Journaling and the Discipline of Creativity

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Or, What Journaling Taught Me, and How You can Start

Photo by “lilartsy” on Unsplash.

This post was written by Justice Flint, a second-year master’s student in the English Department.

I am a semi-obsessive journaler. The habit began slowly, almost imperceptibly, in the nebulous fog of my early teen years, without a clear purpose or intent. At the time, I had no inkling that what I was doing would be of any academic benefit to me, and even the personal benefits seemed uncertain, beyond the fact that having thorough records enabled me to win family disagreements and solidify my own sense of memory. However, with the benefit of 11 years of hindsight, I can now see how journaling has profoundly impacted my ability to be a successful writer—in college, in grad school, and in life.

Looking at my written evidence, the practice seems to have grown out of my compulsion to make notes in a pocket calendar. By the time I was 15, I was in the habit of making daily entries in a leather-bound journal book (the classiest one I could find at Walmart). Once I began, I pressured myself not to stop. I knew writing “when I felt like it” would easily devolve into going weeks without writing and then despairing of starting an entry at all because I felt like too much preliminary contextual information would be necessary to explain any events. Slowly, I developed the discipline of forcing myself to write something—anything!—every. single. day. Even if that thing was just a sentence saying how I didn’t have anything to say, or that I was too tired to write. Driven by my innate perfectionism, I soon adopted the mental attitude of “chaining myself to my desk” (or my bed, where I preferred to write) every day until I had something on the page. A surprising number of times when I thought I had nothing to say, I’d look up from my journal an hour later and find I’d filled a whole page. These unexpected outpourings of thought weren’t necessarily worthwhile reading later, but they offered catharsis in the moment, and demonstrated the power of having a creative practice that functioned independently of my subjective feelings of inspiration. Below are just a few of the lessons journaling has taught me:

How to face the blank page:
By the time I began college, I quickly realized that I was not so intimidated by a blank Word document as I otherwise might have been, thanks to journaling. I knew how to sit down and begin writing, regardless of how inspired I was feeling or how large the task seemed. I knew through long practice that just beginning was half the battle, and that direction and purpose could be found later, once I had some material on the page to look over

How to experiment with vocabulary:
At some point, I began to consciously treat my journal as a space to stretch my vocabulary, writing with a thesaurus at hand to help me find new and creative ways to describe my experiences, observations, and ideas. I had an innate aversion to using the same terms more than once in an entry, or in two entries close together, and this led me to reach for innovation and nuance in my writing. I was aware at the time that I may not have always been using words correctly, especially if they were ones I had only seen in the thesaurus and not heard in context, but I did my best, and in retrospect, I can see that I largely succeeded. I have little doubt that my private experimentation with words helped my ability to be comfortable in assuming the level of formal diction required in college essays.

How to imagine an audience:
Journaling showed me the importance of writing with a reader in mind, even if such a practice felt especially vain or silly in the context of a journal. Over time, I developed the habit of generally approaching journaling like I was writing a novel, imagining a reader who was unfamiliar with the settings and characters in my life and using the opportunity to weave in descriptive language to paint the best picture I could. This tied in well with my low-key mission to gain more vocabulary dexterity; I often spent an embarrassing amount of time flipping through the thesaurus to find the perfect words to describe events or people that were meaningful to me.

How to play around with genre and tone:
Unconstrained by the strictures of writing a cohesive work for publication, I knew I could change genre and tone as the mood took me. At times I consciously devoted a day’s entry to being a “reflective essay” on my thoughts about some abstract idea, rather than describe anything that happened that day. Other times, I slipped into movie review mode; even now, I find it interesting to look back on my initial thoughts concerning films that have since become favorites. I was able to do these things without fear of a poor grade or of incorrect structure; after all, no one would read it but me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this self-aware shifting of genre would serve me well in college, as I found it fairly intuitive to adjust my work for different assignments. Journaling, I found, was an excellent playground to imitate the writing styles I saw elsewhere. Even if my own content was lacking in polish or popular interest, the mental motions of working in these different frameworks built a solid cognitive muscle that I was later able to employ to better use as my understanding of good writing improved.

Though I began journaling independent of any idea that it would improve my academic life or even my personal prowess with words, I would now recommend the practice for both of those reasons, as well as for its psychological benefits (about which an entirely separate blog post could be written). For those who may want to start journaling but feel too busy or don’t know how, I offer the following advice:

Start small:
My own descent into the madness of becoming a compulsive journaler began innocently enough, with daily notes in a pocket calendar. If the idea of having to write a mini essay every day intimidates you, forget about your mental image of writing eloquent sentences in a large blank book. If you already have a day planner, try shifting from only marking down plans to noting intriguing or significant incidents after the fact. Filling out short notes like “Hung out with [friend]” or “Watched [insert movie name]” only takes 5 minutes before bed, and you may find it leads to the desire to elaborate more (in which case, you’ll eventually need a bigger book to write in). Even if you never become a prolific writer, the mere habit of recording a few reflective daily sentences primes your mind to more readily express ideas via writing, a skill which will assist you in any school or professional assignment.

Don’t worry about being good, but always strive to be better:
Most of your journal entries will be, quite frankly, inane and ill-constructed. Let’s face it, those words also describe many of our experiences of daily life, and it’s only natural that our attempts to write about our lives will also lack intrigue and structure. Embrace this, but also work towards improvement. One mark of a good writer is someone who can make the mundane remarkable through their descriptions. As a low-pressure exercise, occasionally think about ways to describe ordinary events in your life with the detail and dimension of a novelist. Not only will this challenge you to find angles of interest on things that may seem unremarkable, a skill which will serve you well when faced with a boring essay assignment, but it will also give you opportunity to expand your repertoire of descriptive words not necessarily used in common conversation, which will develop your skill in expression generally.

Another useful occasional exercise is creating a sense of “completeness” in your individual entries. One way to do this is to pick a subject that is already on your mind and adopt a “reflection essay” approach to exploring it—opening with an explanation of what the concept is and why it matters to you, moving through supporting points of experience or knowledge you have pertaining to the subject, and finishing with a concluding opinion (or set of opinions) informed by the exploration you have just done. Think of your entry as a blog post or op-ed, if that helps. The point is to practice taking fragmentary thoughts or experiences and creating a piece that connects them, showing the thorough development of a single theme. This type of writing is extremely helpful for improving your personal reflection habits, but it also trains you for brainstorming for assignments and for thinking in terms of polished, self-contained work.

Write about what interests you:
While it is good practice to treat journaling as a “writing gym” on occasion, don’t feel guilty about also treating it as a “writing playground.” Both approaches involve exercise; the important thing is to write regularly. Doing so will be easier if you don’t feel beholden to some invisible directive to write only about “what is important” in your life or to always consciously “have a goal” in mind when writing. Use things you enjoy or find meaningful as the raw material to facilitate your writing experiments; if you do so, you will have more fun in the process than if you feel duty-bound to write an autobiography or to explain life realities that drain you.

Journaling is an excellent way to develop your own ability to generate, shape, and convey ideas, and it simultaneously provides a record of where you’ve been and how you’ve developed. Regardless of topic or approach, you will look back at your writing later and likely find much of it embarrassing or pointless. This is normal. Much of the point lies in the practice, not the outcome.

On the other hand, you may surprise yourself. The ramblings you write today may reflect an interest that becomes a professional pursuit a decade later. Even if they do not, time spent writing privately is essential preparation for fluency in writing “publicly,” for professors, bosses, and colleagues. It can even help you generate a blog post. 😉