8 Ways to Blow Up Your Writing Brain by Journaling (+ Tips)

I'm an off-and-on journaler.  I've had periods in my life--long stretches, like ten years--when I got up every day and wrote in a journal first thing.  (And to prove it, I've got three huge tubs of them.) I've also had journaling droughts, where I don't actively write in a diary. Copy_reflexion_author_260936_l

Article after article suggests that journaling is good for you in a number of ways, including your mental health. Studies show that journaling is linked to reducing stress, helping to deal with traumatic events, and  increasing your physical health (it boosts your immune system and lowers blood pressure). It has even been shown to help in sports performance and reduce employee absenteeism.  (You can read more about these studies here.)  And that is all well and good--really good, actually--but the bottom line for me is whether or not journaling helps me with my writing.

And  I'm here to tell you that the times when I am writing in my journal regularly are much more productive and creative for me than the times when I am not.  I actually thing journaling is good for everybody from writers to visual artists to musicians to business people.  Journaling helps you sort things out, process life, and come up with ideas.  And I don't care what you do in the world, those are valuable processes for everyone .  For writers, one of the biggest benefits I see is that it helps us see life as story, and that stories abound in life.

But sometimes, I will admit, I open my journal and my pen hovers over the page and I can't think of anything to write.  So over the last few months I've been keeping track of the various ways I use my journal and I now present them to you.  I've also included some handy journaling tips at the end of this post.

So you can blow up your writing brain (I mean this in the best of ways) and your creativity.

Account of day to day life.  This is probably the most traditional kind of journaling, the kind of activity we used to call writing in a diary.  It can be a great starting point for a journal entry (see below).  Austin Kleon calls it keeping a logbook, and makes a case for doing it regularly. It is probably the kind of journaling I do least, but when I do do it, I love looking back on the accounts of my days..

Idea incubator.  One of the best reasons to keep a journal as a writer.   I think every writer should have some kind of notebook where you record ideas, things they've seen, books to read, etc., even if you don't actively write journal entries.  (You might like the bullet journal idea below for this.)  For a fantastic post on using the writer's notebook, check out this post.  I love it so much I'm going to print it out and put it in my bullet journal.

To sort things out.  This is the kind of journaling the mental health professionals want you to do, and with good reason--because it works.  Process your crap on the page and deal with it, instead of waiting for it to come out at an inopportune moment.  (Talkin' to myself here, too.)

As a vessel for the spiritual.  Those of us on a spiritual path know that writing in a journal can help you figure out your relationship with the divine, talk to God, converse with angels or spirits--whatever you desire.  I would go so far as to suggest that journaling can become a form or meditation or prayer.  I know it often is for me.  My favorite writer for this is Janet Connor.

As a bullet journal.  This is how I organize myself, and until I found this system I was constantly searching for the best way to keep my life together on paper.  (No, I do not use a digital system.  I hate phone and computer calendars.)  But the bullet journal is much more than just an organizer or planner--it can hold all your thoughts and ideas.  Mine has become a hybrid which I use for my journaling entries as well.  If you are interested in this system start with the original link, and then google "bullet journal."  You'll find a ton of helpful post and articles about it, complete with clever hacks.  I find mine works best, though, if I keep it as simple as possible.

Morning pages.  Julia Cameron popularized this version of journaling in her book, The Artist's Way, and it is a perennial favorite because it works.  The process is simple--you get up and you write three pages without thinking.  That's it.  You don't have to craft beautiful sentences or write about how your boyfriend stood you up.  Just write and see what comes up.  Not only is it helpful to get your ya-yas out, over time, certain themes will emerge that may help you see your life more clearly.

A space for free writing.  Sometimes you don't know what to write but you know you want to write.  Your journal is the perfect place for this.  Grab yourself a prompt and have at it.  Set a timer and write for 20 minutes without lifting the pen from the page.  Miraculous things will emerge.

A place to write about your current WIP.  I spend a lot of time writing about my current novel.  If I get lost in the plot, I write about where I might go.  I write about characters and their back story.  I write about the homes they live in and the places they work.  Writing in a journal is a godsend for helping you figure out your story.  You may want to keep a separate notebook for this, so you can easily access the information when you need it.

