Do you journal?
Many creatives do, particularly creative writers. Several best-selling books on breaking through writer’s block and unlocking your muse advise daily writings in a personal journal. The process, we’re told, clears mental cobwebs, sparks ideas, and empowers the writer to overcome the fear of the blank page. Talk to any evangelist for The Artist’s Way and they’ll insist it works.
I am an abject failure at journaling. Yet I have overcome creative blocks time and again. As I’ve reflected on how I’ve managed to do that without journaling, I’ve come to wonder something else.
Is journaling really a cause that leads to an effect? Or is it instead an indication of a certain personality type, the spontaneous creative?
Back in September I hosted an interesting conversation here at The Artist’s Road about this notion of two types of creatives: those who plan out a path before commencing with creating, and those who prefer to go in blind and follow their muse. In my rant I decried this type of categorization–arguing truly successful creatives channel a bit of both–but confessed I am more of a planning type.
I believe that is why I am incapable of journaling. I want to plan out my journal entry before writing it, which kind of defeats the entire purpose. (A confession: This morning while showering I outlined and wrote this blog post in my head, and now am serving more as a taker of dictation from my inner writer. I even decided I would include this aside at this point in the post. I’m feeling very meta right now.)
I approach creative writing with a background not as a journaler, but a journalist. The best way to meet a daily deadline as a journalist is to plot out your story in advance. But you also need to be a good listener, to know when the story you planned to write takes an odd turn. That is my creative process for writing: outline my approach, start writing with relative ease because I’ve already mapped out a path, but stay attuned to the possibility of going off that grid.
I love The Artist’s Way; the title of this blog is an homage to the book. But when I first read it in the early 1990s it frustrated me, largely because I simply couldn’t connect with the exercises, in particular the journaling. When I started down this new path to an art-committed life late last year, I dug out my old copy–it’s telling I had held on to it all these years–and read it again. I completely skipped the exercises. What I needed from Ms. Cameron was not pedagogy, but inspiration. I found what I needed.
If you journal, and you feel it improves your creative flow, I am very happy for you. If you don’t journal, or have struggled with it, perhaps you should go easy on yourself. You’re not alone.
What is your experience with journaling? Do you think journaling is a tool for everyone, or is it rather a device that serves the types of creatives who choose to do it but isn’t a universal fit? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
39 thoughts on “Is Journaling a Cure for Creative Blocks?”
I’ve never been a big journaler. I was in high school, but that was more about the crushes on boys and who looked at me a certain way. 🙂 I’ve found as an adult, I struggle with the journaling as well. Perhaps it’s because I, too, am a journalist. And like you said, I tend to map out a story or blog post before I write it. However, I also find that I have spontaneous spurts of creativity, and I don’t want to lose those ideas. Therefore, I found a compromise:
I carry a small notebook with me in my purse, and I jot down ideas, images, and such as they come. Then, I later store these musings in my “idea box,” on my desk at home. When I’m suffering writer’s block, I merely open my idea box, and … tada!
Great post, Patrick.
Would you write your first name and the boy’s last name over and over? 🙂
I really need to start carrying a notebook with me and storing the musings. I was just reading Joan Didion’s the Year of Magical Thinking, and she talks about how both she does that, and her late husband John Dunne did it as well. You’re in good company!
Wow! It’s kind of unbelievable that you wrote about this topic today because I am in the middle of The Artist’s Way myself right now (Week 5) after two failed previous attempts. I’ve been blogging about the experience as I go, but I will say the journaling aspect has been transformative for me. I always wanted to journal and use to love to when I was younger, but somewhere along the way I stopped. Probably because I am such a fast typist – LOL! But I will say there is something visceral and magical about pen on paper for me.
In the beginning it felt like I was just whining, blathering and complaining. But as I’ve gotten further along I’ve found myself getting ideas, seeds of inspiration, whispers of answers to problems in my life. I often find that these come on the third of the 3 assigned pages.
To that end, I think part of creating is letting yourself go deep inside. Getting explicit conscious thought out of the way so something more fundamental and universal can come forward. That is what the pages seem to be helping me with.
HOWEVER, I don’t think that pages will or would or should work for everyone. Some people meditate, ruminate (in the shower!), create through action. Beating ourselves up over creative techniques that don’t work for us certainly isn’t going to do any good.
Hi Julie, so great to have you visit! I’ve read some of your recent posts on your Artist’s Way journey and have valued your insight and honesty. I also like this:
“I think part of creating is letting yourself go deep inside. Getting explicit conscious thought out of the way so something more fundamental and universal can come forward.”
