In this series, I’ve explored some of my approaches to journal writing. Journaling is a basic part of my creative practice. I have kept personal journals, notebooks, and scrapbooks for thirty years. My approach to journal writing has evolved over the years. I’ve endured periods when it didn’t seem worthwhile. I’ve (regrettably) thrown many journals and notebooks away thinking I would have no further need for them (wrong). And I’ve written in circular, self-centered ways. In the end, however, journal writing is an excellent medium to explore life, discover meaning, and develop a little bit of hard-earned wisdom along the way.

Your journal is a creative space. The only rule is to follow your instincts. In my journals, I always set aside the first four pages to build an index. When I write a journal entry I give it a title, usually after the entry is written. I list each entry in the index and indicate a page number. Simple yet effective. The benefit of this is that you can glance at the index and see patterns, trends, and lines of force that may lead to an insight.

I imagine my index to be an environment in which I can make discoveries, not just an inert listing of entries organized by page number. I map out connections using a ruler and pen to connect entries together. I scan for areas of repetition, which usually identify the places in life I am feeling stuck. I will take a highlighter and markup index entries (red means stop this; yellow means what’s going on here? green means give this more attention; blue means big idea; and purple means go deep into this).

Sometimes, based on what I discover in the index, I will create a cornerstone journal entry that looks at patterns in my writing and offers a space for reflecting on what is happening. The key is to try to understand what is holding me back, what I have been ignoring, what ideas I’ve abandoned, what potential remains undeveloped, and what observable gains I have made in my sense of wellbeing. Cornerstone journal entries are essential because they provide a space to create contemplative depth, otherwise I may waste time chasing my tail.

In an important sense, the index is a creative space that helps me to uncover aspects of the larger story I am trying to tell. If I see an underlying theme, I will map it out by creating a constellation of entries in the index. A constellation of entries is simply a group of entries that I feel are connected in some way and have the potential to reveal something of importance to me. Constellations encourage movement and progress.

I will also mark-up entries using the same highlighting technique I described above. I may use red to highlight a word or phrase that is unhelpful or an entire paragraph that isn’t helpful. I most often find myself doing this when I ruminate about something in my journal, which means I’m chasing my tail. Red means stop doing this and focus on something more beneficial. Sometimes, an entire entry is in the red. And that’s ok. It’s knowing that it is in the red that matters.

My real focus is on creative engagement with what I write. It doesn’t matter if you use a ruler and pen, highlighters, or something else altogether – if it works for you. And the last thing I care about is physical appearance. I don’t care about aesthetics. I care about exploration and discovery. This is messy work. Sometimes you will feel confused. That’s when genuine creativity becomes possible.

Although my journals have an index that lists entries in sequence, there is a distinct non-linear aspect as well. Avoid mere chronology. The non-liner aspect inspires creative discovery. Just because an entry was written last year doesn’t mean it has no value today. In fact, it might not even mean the same thing it once did. Move freely between past, present, and future in thought and spirit.

I have tried weekly or monthly themes and found they can be fascinating if the theme comes from a place deep within. In my experience, this often involves situations in my life that conjure energy clusters of emotions, reactions, and thought patterns. Being a highly sensitive person by nature, there are no shortages of these clusters in my life. Some of them can be quite troublesome and stubborn (situations that provoke anxiety). And some are quite wonderful and enjoyable (situations that embrace friendship). We all experience these tightly woven clusters of thought, emotions, and reaction and I have found them to offer interesting content for journal writing.

Sometimes I will conduct experiments. My experiment doesn’t need to be complex or unique. For example, I decide to reduce the amount of time I spend on social media over the course of a week or month and pay close attention to how it affects me. I won’t write about it every day, nor am I going to track it mechanically. It’s not an exercise in productivity. But over the course of a month, I will have a few entries about that I can build a constellation out of and then see where that takes me.

You can borrow tools and techniques from other sources. You might decide to experiment with threading journal entries together, which is like creating a constellation. I prefer the metaphor of a constellation because threading is typical a linear or series connection while a constellation is non-linear. Both approaches have value. You may decide to play with migration and move ideas from one context to another. Exploring what happens to an experience when you shift its context is fundamental to using your journal as a vehicle for creative exploration.

In the end, your journal is your own. Discover your own way. Your way will change over time, and that is a good sign. Borrow other people’s ideas and play with them. However, never rigidly follow someone else’s system. You are a designer, navigator, and explorer. Don’t let an expert lure you into this course or that method. Of course, if you are just looking for a few ideas to repurpose, then the outside experts may be helpful. But the real expert is already within. Everything you need is already waiting for you.

Notes

  1. Ironically, effective journal writing requires deep reading skills. In Is Google Making Us Stupid? Nicholas Carr offers some insight into the need for reading as contemplative practice: “The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.”
  2. Threading and migration are two techniques used in Bullet Journaling. Although it started out as a system of productivity, it has evolved to incorporate more contemplative approaches and ideas: “Though it does require a journal, Bullet Journal® is a methodology. It’s best described as a mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system. It’s designed to help you organize your what while you remain mindful of your why. The goal of the Bullet Journal is to help its practitioners (Bullet Journalists) live intentional lives, ones that are both productive and meaningful.”
  3. The tools and techniques associated with Bullet Journaling are compelling. I use some of the techniques in my own journal writing. I learned Bullet Journaling a year ago and it has been invaluable in creating my own approach to a “Personal Log,” which has a different orientation than my journal. But this is the spirit of Bullet Journaling or creative work in general; that is, you put ideas out into the world, and they will come back to you in ways you never expected.