Those are just some of the ways I use my journals, and there are a ton more that I don't have room for--like making lists or mind mapping.  You'll come up with your own favorites.

Tips:

Start where you are.  I had a friend who found journaling a great help when she went through cancer, but then she stopped.  She wanted to get started again, but felt she had to commit to the page everything that had happened since she had last written.  Nope.  Just start where you are, with whatever you want to write about.

Index!  This sounds tedious and overly organized, but it is a lifesaver.  It is a key part of the bullet journal and I've started using it for my all my journals.   Label a page at the front or back of the book as an index, then number your pages and when you write something you want to keep track of, note it.  Oh, and I recently found the Leuchtturm journals, which not only have page numbers already printed on them, but also a pen strap and a gorgeous rainbow of colors! I can't wait to order one.

Keep at it.  As with everything we do, at first it can seem awkward and useless.  But the more you write in a journal, the more you'll see the various benefits and keep at it.

Maintain a list of prompts.  It's really helpful to have a page in your journal where you write down prompts and then if you don't know what to write about, there you are.  Feel free to use mine--there's a ton of them here.

If you really get stuck, go back to day before and write what happened. It's as good a starting point as any!

Do you keep a journal?  What's your favorite technique for journal writing?  Please comment!

 


Revisiting Morning Pages

Planner_binder_ring_261350_lOver the last month or so, I've gone back to doing Morning Pages.  I started mid-December and have been picking up steam ever since.  I've been writing so much in my journal that I began a system of indexing it so I could keep track of everything.  Ideas pour from my pen.  I figure things out.  I write about what happened the day before.  I list to-dos, start scenes, unknot pesky writing issues.  And once again, I've become an enthusiastic proponent of morning pages. 

What are Morning Pages?

Morning Pages were popularized by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist's Way.  As she describes them, "Morning pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning."  Don't think about them too much. Just write.  There's no wrong way to do them.  For real.  (Though Julia does recommend keeping them to three pages.  Shorter than that, and you won't get the benefit.  Longer, and you spend too much time with them.)

My History with Morning Pages

I first read the Artist's Way many years ago at a very difficult time in my life.  Our house had burned down and that had thrown me off kilter creatively for awhile.  (Ya think?)  I'd seen the book at the book store (told you it was a long time ago) but was put off by the word "artist" in the title, thinking it was more for visual artist types.  But I bought it eventually and went through the whole program.

I resisted Morning Pages at first.  One thing, like this guy, I'm not much of a follower.  I squirm about when people tell me what I should be doing.  And then I tend to do the opposite of what they say.  But I'd committed to doing the program and so I started Morning Pages.  And did them religiously for the next ten years.  At least.  I did them because they worked for me in every way--creatively, spiritually, and emotionally.  

And then I quit.  I think it was when I started writing fiction first thing in the morning and didn't feel I had time for Morning Pages.  That was about ten years ago and since then I've dipped into doing MPs off and on but haven't made them a regular practice.  But I'm recommitting to them once again because my results this time around have been spectacular.

Why You Should Do Them

For about fifty million reasons, really, but mostly because they will boost your creativity, help you find and maintain your spiritual center, and maybe most important of all--because they will freaking make you feel good.  

As I've been gathering my thoughts about this post, I've run across a couple of related quotes that I share with you here because, though they are not specifically about Morning Pages, I think they shine light on why they work so well.

Here is what Jen Sincero, author of You Are a Badass, says about journaling: 

Meditate and/or journal and/or spend lots of time in nature, dance - do whatever you have to do to strengthen your relationship with The Motherlode. Because when you get into the flow and out of your head, your doubts, fears and worries fall away because they do not exist in the flow. Awesomeness, strength and joy exist in the flow. Connection to your mightiest self exists in the flow. Get. In. The. Flow. Yo.

Yeah, and sometimes it is not so much about connecting to your mightiest self but just setting yourself up for the day.  I'm re-earning that doing MPs is replenishing.  One morning recently I woke feeling foggy, vague and overwhelmed.  I had so much to do--and my brain didn't seem to want to do any of it.  But then I pulled my journal out and started writing.  And suddenly I saw that things weren't so bad. Moreover, everything that I needed to do came into focus.  

