Not too long ago, I started losing interest in journal writing. It was an unwelcome feeling because I had always enjoyed the experience of journaling. In fact, I have been keeping various kinds of journals and notebooks for many years. However, I started to question what the purpose of all this writing was. In reading through some of my old journals and notebooks, I realized that good ideas had been abandoned. Insights became orphans.  Each journal entry seemed like a place where possibility went into exile. A creative crisis emerged. Why continue to write in my journal when it is having little to no influence on my quality of life?

A common trait of creatives is the need to continually adapt and evolve their work. My writing felt inert. I cycled around familiar desires and complaints. Even a new writing topic morphed into mindless repetition because my thoughts and ideas were confined to the page. Repetition can be useful in training new skills, but it is a den of complacency when doing more of the same is the end game. Although my writing revealed creative potential, it was confined to the page and usually forgotten. Rather than quit journaling altogether, I decided to explore ways of bringing my words into the context of lived experience. This was the beginning of a creative project I called, “Transformative Journal Writing.”

How can journal entries become meaningful, influential, and valuable? What good is confining an important dimension of inner life to paper if it never sees the light of day? How can the written word be transformed into direct, real-life experience? Can a journal become something more than a graveyard of lost potential? Is there a way to elevate journaling to a new creative plain while preserving the joy of writing? Moreover, can I transform my words into lived experience?

Transformative journal writing is about creating movement and interaction between the intimacy of inner life and the confluence of the outer world. It is an ongoing experiment in projecting my own words into the world around me through intention. You are creating potential by elevating words to the status of experience. In this sense, transformative journal writing is a conversation between your writing and your reality. This does not mean your journal entries are put on public display. There is no requirement to share them. It does mean, however, that the purpose of your writing is to inform your intentions, decisions, and activities. A conversation emerges when those experiments circle back and inspire further exploration in your journal. Suddenly, you never struggle to find something to write about again.

When this idea occurred to me, I initially felt overwhelmed. Why would I want to take a simple and enjoyable activity and add significant complexity to it? The answer reveals a basic personality trait of creatives; that is, my creative needs were no longer being met. I was not engaged with my work. I wanted to see the trajectory of my writing in my experience and observe their effect, influence, and consequence. This is, in the end, how meaning is created; that is, there is no meaning to be found in words that die on paper. Writing, as a creative endeavor, should inhabit the evolving frontier between the privacy of my words and my interactions in the world around me.

Every completed journal entry is a beginning, not an end. The purpose of my writing is to become a source of discovery. In a creative sense, a journal entry provides a self-directed learning environment. More than an exercise in reflection, transformative journal writing conjures experience design; that is, you transform the words you write into real life experiments. These experiments are not visible to others unless you choose to make them known.

One of the primary benefits of this approach is that become more deeply engaged with your experiences in life. You start to learn ways in which you can have a positive influence over your course in life. You bring a sense of improvisation to everyday life. You are participating in experience rather than feeling as though they happen to you. Moreover, you clarify what you can and cannot control in your life, which is a prerequisite for wisdom. In this way, transformative journal writing becomes a way to derive meaning from what you write.

Journal writing is not always a beneficial experience. It is not a panacea for anxiety or depression.  It can aggravate self-centeredness and narcissism. This can happen when a journal suffers from the onslaught of “I.” Wellbeing is a creative and dynamic phenomenon, not a pleasant state we can maintain through cognition alone. It requires relationships, interaction, and participation. Illbeing is intensified by isolation, self-absorption, and egoism. Moreover, writing from the solitary perspective of “I” is painfully uncreative. Deep creativity forces you to get over yourself; shallow creativity is mired in a bog of self-concern. Transformative journal writing is a counterforce to rampant individualism and the cult of “Me.”

Transformative journal writing bypasses the problem of being confined inside the labyrinth of your inner life. You teach yourself to turn inward and move outward at the same time. You turn inward to develop self-awareness, potential, and intention. You move outward by placing that awareness, potential, and intention in the world through trial and error to see where it takes you. Your perceptions and observations become feedback you bring back into your journal. This is how transformative journal becomes a vibrant creative practice.

Some people may feel that this approach is too difficult or unnatural. For me, standard journal writing is too difficult and unnatural because it is immobile. Motion, direction, and trajectory are basic elements of creative work. In other words, a creative must always feel as though they are working toward something novel and authentic. They are not interested in where they have been, they are interested in where they have yet to go. Ironically, they impose constraints on their work to enhance creative potential. Freedom, in the sense of doing anything you want whenever you want, is fundamentally uncreative. Creativity flourishes under constraint not freedom.

The idea behind transformative journal writing is simple. You explore your own words and find ways to experiment with them in the world around you. The creative work is wonderfully complex, challenging, and deep. As you experiment with ideas, you begin a conversation with reality where there once was none. What you connect what you write to what you do through intention and experimentation. In the next article, I describe some problems with journal writing and how it can become a source of disappointment.

Notes

  1. In What is Transformative Writing, Jackie Moloney states, “Writing is physical. It engages the body’s systems and senses in ways that would not be accessed by just thinking or observing, or in the oral telling of a story. It allows shapes to be made. Patterns and associations. It has the power to turn something remembered or even just noticed in passing into beauty, into art.” She refers to the “felt sense” of the body, which is the medium of transformation. Transformative journal writing is not an intellectual pursuit, it is an creative endeavor using experience as raw material..
  2. In What’s So Transformative About Transformative Writing Anyway? Pat McNulty says, “To me the transformation is multi-layered. The first layer is transforming experience itself into art. When we write, we are not writing in a vacuum. We base our work on the material we have at hand. And we transform that material — just as coal is transformed into fuel or pieces of highly-organized carbon are transformed into shiny diamonds — into something else. We dig the material out of life, or we find it abandoned by the roadside, or someone drops it in our laps. We put the various elements we have together in our own unique way, and voila we create a work of art.” The material we have at hand is the full force of our own life. Subjective experience is the raw material for creative work.