It seems that’s a good model for how those on the path of enlightenment view life. It’s finding that quiet center, right? Whether through meditation, solitude, involvement in a cause, etc. Getting past the “self” and into the inner self. Perhaps the best writing strikes us as so honest and true because it comes from that inner self.
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I’m an off and on journaler and have been for years. I have four huge (and when I say huge, I mean huge) tubs of my old journals stashed in various closets. I wrote morning pages for years and find them transformative, but these days I usually get up and go to work on my fiction first thing. I like your distinction of the two kinds of creatives, and as usual with me, I fall somewhere in the middle. I tend to lay out posts and chapters and articles ahead of time, too, probably because I also come from a journalistic background. But when I let myself rip in my journals or through free writing that all kinds of good new stuff pops up.
That’s an impressive collection, Charlotte! It’s interesting to note that you still cherish journaling, but have moved on from morning pages and now focus more on your creative writing, like Cynthia does below.
I agree, Charlotte -wow, that’s quite the collection. I lost all my possessions -including all my childhood journals/writing/books etc – in a fire in my late 20s. I probably would have had at least a few tubs by now.
Patrick, excellent post. I’ve established the daily habit of the ‘Morning Pages’ over the past few months versus haphazard journaling here and there (I still jot down snippets of ideas and notes throughout the day). Getting rid of the superficial preoccupations and writing them out of my head, out of the way really does lead to other great insights that I normally wouldn’t be paying attention to/aware of.
Carole Jane, weirdly enough, when our house burned about 20 years ago, we lost nearly everything on the second floor, but the fire stopped just short of my journals. The fire restoration people took them out and cleaned every page of them–so now I feel somewhat beholden to hang onto them!
I’m so glad you wrote about this, because I’ve never been much good at journaling and have always felt a bit guilty about it. I mean what kind of writer doesn’t have a journal?! Ha ha. Glad to know I’m not alone.
You make a great point. There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of styles. Finding what works for you is half the battle. I tend to be like Shari said in her comment here — a note jotter. I like her idea of having a little box on the desk for the ideas. Right now mine are scattered here and there in various files and piles.
In your case, a talented author is the kind of writer who doesn’t journal! And yes, Shari’s on to something there with her idea box.
I used to journal, as a kid. I’m sure it’s what gave me the idea it might be nice to be a writer. I enjoyed it. But I don’t have time to journal now; any time spent writing now that is not on my WIP just seems like a waste, for me. There’re just so many hours in the day, and so much writing gas in the tank.
Some writers in the past have been big journal writers and letter writers. But even for those whose fiction I love, I never find their letters or journals as interesting as their stories. They’re too personal, possibly.
I do understand the Ms. Cameron’s advice to journal to get over writer’s block. Any words put down on paper can lead to a story. You can’t get water without turning on the tap first.
I never get writer’s block, luckily. But I do feel sort of inspirationally dry sometimes. Meditation helps. And so does getting out and doing something else…if I’ve been inside tapping away too long. Or watching a good movie. Or taking a long nap.
I’m 100% in agreement with you on the shower writing, Patrick. The shower is story idea nirvana. I’m not sure why that is.
“There’re just so many hours in the day, and so much writing gas in the tank.”
This is a great insight, Cynthia. I have found that as I grow older I am perhaps more efficient with my writing due to experience, but it’s a good thing because my creative juices do not seem unlimited; I can hit empty more than I’d like to admit.
I think this also comes from journalism, although I did it as a college student, repurposing papers for various classes. If I write something down, I want to DO SOMETHING with it; perhaps a resistance I have to journaling is the idea that it’s just supposed to be put away in a tub, like Charlotte’s journals above. Why write it if I can’t publish it?
Getting over creative blocks is pretty much all I use journaling for. I used to journal, but I had a bad experience as a teenager when my journal feel into the wrong hands and I have never felt safe pouring myself onto paper regularly since. So, journaling is usually a surface endeavour for me unless I have a specific creative block that I am trying to work around or through.
Then, I find that a session or two of free-writing will often get me to the other side where I can work creatively again.
Oh dear, Kate; that’s a shame you had an experience that has colored your experience with journaling; I suspect a lot of teenagers share an experience like that. But your free-writing sessions, I believe, are exactly what I was trying to get at here with this post, the notion of just sitting down and WRITING without fear or planning. That’s great it can work for you.
I have an Online Journal at http://peta-de-aztlan.blogspot.com/ ~and have come to the understanding that it is important for me to work on better understanding myself than to be understood by others, especially those who I do not really know. For me, the key is to be open and to open up without hang-ups about sharing. @Peta_de_Aztlan on Twitter
Thank you for sharing, Peta, that is the secret to writing, yes? Glad to have you stop by.