This is because morning pages create space.  They do this in a couple of ways.  First of all, they are a physical space in which to download all the things--bad and good--that clutter your brain.  Dump 'em all on the page.  Second, they create space in your brain by getting all that stuff out of it. Suddenly, the world opens up when your mind is not so cluttered.

Here's what Tara Stiles, author of the Make Your Own Rules Diet and some other books on yoga that look really cool says about the necessity of finding space in our lives: 

We all feel great when we have space for ourselves. Room to breathe, feel, think, and exist. When we lack that space, we often (unknowingly) form destructive habits to provide the temporary illusion of it. We can’t escape our need for space, but we can change how we create and sustain room for ourselves so we can live happy, healthy lives. 

Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?

If You Want to Try Them

If you haven't tried Morning Pages, you are likely grousing that you don't have time for such thing. I hear you.  But I say you'll create time by doing them.  Because you'll have more clarity, less anxiety and more of an ability to focus on what you really want to do throughout the day.  So try it:

Set your alarm for 20 minutes earlier than you usually rise and make the coffee the night before so its all ready to turn on.  (Sometimes I start my pages sitting at the kitchen table while the coffee is brewing.) Grab yourself a notebook and pen and have at it.  Or try doing them on the computer here.  (Yeah, Cameron says to do them longhand and I agree.  But I'm also a big proponent of whatever works.  So if writing on the computer works better for you, go for it.)  That's it!  That's all you have to do.  Okay?

If you need more information on the process, there's now an Ebook that Julia Cameron wrote specifically about Morning Pages, which you can find here.  Though I'm here to tell you that you really don't need it.  Trust me.  All you have to do is write.

Update: In the department of synchroncity, just as I was scheduling this post, an email from Tim Ferriss, author of the Four-Hour Workweek, popped into my inbox.  And it was about--you guessed it--the value of Morning Pages.  Read it here.

Have you ever tried Morning Pages?  Did you find them helpful?

Photo by alitaylor.


Journaling: Days of Future Past

I've been writing in my journal regularly again and I love it because I come up with all kinds of brilliance epiphanies.  (You can read my most recent journaling epiphany here.)

Yesterday, the thought occurred to me that there are two kinds of journalers:

--Those who basically dissect the past in their diaries

--Those who prefer to write about the future

I fall squarely into the latter camp. Hmmm.  Let's discuss.

Anais Nin famously said, "We write to live twice, in the moment and in the retrospection." Nin, also famously, was a kick-ass writer who specialized in getting her journals published.  And said journals were full of all kinds of juicy affairs, as well as creative thoughts.  (Or so I've heard, I've only managed to get through part of the first one.)

Brief aside for an interesting thought: if Nin were alive today, would she be a blogger?  I suspect so.

But when I write about what happened to me the day before, I get bored and rush through it.  I feel compelled to note it for some mythical future reader (unless I decide to burn all my journals, which is a real possibility).  I don't really enjoy this living twice thing.  And its not that I'm bored with my life, because I'm not, I love my life, for the most part.

So what gives?

What comes out in my Moleskine, when I allow myself just to let loose, is a volley of ideas, things I want to ponder that perhaps grew out of what happened recently, thoughts on blog posts, articles and books.  That kind of stuff is what populates my journals.  Also recipes, notes from phone calls, lectures, sermons, and conversations, names of websites, phone numbers and so on.

But not a lot about what happened to me the day before.  When I force myself to write in my journal a certain way, that's what comes out.  In the most boring of fashions imaginable.  I'm bored with it, so I feel sorry for my future readers, because if I'm bored think how bored they will be.  (The one exception to this is when I write about specific things in terms of a writing exercise, such as noting details of a person I saw, or relating dialogue.)

I'm not a person who reads books twice, either.  Recently, friends and family members have been so enthralled with the book Shadow of Night that they've either read it or listened to it twice.  The thought of doing that slays me.  There are so many books in the world, I want to go on to the next one.  (Of course I'm still slogging through Shadow of Night, so I've not even finished it once yet.)

All this forces me to one conclusion: I've a shallow, impatient mind.

Sigh.

