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Guided journaling can help you unearth deep feelings and move toward real healing

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The ability to identify and reflect upon your thoughts and feelings is probably not the most essential skill a heavy equipment operator needs to cultivate. But Bryan Fontaine, who is training to become one, can see the benefit.

"You're going to be operating machines where you can crush a man, and if you go to work angry, it's not a good thing," the 39-year-old Winnipegger says during a smoke break outside the United Food & Commercial Workers building, where he's taking a work readiness workshop.

Better to vent in your journal, Fontaine has found. "It's just you. There's no judgment there."

Dave Draper, 48, agrees. Putting his thoughts down on paper, he says, "helps me look back on my day and see how I can improve things the next day."

When they're done their cigarettes, the men will go back inside and continue working in their PaperFriend Workbook guided journals. Today's theme is exploring beliefs and attitudes around work, and how they can make or break a job situation.

The four-day workshop in which Fontaine, Draper and 14 other men are participants is part of a five-week, government-sponsored training program that's preparing them to work in the heavy construction industry.

The workshop facilitator is Leona Daniels, creator and co-owner of Pen to Paper Journaling, a series of guided journals that take the time-honoured medium for introspection, self-reflection and stress relief in new and deeper directions.

More than fancy notebooks with blank pages for purging emotional and mental clutter, her PaperFriend journals have themes -- 17 to date, on everything from addiction to adoption to finding your original purpose -- and use one-line "writing feeds," or prompts, usually in the form of a question, to gently kick-start the process.

To say that Daniels, 44, can attest to the therapeutic value of putting pen to paper would be an understatement. "I credit journaling for where I am right now -- 15 years clean and sober," says the divorced mother of three and former policy analyst, who has a master's degree in social work. She likes to bring a plastic bin full of her own journals to her workshops -- just a sampling of the collection she has amassed while working out all the "crud" in her life during the past 31 years.

The B.C. native, who grew up in Calgary, was adopted at 19 months of age by a South African family that already had three biological children. Her strict Christian fundamentalist parents (her dad is black, her mom is mixed race) didn't tell her she was adopted until she was five. On the advice of a social worker, they also failed to tell her she was aboriginal until she was 18.


"When you have a kid who looks native going to a non-native school, who doesn't know where she's from or even where she was born, she's going to be pretty messed up," says Daniels, whose biological family is from the Ktunaxa First Nation.

The racism and bullying at school only made her feel more worthless and unlovable, she says, and she started drinking to dull the pain.

Fortunately, she also discovered Harriet the Spy.

The eponymous heroine of the children's novel, an 11-year-old aspiring writer who always carries a notebook to record her observations and thoughts, started her on a journey of self-exploration and healing, Daniels says.

But it would take a while. Married at 17, she had her first baby at 19, then two more at ages 20 and 21. By the time she was 24, Daniels had left her husband and kids and was again abusing alcohol.

Alcoholic Anonymous didn't work for her, she says, but counselling forced her to confront some tough questions -- which she tackled in the pages of her trusted journals.

"Once I realized I could answer these questions in a safe place, I realized could be honest with myself," she says. "And then I could start putting my truth onto those pages. At that point, I started freeing myself."

Those key questions became the prompts in her first PaperFriend journal, Journaling Through Addictions. Other titles that followed were also inspired by personal experience.

Daniels, whose children were raised by her ex-husband, did meet her birth mother. In fact, she interviewed the woman, along with a biological aunt, for her master's thesis on adoption. That process inspired another journal title: Journaling Through the Experience of Knowing You Were Conceived Through Rape. Daniels also met her biological father, who was living on the streets of Vancouver.

She moved to Winnipeg in 2005 to be close to her kids, and to start a job as a policy analyst with the provincial government.

Last year, Daniels journaled her way to the realization that she wanted to do something more meaningful with her life, something she knew well and was passionate about. She co-owns with Pen to Paper with Leah Morgan, an outreach worker for aboriginal communities across Canada. The pair offer workshop, retreats and coaching for individuals and groups.

Now Daniels, who still puts pen to paper at least every second day, has a new vision: "pen jams."

Think musical jam sessions, but with inner harmony as the goal.

"I want to travel from community to community in a comfortable RV and introduce people to journaling," says Daniels. "Imagine 20 adoptees with pens and notebooks, all coming together to work on the same topic.

"As we're working, we're debriefing each other. And as we're debriefing, we're teaching each other and learning from each other. By the end of the day, people could be living their life in a new way."

To learn more, go to

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2012 D1

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