I am so glad (sorta) that I inspired this this post. I should really admit that it was more like my rant against the Artist’s Way that was the inspiration.
I can’t even recall how many times I have started then subsequently stopped the Artist’s Way because of those darn morning pages. I tried them in the morning then switched to the evening and when that wasn’t working, I attempted visual journaling but nothing.
Not too long ago, I explained this to someone as well as my distaste of the entire book, because I felt it too remedial. She replied with what was a major aha for me. She said that maybe I was just beyond all of it. That was it.
Most of the people I know who love it and swear by it are people who were also very new to creativity when they read it. It all made sense and I could now understand it’s relevancy to all those devotees.
Hi Melanie! Yes, our Twitter exchange about The Artist’s Way did help seed this post in my mind. Whatever you want to say about Ms. Cameron’s book, the mere fact that she sparks conversation 20+ years after the publication of her book says a lot about its impact on people and their creativity.
Perhaps it’s all the critical reading I’m having to do now of literature in my MFA program, but I’m getting really good at extracting what I like or need from authors and not worrying too much about what doesn’t work for me!
I journal avidly. I have been doing it on and off since I was in kindergarten, but in my middle school years it really took off because of an amazing, encouraging English teacher (Thank you Dr. Fuller!). I can’t imagine my life without it; I must have dozens of journals by now. I also keep a sketchbook. What is interesting is I can completely let go in my journal, but my planning nature makes me very judgmental of what is placed in my sketchbook. I never judge myself, ever, in my journal. I never worry about what I’m writing. But I have a lot of fear, or maybe unease, when it comes to working in my sketchbook!
This is fascinating, Carrie. I’m glad you commented; I framed the post at the beginning as targeted to all creatives, but the post itself really was about writing, and you’re an accomplished visual artist who also writes.
I think I understand your judgmental approach to your sketchbook; perhaps it’s because, once it’s down on the page like that, it is almost a “finished” work in some way, in a way that no one thinks of their morning pages as “finished.” My daughter tells me she hates to go back and look at old sketchbooks because she cringes at how primitive the work is; I tell her she should celebrate how far she’s progressed.
Like some of the other commentators I find journaling to be both useful and a trap. Freewriting, morning pages, etc. – they are all ways to loosen up our thoughts and get some things out on paper that might normally inhibit or suppress. Journalling allows you to ignore “the rules” and just write what’s on your mind.
On the other hand, I find that I can become too comfortable with journalling. I’m not really getting any better at writing when I journal: I’m just allowing some thoughts to escape. That provides some pressure – or is it release? But it’s very easy for me to just keep doing that and not working on longer, more structured pieces that other people might enjoy reading.
Hi Mark, thanks for this comment. I find it very interesting what you say about how you don’t see your writing improve when you journal. As I reflect on that, I think about how the point of journaling is just going with the flow, yet growing as a writer requires microscopic examination of your own choices of structure, words, etc. I’ve often maintained that the secret to great writing is ruthless revision, but when would anyone ever revise a journal entry? Perhaps that’s another reason I resist journaling; I crave the revision process.
Yes, exactly – revision. You don’t revise journal entries because it’s contrary to the purpose of recording your immediate impressions or of recording long-held thoughts. I feel I need to embrace to revision and shaping process more. I’m seriously thinking of revising some old blog posts for that reason (and I do see a difference between the blog in question and a journal).
I journaled through my teenage and young adult years, and will sometimes do it again when I find my emotions charged up in any direction. I have never journaled specifically to spark creativity. I get my design and business ideas from dialogue with my creative partners, things I see, or they come partially formed from my unconscious and spring up at odd times, so I always try to have a notebook handy to be able to jot down the gist and to make sketches so I don’t forget the basic idea and important aspects before I have time to work on it. Making the ideas real takes more planning, and could require assembly of materials, making of prototypes or more detailed swatches and sketches, dedicated time, research, math, or all of the above.
Hi Andrea! I’m glad to hear from you, just as I was from Carrie (ArtistThink) above, creatives who aren’t primarily writers. This is useful insight.
I’m intrigued by your emphasis on planning and assembly. I’m not a knitter, but I could imagine the best output requires some thought during input! I’m reminded of Sabra Field, a printmaker I interviewed in Vermont on my road trip. She talked about how her ideas for prints bubbled up from her subconscious and she would try to capture them in sketches when they arose. But the printmaking itself was a meticulous, plotted-out process, a highly organized affair. She said printmaking was both art and craft, and your description of your artistic process sounds very similar.