What about you?  Do you have a deep, thoughtful mind that loves to dissect every aspect of the day before?  What do you journal about (if you dare tell)?

**Don't forget to sign up for the Get Your Novel Written Now class, which starts in October!


A Month of Giveaways for Writers!

It's December, I'm in a holiday mood (my Christmas tree is already up and I'm in the process of finishing the decorating) so I've decided to give things away.  Not just once, but four times.

Here's how its going to work: on Monday, I'll announce the prize and ask a question related to writing.  You answer in the comments, and on Friday I'll randomly pick one of you to win the prize.  Please note: I'm not choosing you on the basis of the brilliance of your answers, so don't worry about that.  Just comment and you get a chance to win. (Also, all my commenters are brilliant and I adore and appreciate every one of you.)

A different prize will be announced every Monday in December, so come on back and check it out!

Okay, ready to find out what the first prize is going to be?  Drum roll, please.... Moleshine_lrg_journal

A Moleskine journal.  A Moleskine Classic Ruled Large notebook, to be precise.

I love Moleskine journals.  The paper is smooth and easy to write on, the basic size is easy to transport and you can manipulate the spine in various ways so as to make it easy to balance on your knee and scrawl in, if need be.  (The drawback with many perfect-bound journals is that you can't turn the cover back on itself and sometimes writing in a book that only opens flat can be awkward.)

Also there's an iconic feeling to the Moleskine, perhaps because generations of authors and writers and artists have used them throughout the years.  Writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin.  Artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso.

But, mostly I use Moleskines because I like them, plain and simple.  And when it comes to journals, you should use what you like, because if you do, you'll write in it more often. By the way, I've written a bit about journaling in this blog, and here are some of those posts:

The Writer's Notebook: Loving Moleskines

Journaling, One Path to Writing Abundance

Practical Considerations For Journal Writing

The Carry-Along Book

Okay, okay, here's the part you've been waiting for.  Just answer this question and you'll be entered into the contest to win a Moleskine:  Do you write in a journal regularly? Does it inspire your creative writing?  (Yeah, I know, two questions.  Consider it a Christmas bonus. Answer one or the other or both.)

Catch you back here Friday when I'll announce the winner!

(Also, please note, I have nothing to do with Moleskine, I just love their products.  They are not sponoring this giveaway, I'm doing it all by my little old self.)


What a Writer Does: Shawn Mullins 2.0

Yesterday, I wrote about attending a private performance by Shawn Mullins.

Guitar_blues_electric_263163_l

I wrote about how, at every concert that means anything to me, at some point early on I get a thrill through the very core of me that means I'm connecting to the music in a profound way.  That thrill is the same impulse that motivates my creativity and so its no surprise that I find myself wanting to write about it.  In that moment, I'm suddenly hyper-aware of how much I'm enjoying the moment, which paradoxically shifts me out of the moment if I'm not careful.

But here's the deal: this is, again, what a writer does.  As soon as I realized that the concert was touching me in a deep place and that I was going to write about it, I started to shape the narrative in my head.  I made a mental note of what he wore and scanned the stage again to imprint the visual in my brain.  Phrases and words started flowing in my mind.  This is usually the point where I'd pull out my journal, or in a pinch, my Iphone, and start taking notes.  But I was in a dark room and couldn't do that, so the notes were mental.   And so I'm thinking:

--How am I going to shape this story?  Is it better to set the stage, start with the build-up, why we were there, describe going in?  Or should I emply a mise-en-scene method and start in the middle of the action?

--What exact words do I use to describe him and the setting so that it will come to life?

--How on earth am I going to remember all this without writing it down?

But beyond that, I was excited because Shawn Mullins is at heart a writer's writer, and encountering someone like that always inspires me.  Some of the themes of his life are themes that I hold dear. As a young man, he lived in his van and traveled around the country, writing in his journal.  I'm a lifelong journal writer myself, and feel a kinship with anyone who gets ideas from journaling.  And Mullins also didn't wait to be rescued, one of Christine Kane's favorite expressions.  By this she means he didn't wait for an agent or a record label to anoint him.  When he couldn't get signed with a big label, he created his own, made his own CDs and sold them out of the back of the van.  More and more, I'm realizing that we need to take the responsibility for success into our own hands.

