It’s easy to find journal writing prompts on the Internet. The notion is that a writer can use prompts as a surrogate for their own ideas about what to write. This implies that the end goal is to write, even when the ideas do not come from within. However, writing is not an end unto itself. The purpose of journal writing is to contemplate something you value, not produce disembodied writing focused on someone else’s idea of what you should write about. Do quantity and consistency matter in a writing practice? Of course, but only when the ideas come from within.
I’m not saying the writing prompts are completely unhelpful. I am saying they are mostly unhelpful. I have read hundreds of journal prompts over the years. However, I have never written a journal entry by choosing a prompt of the day from a list. I read journal prompts to explore other people’s ideas about what to write and I find that interesting. Some of the prompts I read get into me, rummage around in the basement for weeks or months, shape-shift their appearance and intention a bit, and come back as genuine inspiration.
Here is my version of the epicenter of transformative journal writing.
All you have in life is personal and therefore subjective experience. That is all you can lay claim to. Every human being moves through a unique experiential milieu with its own array of situations, circumstances, and events. The experience of being alive is both fleeting and fragile. Time is a feral creature, and the primal expression of time is aging. You are a transient creature briefly moving through the great flow of life. Measured, linear, chronological time is a collective delusion. Nature is not something out there. You are the wilderness.
Liminality permeates the wild spaces within. You train your mind by allowing the wilderness back into your imagination and, moreover, your body. Feel the feral and ambiguous nature of time moving through you. Train yourself to focus on something you value and see what it will reveal to you. Creativity is a conversation with reality, not something that mystically emerges from a magical place within. You find ideas in a conversation, not an internal monologue. There is no magic about it. Train your mind to go into wild places. This is not a hero’s journey. It just living an examined life.
Reading lists of journal writing prompts is beneficial but using them as a menu to decide what to write about at that moment is not helpful. It’s harmful. The more critical issue is why, within the context of your own experiential milieu, are ideas not presenting themselves to you. What is it you need to do to find ideas worth inhabiting for a while?
How do you rehabilitate your ideas? How can you find things to write about on your own that matter to you? How can your experiences in life become an endless supply of content for journal writing without reducing it to the banality of a diary? How do you go below the whine of daily events to discover something of depth and value?
You first let the wilderness come back home. Then train your mind to create a constant state of interplay between what you write and what you do. You never really “finish” a journal entry because it should have something in it you take with you into the day. Your journal from a year ago shouldn’t be a tombstone. This retrieves the idea of congruency; that is, your journal writing should be congruent with what your body is feeling, your mind is thinking, and your spirit is intimating. This is how journal writing invites a sense of transformation into your life.
If an important event takes place in your life, go underneath it, and explore the felt sense of it. If your journal writing is to encourage transformative energy, describing the surface features of the event isn’t helpful. It’s alphabetic sleepwalking. Go past the surface emotions of being happy, sad, or angry and see if you can get a glimpse of meaning, insight, or wisdom that you can bring back into the world. This has never happened, at least for me, in a single entry. Typically, it can take weeks, even months to uncover a little bit of meaning.
I will write poetry (no, I’m not a poet) to help me achieve a sense of depth, especially when I feel like I’m doing little more than superficial whining and complaining in my journal. Why poetry? Because it concentrates meaning into a few words. It (hopefully) offers a whack on the side of the head. Most of all, it forces me to go deep and venture into the wilderness where I feel wonderfully insecure again. In the notes below, I will refer you to two poems I wrote that originated in my frustrations with writing in superficial ways.
Reading journal prompts can be helpful, but you don’t need to spend a lot of time reading them. Read five hundred prompts and then let them live in you for a while. You don’t need to remember them. Just read them, let them go into the basement, and see what happens. That’s all there is.
Beyond that, you don’t need journal writing prompts. You do, however, need to develop ways of exploring and investigating your journals to uncover ideas already waiting for you. This is a topic for another post.
- Reading journal writing prompts is helpful. The International Journal Writing Association – Journal Prompts section offers interesting ideas other journalers have pursued. My advice here would be to read as many of them as you like but give them time to ebb and flow with your own experiences and see what emerges somewhere down the road.
- As mentioned above, I use poetry to lift myself out of a journal writing rut. In the Space Between Words and Life, I explore the importance of maintaining interplay between what I write and what I do. In Your Own Voice, I give myself a good talking to after realizing I was writing in inauthentic ways.
- Sit down and write. I am always surprised at how many times people think mechanization stimulates creativity. By mechanization, I mean a structured approach, such as a journal prompt a day for 365 days or a course in journal writing. Even more surprising (well, maybe not) is that some people in the guise of a journaling expert (what is that anyway?) will try to sell things like this to you, or at least grab your email so you can get the PDF and become assimilated into the sale funnel. The worst thing you can do is invest money in products and services like these. Just do the work and pay attention to what happens.
- If you can’t think of what to write about, then don’t write. If the problem persists over an extended period of time despite your efforts, then perhaps you should consider another medium of expression. Writing isn’t for everyone, and that’s ok too.