Many claims are made about the benefits of journal writing, including wellbeing, reduction of anxiety and depression, greater self-awareness, and an increase in happiness. Even though the precise ways in which journaling produces positive change is mysterious, it is generally accepted that journal writing is beneficial. However, the problematic side of journal writing rarely receives the attention it deserves. Since journal writing is a core discipline in my creative practice, understanding the problems it can conjure is important way to cultivate it as a medium of deep creative work.
An important dimension of any creative practice is the cultivation of self-awareness. The raw material for deep creativity is the full force of your own life. Transformative journal writing provides a learning environment that merges your inner life with your experiences in the outer world. The essential creative work is to take your words and transform them into experiences that you can experiment with. These experiments become inspiration for further journal writing. The result is the creation of your own unique conversation with reality.
However, it is important to understand the problems associated with superficial journal writing. I have kept journals, notebooks, and scrapbooks for many years simply because I enjoyed engaging in creative work. A few years ago, however, my journal writing began to deteriorate. I was losing motivation. My sense of purpose waned. I was tired of reading what I wrote. There was no innate satisfaction in it. Worse, it no longer felt creative. My writing had become superficial and extraneous. I was disappointed and felt like quitting. Instead of giving up, I set out to identify the causes of my discontent.
Creative people always encounter roadblocks and unexpected creative crises in their work. In one moment, an idea may feel as though it has extraordinary breadth and expansiveness. In the next, it becomes a source of confinement or a dead end. Ideas a mercurial creature. You never know where they might lead you. Uncertainty is the essence of the tension that inspires creative work. Journal writing, once a place of stability and flow, gradually morphed into a labyrinth of uncertainty. Foolishly, I destroyed some of my journals. They felt dead. Why keep them?
Today, I am writing prolifically in my journals. There are many reasons for this that will become apparent in future articles. But the retrieval and rehabilitation of journal writing begins when I started understanding the problems that had, at this point, imprisoned my creative sensibilities. However, in a creative practice a synonym for problem is opportunity. I asked myself, “What are the weaknesses, points of inertia, roadblocks, and obstacles lurking in your journal writing?” I identified 12 creative challenges that offered a foundation for improvement:
- Self-absorption: My journal entries were plagued by, “Me.” I had become self-centered. I wrote incessantly about a group of emotions or complaints. My writing lost connection to the people, experiences, and world around me. Self-absorption is the great destroyer of journal writing. And it is the way in which writing becomes a source of self-harm.
- Lack of congruency: What I wrote about and how I lived my life were disconnected. My words did not reflect my reality. They were disconnected from lived experience. It sometimes seemed as though my journal was a fictional narrative about someone else.
- Abandonment: I abandoned valuable thoughts and ideas prematurely. Eventually, I forgot I wrote them. This is how a journal becomes a graveyard of lost potential. To create potential and then abandon it is an act of mindlessness.
- Repetition: A cluster of issues would keep appearing in my writing over the course of months and years. I kept writing about them because I was never able to over come them in real life. The result is that I got tired of myself.
- Lack of authenticity: Sadly, there were entries in which I was neither honest nor transparent with myself. Without being aware of it, I was writing about how I wanted things to be rather than how the really are. Self-delusion never leads to anywhere that matters.
- Inertia: I often wrote about what I need to do without doing it. My journal became a place to give myself advice that I never followed. I suffered from a preference for the familiar, instead of embracing the required discomfort to live a creative life.
- Invisible barriers: Frequently, I failed to question and evolve my assumptions, expectations, and beliefs. I produced various lines of thought constricted by my lack of flexibility and perception. I spent inordinate amounts of time in my journals digging the same hole deeper. This is how you become an expert in nothing that matters.
- Naming too soon: I would name things and label experiences as if I understood what I was writing about. I forgot a fundamental self-evident truth: words are always something less than the experience s they attempt to describe. Naming too soon and the presumption of understanding are crimes against creativity.
- Redundancy: In addition to cycling around a cluster of topics, I failed to vary the intention of my writing. Always writing from the same perspective. I stopped seeing the blank white page as possibility. My voice had become uniform. My writing style painfully predictable.