So those are some writerly thoughts upon seeing a performance that inspired me.  What about you?  Have you been inspired by music to write something? 

*The very cool photo is of an electric blues guitar, which is not really in the same ilk as Mullins' acoustic schtick, but hey, we're talking about musical inspiration in general here, right?  The image is by tvvoodoo and I got it at Everystockphoto.

 


The Carry-Along Book

This is going to be a short post today (I know what you're thinking--ha!  when has she ever managed to write a short post?) because, ta-da, my office furniture is assembled (thanks to my long-suffering husband) and I want to spend time moving myself back in.

This is actually the very first post I've written from my new desk.  Amazingly, I can sit comfortably at it with my computer on the desk, instead of in my lap, as has been the case for the last few years.  I can already feel my shoulder problems easing.

I promise to post photos when it is all in order, but the picture to the right is a bit of a teaser, an image of one of the wall cabinets. Wallcabinet For those of you who are familiar with Ikea products, it is the "Effektiv" line of office storage and it is quite handsome as well as efficient.

But all of that is actually a warm up to the real topic of this post, which is something I'm calling the carry-along book.

I've written numerous posts about journals and journaling, and the importance of choosing just the right journal for your tastes.

But lately I've been doing things a bit differently.

My journaling has taken the form of Active Imagination, which to me, requires a bigger canvas on which to throw words, so I've been using large sketchbooks from my new favorite place, Columbia Art and Drafting.

(In case you don't know about Active Imagination, I wrote about it in the most recent issue of my newsletter.  It's a technique devised by Carl Jung, and it involves accessing a "trusted source" which can be your intuition, your higher self, God, the goddess, whatever in writing.  Just choose a source and then do an actual dialogue on the page, using the names.)

But the larger sketchbook is hard to take with me.  Yet I need a place to scrawl notes, to write down things of interest, to note observations.  One of the practices in my-soon-to-be-renamed Writing Abundance system is cultivating, which is basically the habit of observing, listening, and gathering.  Taking stuff in so you can spit it back out on the page. Usually this stuff goes right along with regular journal entries, but that won't work at the moment.  So I needed a carry-along journal.  

Which I didn't even know until I started using one.

When I was in Nashville I found myself drawn to a journal on a rack at a coffee shop in the 12th Avenue South neighborhood.  (Somebody help me out here, I've forgotten the name of the place.)   Journal Journal2 

As you can see from the lovely accompanying photos, the journal is awesome.  It is small in size, 6 by 8 ish (my ruler is still packed).  As a matter of fact, I hesitated to buy it because of its size, thinking that it was too little to journal in.  But I was so compelled to buy it, I did...and then I started the Active Imagination and the rest is history.

 One of the great things about it is the way it is bound, with the edges threaded and two separate covers bound together, allowing it to lie flat.  So now I'm in love with a new style of journal (this one was handmade but I found others in this style are available commercially).

But all of this points out something crucial about writing: it is a living, breathing practice.  And sometimes that practice changes as we change.  I reserve the write to go back to my beloved Moleskines, and I probably will at some point.

Meanwhile, if anybody knows how to make this kind of journal, I'd love being pointed to a link.

So, what kind of journal do you write in?  Do you mash everything together in one, or use a carry-along journal and another for lengthier entries?  Or perhaps you have numerous journals?

***By the way, when I grow up I want to be Ann Patchett.  Read her great essay about the Nashville floods here.

****I almost forgot, the maker of this journal is Holly Frees, of Hope Sewn Journals. 


A Place You Go

800px-Laguna_Beach Yesterday I wrote a blog post called Have a Place to Go in Your Writing.  It was about how important it is to know where you are going when you begin a writing session.  You can go back and read it here, but you don't really have to in order to understand this post.

This whole thing about place grew out of a journal entry from a few weeks ago.  I started out by writing on the topic of yesterday's post--having a place to go in my work and what a difference that made.  And then the journal entry morphed into how important the concept of place itself is in my writing.  The fact that place is front and center in my work is not news to me.  I wrote my critical thesis for my MFA on the role of landscape as character in the works of Willa Cather and Flannery O'Connor.  (And for the record, I'm a huge, raving Cather fan.  O'Connor***, not so much.)

