to jump into something as enormous as writing a novel.

Bryan: When did you write your first book?

Tina: I'm not very good about years and ages. But I was a lot older than most people. My children were grown. My business had been on its track for a while. So, I could just indulge in doing that. But the sorry news is, when the other writers hear this, is that I got rejections for about 15 years. It's not really sorry news for me personally, because I realized I had a lot of growing to do, a lot of learning to do. And I just make good use of that time. But really, I was writing for about 15 years before I actually got published.

Bryan: When you described writing on the side of a business, what was your business? What were you working on?

Tina: It's a resort business. I live in a ski resort and a summer resort, Jackson Hole. My shop was a small shop in a ski resort that just supplied everything from aspirins to gold bracelets, to ski goggles.

Bryan: A big part of writing is capturing observations about daily life — people you meet, conversations you have, dialogue you might overhear. So, I could imagine if you're running a ski resort or a type of shop, it often made some very interesting characters and personalities that you may want to record in a type of journal or diary.

Tina: Exactly. When I was writing my first novel particularly, I remember just being this sponge. I always had index cards around, always paper on the counter somewhere, that I could just jot down stuff that I noticed — odd movements. People would make funny things that they would say. Yeah, I tried very hard to bring my writing life into my everyday work life.

Bryan: Your current book is called Tuesdays in Jail. Quite an unusual title. And it was only when I read a little bit into the book that I realized how you came up with the title. Would you be able to describe for the listeners what it's about?

Tina: Yes, the subtitle is What I Learned Teaching Journaling to Inmates. I started doing that, actually, about 11 years ago, thinking that I was bringing something to them when in fact, it was a full exchange. I was learning so much from the inmates. Together, we were kind of traveling through different topics like forgiveness, anger, and self-esteem, and all those issues that all of us — whether we're behind bars or not — are really dealing with.

Bryan: To write a book like that and also to teach that practice to prison county inmates, you must have had a pretty consistent journaling practice. So, what does it look like?

Tina: What does the journaling practice look like?

Bryan: Yes.

Tina: For me, it's not a regular thing. I don't journal every day. I don't use it as something I must do. I use it to understand what's going on with me. So, if I have an issue, maybe with a relationship or just some concerns, I just pull out a journal that's handy. I look for a blank page, and I start writing. So, even my journals aren't particularly consistent because they'll have different issues in there from different years. So, I write when I need to find language or understanding for what's going on with me.

Bryan: Yeah, I've been keeping various journals for years. I used to use paperback notebooks, Moleskine notebooks, copy books. Then I moved to digital tools. These days, I use a specific journaling app called Day One, which is quite good. It actually gives prompts on the day about something to write about. I can put photographs and media into the journal. Then all the dates are time stamped, or all the entries are time stamped. So, I find this quite helpful. It sounds like you have a large box or collection of all journals in your house, or your attic, or your loft.

Tina: Yes, well, I recently just moved just this past fall, so I had piles and piles of journals. When I suspected I would be having to make this change, I started rereading them and then discarding some of them. And it was just an interesting process to go through and find that there were various themes that kept repeating themselves at a different layer or a different level of understanding. But there were definite themes that just seem to go through our lives. I think that's something that we could all look for in our path journals, because it tells us a lot about ourselves.

Bryan: I've had mixed experiences reading back on old entries, some things I like to forget. It is helpful to read back on old entries and maybe find a problem that you struggled with, and then realize that you already know what the solution is or what the answer is.

Tina: And sometimes I found that I was still struggling with that problem but just in a different disguise.

Bryan: It never hurts me to actually teach somebody the practice of journaling. What made you, or how did you end up in the local county jail, working with inmates, and teaching them about the practice of journaling? I'd imagine it's not something many people do.

Tina: No. In fact, when the first idea occurred to me, I went online to see if this was something that was going on. It seems that in county jails where the turnover is more regular — for example, in my county jail, people are only there for as long as a year. If they're sentenced for longer than that, they're sent to prisons. In prisons, people are there for lengths of time, and there are programs. There are creative writing programs. But I never came across journaling program.

