Steve Sundberg

hand with pen writing in journal

“Genius is not a possession of the limited few, but exists in some degree in everyone. Where there is natural growth, a full and free play of faculties, genius will manifest itself.” ~ Robert Henri

I look for wisdom and insight wherever I can find it. Sometimes it comes from odd sources, when I least expect it. It is one of the skills I remind the people I teach journal writing to. That they possess remarkable observation skills and can find their own wisdom by paying attention and seeing what strikes them as useful.

The other day it happened to me while standing in the check-out line at the supermarket. I picked up a magazine that featured 100 of The Great Geniuses and flipped it open. I learned that in Shakespeare’s time genius was considered differently than it is today. It was simply “being who you are”.

The goal of mental-health treatment in substance-abuse programs is to teach people new skills, new ways of thinking and being, and ultimately to help people master themselves in the best ways that they can. It is a lot to teach in a short amount of time.

As a counselor in such programs and a novelist who learned to write by scribbling in journals, I was glad to see many patients carrying a notebook. When I asked them if they were journaling, many responded that they had been advised by their therapist to write their life story. I thought to myself, “What an overwhelming assignment!” I know the value of using a journal to express oneself and to explore feelings and ideas, but these people were telling me that they did not know where to begin. That was when I started teaching journal writing.

I am happy that I did. Two years later, after teaching many groups, listening to hundreds of people’s feedback and seeing the light of discovery in the eyes of these new scribblers, I recently published Sober Diaries. It is a journal with themes and prompts to help people tell that larger-than-life ‘life story’, with some blank pages to write in. The exercises chosen for the book come from the patients themselves, based on the responses to which ones were most helpful.

My goal was to help people discover the power of journal writing, to help them break down their experiences and feelings, to inspire each writer to learn who they are and how their behavior is something they can choose.

I have worked in the mental-health field for over twenty-five years (scribbling in hundreds of journals along the way), and during that time I became familiar with the struggles of people to manage themselves in this world. In the journal writing workshops, I encourage people to become strong and wise leaders of their own lives, to make smart decisions based on what they need at the time, to listen to the suggestions of those who have passed through the fire, and ultimately to be fully engaged in their recovery so that it will work for them. The endgame goal: to be a free man or woman, to be wise decision-makers. The existentialist philosophers asserted that human beings were ‘deciding beings’ and that the free individual is one who takes full responsibility for making those decisions. What we choose to do among the options in front of us seems to me the only real control we possess.

“The sketch hunter moves through life as he finds it, not passing negligently the things he loves, but stopping to know them, and to note them down in the shorthand of his sketchbook.” ~ Robert Henri

For some beginners to journal writing, I noticed a darkness cross their faces at the prospect of writing. I took them aside and said, “Listen, there’s no right or wrong here, no spelling check, no grammar rules to follow, no turning in your pages for someone to evaluate. Just write like you’d talk to someone you trust.” Once they were given full permission to have their feelings, knowing that it was private and in their own notebook, they started scribbling. The lights of enthusiasm flickered back on. People who never wrote before were bent over their notebooks, concentrating on their stories, as they moved toward figuring out what their experiences were telling them. And when they did find that their own experiences held knowledge for them to act from, it was clear on their faces. Some were eager to read it to the group and others took what they wrote to their therapist to work on the issue in more depth.

Writing in a journal is the practice field. The idea is to get under all the shams and the lies, and write what is true. Finding the words to name the true feelings, the real thoughts, is a non-judgment practice. One just keeps the writing hand moving with the intention of getting it all out.

There is power in one’s own voice and the ability to use that voice. There is no other authority that knows your story as well as you do, or knows exactly how you feel. Use that authority. Tell your own story. When there is nobody nearby or answering the phone, you always have your notebook. Write it down. Be who you are.

“It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.” ~ Joan Didion

Steve Sundberg has worked as a mental-health counselor with children, teenagers and adults, and as a street outreach worker to the homeless people living on the streets of Boston. He is the author of Sober Diaries: A Guided Journaling Experience on the Path of Recovery (www.soberdiaries. com) and the novel, Street Logic ( He teaches journal writing in South Florida.