Beyond imagination, my most basic tool as a writer is my journal.
As I mentioned in the last post my journal contains everything –
- my big quests and the steps towards them
- to do lists
- book notes
- ideas for stories
- snatches of poems in progress
- dreams and what they might mean to me
- records of my days and reactions to them
- constant reflection on my life, quests and who I am
- writing exercises
I journal as soon as I wake up because this is the time I’m in that liminal space between waking and sleeping. Sometimes I can capture snatches of dreams and tease them into the daylight. My mind is at its most open and creative at the extremities of the day so starting the day with journalling is a way to begin the day well.
It’s also the way I end each day. My journal is a framing ritual that allows me to imagine and to reflect. And I come to my journal in an attitude of hope and expectation.
Often, I think I will write a certain thing, then find I’m writing something completely different. The journal is a space where I take myself by surprise. And that can lead in all kinds of creative directions. Journalling boosts my:
And these are qualities that build into the writing mindset. So often we have a million things we want to achieve and a million demands calling for our time. Too many people lead stressful, busy lives and find themselves overwhelmed. In this state, dreams and quests are constantly shelved because we don’t know where to start.
Big changes rarely, if ever, originate from trying to do everything all at once. We need new habits that facilitiate shifts, that build into something powerful, almost taking us unawares. In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg calls these ‘keystone habits’ and describes them like this:
small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives
Journalling is a keystone habit.
What is the first thing you reach for each morning? Coffee? Your phone? Your laptop to check emails and/or social media?
These things can wait. Some of them might never need your attention at all. But none of them deserve that wonderful creative burst on first waking. It’s precious. All night your subconscious has been churning away and if you went to sleep thinking of a problem or how to write your next chapter or what the precise word in the third line of that poem should be, now is the time to get into the flow of creative process.
If nothing comes, set yourself a writing prompt.
- Look at a tarot card or postcard and write about the image. (I’m not talking divination, but inspiration and we can find it everywhere).
- Pick a card from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck and keep writing from it.
- Listen to the world outside your window and see where the sounds take you.
- Write a list of ideas for your next creative project.
At the beginning of every day I read the quests I’m currently pursuing. The day will be busy and there will be many calls on my time, but by reminding myself of my direction, I’m more likely to take small steps towards it that day. I might:
- clear a two hour space for writing in the evening
- make a concrete plan to visit somewhere that will help with my writing research as well as my passion for travel (perhaps buying a train ticket or booking a place to stay)
- move from journalling to yoga to keep myself fit enough to write and travel
- think about a way to be generous or take a risk that day
Journalling enhances my ability not only to make decisions, but to live them. There’s something about writing visions down that makes you more accountable to them. And you begin to shift your self-image when you journal in this way, which is always a powerful motivator of change.
Journalling is also a wonderful way to process emotions. In this sense we write a lot of ‘rubbish’ in our journals. That’s fine. It’s better there than eating away at you or spilling out onto others. If I’m journalling every day, morning and evening, even for a few minutes each time, I’m calmer, more focussed and more optimistic. As Kafka recognised:
In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today,
This is not only clarity, but depth. I begin to see patterns in my behaviour, to let go of negative feelings. Journalling is empowering because it enables me to see how I can make my inner and outer life more congruent. As Gandhi says:
Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.
I don’t tend to simply list of all the things I’m grateful for in my life (or not often). But keeping a journal nonetheless makes me much more aware of how much there is to be grateful for, sometimes overwhelmingly so.
Processing emotions in a journal often shifts my mood and outlook, makes me aware of how easy it is to follow the ego and helps me to get over myself.
Gratitude helps us not only to look inwards, but to connect our internal life to those we love and to how we behave in the world.
My journals are currently colour coded. I keep personal reflections and to-be in purple, task lists in black, book notes in green and quotes in red. I need more colours.
Journals are a great way to store and process ideas as well as emotions. If I’m reading nonfiction books I find writing key ideas down is an excellent way to process the learning. And whatever I’m reading: philosophy, books on writing process, fiction, poetry — there are always quotes I want to hold onto: to savour.
It sharpens my mind to do this and I find myself making connections between ideas from books from different perspectives and across genres.
As Virginia Woolf comments:
But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. …
The place where creativity and clarity meet is passion.
What is it that excites you?
What is that makes your life meaningful?
Your journal is the place to begin writing the story you want to live. It’s a safe space in which to fly.
This is your platform. It’s a private space where passions can surface and you work things out with yourself. In the words of Joan Didion:
Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point. It is a difficult point to admit. We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing. … Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout.
And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’
I would recommend journalling to everyone, but for writers there is a particular alignment between journalling and sense of purpose. After all, writers write and journalling is a great training ground where:
- you flex your writing muscle
- hone your voice and try it out
- play with ideas
- produce occasional nuggets of gold
- find out who you are.
As Susan Sontag says:
In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.
The writer who flew with imagination, J.M Barrie, sums it up like this:
The life of every [wo]man is a diary in which [s]he means to write one story, and writes another; and [her/]his humblest hour is when [s]he compares the volume as it is with what [s]he vowed to make it.
Journalling is a powerful way to cultivate the mindset of a writer. It will
- prime your creativity
- make your thinking and living not only clearer but more congruent
- increase your equanimity and gratitude
- sharpen your mind
- fuel your passion and purpose
Journalling early in the morning and before sleep takes you into a liminal space full of possibility. As Salman Rushdie sums up in Imaginary Homelands, Essays and Criticism:
Never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things — childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves — that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.
Becoming a Different Story with journalling…
This autumn I’ll be launching a journalling course for becoming a different story — working on creativity and the writing life. If you’d like details sign up to my email list or email me @ email@example.com. I’ll send you my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life. Or just feel free to continue the conversation here on Medium.