What got me started was, I was reading a lot of Joseph Campbell. He is the person that sort of alerted us to the idea of the hero's journey and the different stages of life, no matter where on the earth we live or during what time he found this particular pattern. The centerpiece of that pattern, he calls "the belly of the whale." It's a time in which everything is taken away from you. You don't know yourself as you had in past days. For example, you may become a new parent, or you may become a caretaker of your parents, or be placed in a new environment, a new job, a new city, a place where you just don't have history. You don't know yourself there. It occurred to me that what he was talking about was jail.

When you are put into jail, everything is taken away from you — your clothes, your friends, your connections, your jewelry, anything that identifies you as yourself. You are removed, of course, from your job, your family. And you're put in all alone or with complete strangers. So, you're really dumped into yourself, your inner life. Then I just put that together with the fact that I was going through some things that was making me journal rather regularly. I put the two things together. I was walking my dog and went past one of my neighbors that I knew worked with the sheriff's department. I said, "So, Gary, I'm thinking about journaling with the inmates. Is that something that sounds feasible to you?" He said, "I think that's a great idea." And they gave me connections and people to ask about that. Within a month, I was in jail doing that.

Bryan: Teaching the concept like journaling can be quite esoteric. How did the people you are working with or your students react when you describe the therapeutic benefits of journaling? Was it something they were open to?

Tina: Well, I had no idea. In fact, I didn't even know where the jail was located in my community. That's how strange I was from the whole idea. I never really knew anybody that had been in jail. So, I had no connection to them. I was pretty uneasy my first time. But the inmates were so open and welcome and happy to just have something different going on. So, that was really what brought them down. They could come down as a group. They weren't alone, and we could just start off talking a little bit.

I passed out notebooks and little yellow golf pencils that are about three inches high. That was what was allowed. I asked the first question. I had five of them that I brought. Then afterwards, the scary part for me was, I wanted to talk, and I didn't know if they would do this. So, I called on one man that I felt was just had a lot more confidence, a little bit older than the other guys, seemed to be something of a leader. I said, "So, what did you put for number three, Ferguson?" He told me. Somebody else raised their hand and said, "Can I go next?" I thought, okay. This is going to work. And so, it has ever since. I found out the inmates have lots to say. They want to talk. They want to talk about their inner life because they're in a place in which there's nowhere else to go. That's where the freedom is for all of us, actually.

Bryan: Often, when people write a journal entry for the first time, they recount what they did yesterday, almost like an exercise that you get in school. Was there specific prompts or instructions that you gave to help people go beyond simply recounting an event that happened recently?

Tina: Oh, yeah. I was not interested so much in the events that happened recently, because that was typically what brought them into their situation being incarcerated. What I wanted to do was guide us into the inner life, into our thoughts, our feelings, our worries. So, I would ask that question. List your worries. Write a little bit about the main one, that kind of thing. What we were talking about were things that formed them as people. Most all of them, in fact, every one that I've ever met — which run into the thousands now — had addiction problems.

Addiction is something that happens when you — it's a survival tactic, really. You can't deal with life you're numbing out. And so, these men — it was mostly men. Once in a while, women — were now sober, because they had to be. They were beginning to wake up to the memories and the painful things that happened in their lives. So, it was intended to be a help for them to move through those memories and concerns.

Bryan: Did you ask them to read out their journal entries at any point? Or did you say that they were something that they should keep to themselves, something as private?

Tina: I said, "You can always pass." But I always asked, "So, what did you put down for such and such a thing?" Everybody was very eager really to talk about it. The guys were good with each other. We would have crying sometimes, and they pat each other on the back. Because there was a certain core of issues that everyone was sharing. Typically, that was very difficult childhoods, people that were unloving and unkind to them. So, there were key places.

In the back of my book, I have about 15 different lessons, five questions, five prompts each, along with quotes that sort of mimic what I would do in a workshop. Because when COVID came along, I wasn't allowed to go into the jail, of course. I wanted the guys to still be able to do this kind of work, so I created this workbook. That's included in the back of Tuesdays in Jail. It's good for everyone who's interested in journaling.