There's a scene in my recently completed novel where the heroine, Emma Jean, who is a bestselling novelist, dramatically announces to her husband, "I cannot live someplace that does not inspire me."  While this is true for me, what is even more true is that I can't write about a place that doesn't inspire me.  And, bear in mind, I use the term "inspire" loosely.  I love writing about LA, though I have no desire to live there.  But something about the place inspires me as a location.  Conversely, though Nashville is one of my absolute favorite places on the planet, I've not yet been able to write about it.  I've set fiction in Portland (where I live), in Santa Fe, and in Sun Valley, Idaho.  I love the Oregon Coast, but have never been able to use it as a setting.  Weird, huh?

 And furthermore, getting the location set is as important to me as coming up with a character to write about.  To me, a character is so intricately linked to place that if I change the place she lives, that can jinx the whole book.  And, if I don't have a place firmly in mind when I think up a character, there's a good chance the story won't go anywhere.

Perhaps this odd thing about place that I have is about wanting to explore the parameters of a location.  It may not be that I have to love the place to write about it, but just that I want to know more about it.  LA, for instance, despite the many times I've been there, is a vast mystery to me.  I still marvel at the sunshine, the palm trees, the freeways, the cars.  I am still amazed that people actually live there.  Manhattan is the same.  A couple years ago, attending a conference there, I rode in the back of a taxi from the airport, staring at people walking down the busy sidewalks, flabbergasted that so many people lived in this place where you can't see the sky.  Try as I might, I could not figure out what it would be like to live there.

And maybe that is what it is all about--trying to figure out what its like to live someplace else.  Because, really, isn't fiction all about trying to figure out the someplace else and the someone else?

Thoughts?  What role does place play in your work?  Is it important or something you don't really think about?  How do you choose a setting for your writing?

**The photo is of Laguna Beach, where my dear friend Julie Brickman lives.  I've had the picture on my computer for awhile, but I think it originally came from Wikipedia.

***Now that I've dissed Flannery O'Connor, let me point out that today is her birthday.  She was born on March 25, 1925.  I just learned this while finding the link for her.


Make the Words Flow

I noticed something this morning when I was in the middle of writing an email.Myjournal

The words were flowing as smooth as a glass of fine wine. 

I started paying more attention.  And realized that I was allowing myself to go a bit deeper emotionally in my response.  So I stopped and thought for a bit, and realized why this was. 

Because I've been jingling every morning again.

Now, I'm an inveterate journaler.  I've written about journaling over and over again, so much so that you are no doubt sick of it.  Recently, I was reading Katrina Kenison's memoir, The Gift of an Ordinary Day, and in one scene she is delighted to find that over the last 18 years or so, she has filled 10 to 12 journals.  Um, I'm filled hundreds.  I have tubs of them in the downstairs closet, and more bursting out of cardboard boxes in my office.  So I've got some journaling cred.

But every once in awhile I take a break from it.  I decide that I should get right to my novel writing first thing in the morning, since it is the most important thing in my life and all the experts say to do that first.  So I shun my journal and go do my other work. 

And then something calls me back.

I pick up my journal again and before you know it, I'm writing like crazy every morning, and then sometimes several times a day.  And I have to admit, as I realized while writing the email, my work is better off for it.  Here, I've decided, is why:

  • The words flow more easily
  • The process of going deeper comes naturally, without effort
  • I'm more connected with my emotions
  • I notice more
  • Writing breeds more writing.

Take special note of that last item.  If I take time to write in my journal, those words breed more words. Has anybody else ever noticed that?  The more I write, the more I'm capable of writing.  It is almost magical.

One of the reasons this may be is that the act of writing in my journal shakes loose the muse and often what I write about is how I want to do a certain scene in my novel.  Nearly every day, a blog post comes through.  I get ideas for all kinds of things.

So.  Writing in your journal doesn't have to take up your whole day, and it doesn't have to be first thing in the morning.  Pull out your moleskine at lunchtime and write for 10 minutes, or have a mini-writing session during your afternoon coffee break.  You'll be amazed at what happens.