- Giving up: Lacking the discipline of finding ways to bring my words into the real world and work with them in creative ways. My writing felt like an insult to creativity. In the end, however, giving up is far more difficult.
- Lack of reflection: Not taking the time to understand what my writing is telling me. Failing to look below the surface of the words and the tired narrative they followed. Creativity is dependent upon going beneath the stories well tell about ourselves to ourselves.
- Lost potential: I failed to see important patterns, connections and threads across multiple entries and journals. I did not carry valuable ideas forward and work with them beyond the confines of a journal. In other words, journal writing was divorced from creative practice.
Initially, I felt discouraged by finding so many problems in my journal writing, but it was not long before my disappointment became inspiration. I knew that journal writing was not in and of itself the issue. The real problem was my own lack of creativity. The beginning of a shift in my perception occurred when I asked myself the question, “What can I bring to my journal writing that will inspire practical and observable value in my life?”
I presume that the primary benefit of journaling is the potential to discover meaning and wisdom. For this to happen, words must resonate with something of value beyond the words on the page. In an important sense, they must move out into the world so you can see what happens to them. The way this is done is through intention; that is, you take an idea from your journal and transform it into an experiment, project, or experience. It is intention that allows an idea to come out into the world so that you can observe what happens to it. This is silent and invisible to others, unless you choose to make it known. Either way, you have transformed the space between your inner life and outer world into a conversation.
This will sound onerous to some. For me, it is a source of liberation from the superficialities of journal writing. Understanding the nature of the problems I encountered helped me to perceive other ways of orienting myself to what I wrote. If I write about a difficult experience, it is the wisdom within that experience that matters, not finding merely eloquent ways to write about it. If I write an entry about how I want to cultivate certain qualities of being like contentment, I also recognize the responsibility of undertaking the extensive work required to make a modest improvement in my personality.
Creatives know that the places in which we find ourselves stuck always offer the way forward. Although identifying problems can produce disappointment, they also create potential for discovering new opportunities. The thread that connects the twelve problems together is a lack of creativity. As I tried to find ways to resolve the problems the idea of connecting inner life and the outer world through journal writing revealed itself. The transformation of word into experience and back again captures the spirit of this idea. And instead of quitting my journal writing practice, it evolved in new and surprising ways.
- A potential problem with journaling is self-absorption or narcissism. In Introspective or Narcissistic, David Brooks concludes, “Maturity is moving from the close-up to the landscape, focusing less on your own supposed strengths and weaknesses and more on the sea of empathy in which you swim, which is the medium necessary for understanding others, one’s self, and survival.” Likewise, I believe that journal writing, at its summit, is about getting outside of your head, not getting lost inside of it. Therefore, I use the term transformative journal writing.
- Claims about the benefits of journaling can be excessive. It is important to understand what makes journaling effective. In The Good and Bad of Journaling, Steven Stosny states that, “There’s a lot of advice out there about how to journal, some of it good, much of it bad… In general, it is likely to hurt if it tries to help you know yourself in isolation and helps if it leads to greater understanding and behavior change in your interactions with others.” Self-absorption is symptomatic of mental illness. I believe that journaling in self-absorbed ways inhibits wellbeing. Journal writing that encourages connection, interaction, relationship, and participation with others and the world around you is essential.
- In How to Journal Through Your Struggles, Kira Newman concludes that although research shows that writing about your struggles in life may help, the reasons for this are unknown: “There’s something powerful about translating our experiences into words—and not keeping them buried inside.” The scope of the inquiry is limited to a process called “expressive writing.” I believe the reason journal can help is self-evident. When you go into your experiences (good and bad) with the intention of working with them creatively, you generate potential where there once was inertia. Writing is not an end unto itself. The benefit of journaling lies in how your journal writing comes alive as experience.
- Using journal writing prompts can be useful if you are new to journal writing. The best article I have read is, Journaling for Mindfulness: 44 Prompts, Examples, and Exercises. More than providing a list of prompts, the article explores a variety of interesting perspectives and creative approaches to journaling. Ideally, the use of prompts decreases over time as you become more reflective and mindful of your writing. In a transformative journal writing practice, external prompts are unnecessary.