Bryan: Could you describe some of the exercises or prompts that are in that workbook?

Tina: Well, sure. Let me just reach for my book and give you something here. Oftentimes, I would just start off with a quote from someone else, so that they would hear a voice that was on a perspective that was other than mine. I always had lots of quotes that I was keeping on index cards, just stacks of them. I found this self-esteem was a big issue. I would give them a quote. "Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love." Then the question or the prompt will be, "Imagine yourself as a small child. List what you love about the child that you were, and know that you hold all the sweetness, goodness and love ability of this child at your core." It was a way of reminding them of who they truly were within, within themselves, outside of all these actions and sorrows and crimes that they committed.

Bryan: Did your students at any point decide to take the journaling practice any further? Or was it something that they would just work on in the classroom when you were instructing or teaching?

Tina: Many of them would just come down with their notebooks filled, and I'd have to give them a new notebook. That was just such a thrill for me to realize that they had taken this on, and we're really using it as a tool for self-knowledge and self-understanding.

Bryan: Yeah, journaling is fantastic for self-knowledge and understanding. It's something that anybody can do. Sometimes I think that maybe a journal entry should be for the writer and the writer alone, unless somebody wants to develop a writing practice. In which case, it can get you to learn how to express yourself through the written word, perhaps without self-censorship. Then you can turn that into something that you're happy to submit or publish depending, of course, on what you want. It's a great creative practice. Another creative practice that's quite useful is spending time in nature, which is another theme that's permeated throughout your work. You have actually written a book on the topic.

Tina: Yes, I have. Writing Wild. The idea that nature is the macrocosm of creativity or creative energy, and we are the microcosm. There are many things that we can learn about the natural world that helps us understand our own creative energy. I use, for example, a tree. Typically, trees will have a root system of the size and depth that matches the height and the width of their branches. And so, they can maintain themselves in serious storms. Those trees that don't grow root systems will topple when hard things come along. That's true of people as well. And so, those kinds of things I found over and over, they just helped me understand and feel some confidence in my creative energy.

Bryan: Do you spend a lot of time outdoors before you write, or is it something you do after you've worked for the day or finished writing for the day?

Tina: Well, that varies, of course. But I live in such a beautiful place. In my county, 95% of the land here is a national forest or national park. Only 5% of it is the town. And so, there's just wild lands everywhere and wild animals. I spend a lot of time outside. But I eventually tried to get a little firm schedule going on, so that I would get up in the morning and write first, and then spend time outdoors.

Bryan: I'm a big fan of the author David Sedaris. He's an American humorist. He lives in the United Kingdom. He is a prolific journaler. I took a course by him, where he describes how we write lengthy journal entries each morning. There'll be several pages in length, almost written up like a scene in a novel or a short story. He'll put in character descriptions, dialogue, and then write it up as if it's something in a book. Then he'll spend his afternoons out in nature. He spends his afternoons — I don't think it's quite as nice where you are — picking up trash in his local town. They have even given him an award for it. When he was asked about it, he describes how spending time outside, walking in fresh air helps him think through some of the pieces that he's writing and some of his journal entries, which he subsequently then turns into essays, performs on a radio, and then turns into a collection of books.

Tina: Yeah, I like his work. I love that idea of going out and collecting trash. That is just so lovely.

Bryan: If somebody is interested in getting started journaling, what tips would you offer for them? Should they just get one of those sharp pencils that you described and a notebook and start from there? Or is there something else they should do?

Tina: For somebody who starts, I think whatever is comfortable with you, that's the thing to do. You do this online. When I'm talking to people about beginning, I suggest that they do it with their whole body. When you're using pen, paper, you are fully engaged — mind, body, spirit, the whole thing. I rather trust that.