Knit design (and execution of the designs) is similar to printmaking and other visual arts. I used to paint before I got into fiber arts. Because only some of my job is creative–the other part is sales–I find myself having to set aside time to work on designs, but I can’t control when the ideas come, so the notebook/sketchbook is invaluable to be able to get the idea down in some form if it comes during “non-creative” work time. Unlike ArtistThink, (so glad I know about her now–her blog and her work are great!) any idea that comes up gets written down and/or sketched, because I often don’t know if it is a good or successful idea until I am well into the sample-making, or if it is a business idea, I really don’t know if it will work until I flesh it out more and then try it! I also feel that even the “bad” ideas have some value. Maybe they lead me to the better ideas, maybe they are just not percolated enough yet, or maybe they will be entertaining in their ridiculousness. I put everything in the same notebook, which is also the same notebook in which I take down orders from customers, keep various to-do lists, packing lists, and lists of things I like (so that I can refocus of something positive when I need to,) and even more “journally” entries, other good and useful ideas that I borrow from others, and first drafts for marketing pieces for my business. It is kind of a real time look into my brain. Patrick, thanks for all of your work on this blog. Posts like this and people’s comments are so fun and really get me thinking!
I like the idea of everything going into one book, like a rich gumbo. That also means you’ll keep having reasons to open it, see what you’ve written, and see what sparks.
Thank you for the kind words! 🙂
I’ve been journaling since I graduated from college years ago. I’ve filled up several journals in that time and I really enjoy it. I use it more as a record of my daily thoughts, and have used it to work through “issues” I have in life. Sometimes that means the creative blocks, too.
I don’t force myself to journal – only do it when I feel the need. So sometimes I’ll go an entire week without journaling, other times I’ll journal every day.
It sounds like you’ve worked out a system that really works well for you, particularly as a way to work out “issues.” I’m happy for you!
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My definition of journal writing is very broad. Basically, writing qualifies as journal writing if you keep it in a certain place, your journal. It could be personal reflection, small bits that might later go into a larger piece of writing–to be revised and published later or not, a meandering freewrite, a lists, a plan or mind map, an emotionless recording of the days events, or whatever you want it to be. I do all those things but don’t use it as a tool specifically for writer’s block.
I allow all my initial drafts, in a journal or elsewhere, to be total pieces of crap. The only planning I do is in my head and perhaps a few brief notes in my journal just so the idea isn’t completely lost. The idea of making a detailed plan would completely take the wind out of my sails, so I guess I fall into the blind muse-follower category!
I just choose an idea, sit down and crank out whatever comes, with very little concern for quality or even structure. That’s for later. You might say that all writing for me begins as freewriting, so I don’t see my journal as the place that is reserved for that. But I’m not a journalist. 🙂
I guess really the only thing that distinguishes what I write in a journal from what I’d write as a regular Word document is how certain I am that someone else is going to read it soon. If it’s more for future reference, it goes in the journal (either a notebook or, recently, I’ve started using LifeJournal software). If I know I’m going to be spiffing it up right away for someone else to read, I’ll write it as a Word doc.
You’ve developed a system that works for you, and not surprisingly it involves being open to mining those words later for some other purpose. And I’m not sure you’re a complete blind muse follower. This blog post was crafted solely in my head (I have no waterproof paper or laptop in the shower with me!) but I viewed this post as being detailed beforehand. Ultimately it’s all semantics, though! 🙂
Oh, maybe you’re right. Those plans in my head are pretty detailed. Maybe the reason it would discourage me to put them on paper is because that would be a useless waste of time and feel like doing the job twice! Thanks for that insight. Very perceptive of you!
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Hi Patrick. I am really enjoying your blog. Being a VCFA alumnus, I am also jealous of you! I so loved the residencies. : )
I think the definition of journaling is so broad and subjective. I journal, but I call it my “bitch journal” and that’s all I use it for. Then I burn it. But, I keep a writer’s notebook for musings and for jotting down anything I think might help my writing. I wouldn’t call that a journal. But I have never sat down and journaled about being a writer (unless it is to gripe about NOT writing!).
Hi Nannette, I’m glad you like the blog and it’s great to connect with a VCFA alumnus!
I like your distinctions. Your notebook is not unlike what Joan Didion kept, I think, and I just learned Nabokov wrote on note cards. No, I wouldn’t call that a journal either.
Do you literally burn the bitch journal? That sounds slightly dangerous but very cleansing!
My recent foray into blogging has lead me to the point where I am feeling that a return to journalling will be useful to increase my writing speed. I have lost a lot since ceasing to journal daily. Throwing thoughts down for no other reason than the desire to write is freeing in many ways.
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