A part of my book, Writing Wild, is based around a three-step series of using the natural world to incorporate access to your creative energy. Then, of course, a computer doesn't work at all. I suggest taking paper and pen outside and writing a list of everything that your five senses bring you. Whatever it is that you see, smell, hear and touch something, even maybe taste the blade of grass. Then take one thing and write about it in great detail. In my book Writing Wild, I use, for example, a pine cone. Then spend some time just writing about that. Again, take it through your five senses, and have this intimate relationship with this one thing.

The third thing that automatically happens is that we've tapped into our inner life — our memories, our experiences, our feelings and thoughts — and then you just free write. It's amazing, the things that come up. It's very revealing. It's very satisfying, and it gives you this wonderful sense of intimacy with the natural world and with yourself.

Bryan: What you're describing is very similar to what Natalie Goldberg advocates in her book Writing Down the Bones, a freewriting practice whereby you write whatever's on your mind. So, it could be something in front of you like a pine cone or a cup of coffee. You almost use that as a type of prompt or a jumping off point into a type of exploratory writing. She normally recommends doing this first thing in the morning before moving on with your day. It's kind of similar to the early Morning Pages that Julia Cameron describes in her book as well. When you follow those types of practices, you can end up with pages and pages of creative work. What do you do with the end results?

Tina: Well, sometimes it comes into the project that I'm working on and may hope to publish, or I'm beginning to see as something that has continuity to it. Then other times, it's just for me alone. So, I let it be.

Bryan: So, it's all source material. Sometimes I'll find I'll write something, and I won't know what it's for. But then, I might be working on a different project a few weeks or even a few months later, and then I could go back and look at that someone's source material. I might be able to use parts from it, or even the idea. You've written novels and two nonfiction books. Do you plan to go back to write fiction next, or do you have something else that you're working on?

Tina: Well, Tuesdays in Jail just came out. And so, I'm still kind of involved with that. I don't see myself going back to writing novels or fiction. Possibly, short fiction. But I'm just engaged in understanding life, in meeting reality, and just reading a lot of wisdom teachings. And so, that keeps me in the here and now. That's sort of where I want to be.

I don't see myself getting involved in a novel. Because it is so encompassing that you're looking through the world through these eyes of a fictional character that can reveal things to you, that maybe wouldn't occur to you otherwise. But still, there's something of a gauzy curtain between you and reality. Because even going to a restaurant, looking at a menu, I may look at it in terms of, "What would he order? What would she order? Then what will I order?" Right now, I just need to be a little closer to reality. So, I am very much in love with writing nonfiction.

Bryan: When you're writing nonfiction, do you purposely think of a topic, or do you go to your old journal entries and then decide this could become something more? It could become an essay or even a book.

Tina: I don't feel like I decide anything in particular. That would be such a mental activity. Instead, it's more of a magnetism that I'm drawn to some subjects, I'm drawn to some idea that I want to explore. Then I explore it through my writing. My recent book Tuesdays in Jail, I went every single Tuesday night for seven years before I ever began to actually write the book, which then took me three.

Bryan: Wow. That's quite a lot of research.

Tina: Yeah, well, I wasn't researching. I was living my life. Actually, Writing Wild was out while that was happening. I was just living my life. Then it got to the place where so much was happening within me, and things that I was learning and putting together the way the journaling workshops with the inmates was working with my own private life, that I had this urge to make those two things together and write about it. But it took that long time. I never went into doing this with the idea that I would ever write about it, obviously, since I did that every Tuesday night for seven years. But then, there just came this time in which I needed to do that. Because I wanted the world to understand that the inmates and prisoners who have been shunned from our communities and society all over the world are just like us. They have just the same issues and struggles and sadness and loves. I wanted to make them more understandable, I guess.

Bryan: If listeners want to read your book, Tina, where should they go?

Tina: You can find it on Amazon. The independent bookstores in my country have it. Barnes and Noble carry it. But Amazon, I understand, is worldwide. It's available there.

Bryan: I'll be sure to include some links in the show notes. But it was very nice to talk to you about your writing practice and also your latest book.

Tina: Oh, it's wonderful to talk to you, Bryan.


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