A Messy, Liberating Guide to Journal Writing
I know some writers are diligent about keeping their journals pristine. The pages are crisp, the lines straight and legible, and every word is thoughtfully selected. The theme is consistent — a dream journal, an idea journal, a diary. It’s an orderly affair done up in a tidy fashion. And that works for some people.
But it doesn’t work for me.
If I’m going to be creative — if I’m going to let my creativity flow — then I need to let things get messy. I need to dig my toes in the mud, bury my fingers in the clay, and splash paint across the walls. I can’t be confined by order or logic. I need to write sideways and upside down. I need to doodle. Jot down song lyrics. Make smudges. I need to be free.
And I’m not the only one.
Keri Smith created Wreck This Journal with the same understanding that when we allow ourselves freedom to make a mess, we also free ourselves to be as creative as possible, unchaining hidden ideas that refuse to come out for fear that they’ll be destroyed by our linear and conventional thinking:
By forcing ourselves to wreck it on purpose, the “journal as an object” loses it’s preciousness, and allows us the feeling of completion.
Wreck This Journal is a great way to get your creativity out of the box. As you work your way through the journal, you actually wreck it. You’ll cut, tear, and generally thrash this book (you’ll even be asked to tie it to a string and drag it around on the ground). You start letting go of constraints, allowing yourself to make mistakes, create poorly crafted prose, or senseless art (because you’re going to wreck it), and this gives your creativity the courage it needs to take risks.
Getting Creative with Journal Writing
I haven’t wrecked my own journal (yet), but I don’t play by a set of rules either. I started journaling many years ago and I’ve tried every which way: keeping separate journals and notebooks for different purposes, tracking my life’s events, daily journal writing. I had a dream journal and an art journal. A gratitude journal. None of these stand-alone methods worked for me.
But I didn’t give up. In time, my journal writing became a mish-mash of ideas and themes that lived together on the pages of a single journal. My writing and creativity blossomed. Encouraged by my creative writing instructors, I wrote in circles, used large cursive and teeny tiny print. I sketched in the margins, sometimes on full pages. Anarchy ensued as I became increasingly experimental and let go of my overly tidy journal writing habits.
My journal has become a sacred space for disorder. I know that when I open it, anything goes. I can create with total abandon. And I do.
25 Ways to Journal
I’m not going to ask you to wreck your journal, but if you think it might open your creative floodgates, I say go for it. When we want to be more creative, we have to be willing to try anything. What I am going to do is give you a list of ways that you can use your journal. You’ll find that if you open your journal to more possibilities for material, media, and subject matter, you’ll start to build interesting connections. And that is one sure path to better writing!
Since Writing Forward’s inception, many readers have left comments sharing brilliant ways that they use their journals. Here are some of the ideas they’ve shared mixed in with some of my own:
- Forget about lines. Turn your journal sideways or upside down. Write in the margins or on the spine. Write in a spiral. Draw a shape and fill it with words. This was one of the first creativity techniques I ever used and it really got the ball rolling.
- Reader zz, who blogs at Eek.Eke knows a thing or two about wrecking journals: “When I’m feeling particularly uninspired I like to journal melodramatically – it makes me laugh and keeps me going. Otherwise I like to make paper mache bowls out of pages of my worst writing – something about ripping the pages into tiny little pieces is very freeing…”
- Ever come across mind-blowing imagery in a magazine or online? Print it out, cut it out, and paste in in your journal for inspiration.
- Reader Gaya commented to share how she uses an art journal. She includes pictures with funny captions and keeps a record of the galleries she attends. You too can write crazy captions for the images you paste (or draw) in your journal.
- Write with colored pens, crayons, or Sharpies.
- Paulo Campos commented about how he uses his journal: “A habit I learned while reading about Virginia Woolf: she regularly copied passages she liked from books she was reading into notebooks.” Brad Vertrees also keeps a reading journal where he write his thoughts about the current book he’s reading. And Deb keeps a log of books she’s read in her journal.
- Write down words. Not sentences — just words — words you like, words that evoke intense emotions or strong imagery or words that simply resonate. Randomly fill the blank spaces in your journal with these words. Write them big, write them small, and write them in all different colors!
- Make lists of names and places (make up some place names!). List foods, song titles, and sensations. List nouns or list adjectives. Or simply list random, short thoughts that pop into your head.
- When Wendi Kelly wakes up with a song stuck in her head, she asks the song, “What do you want?” If you get a song stuck in your head, jot down some of the lyrics and then keep writing to find out what message the song is sending you.
- Doodle, doodle, doodle, and draw. Or try writing and sketching in your journal with chalk or charcoal. See what happens when you smudge and smear your words. Maybe you’ll make some pictures or abstract art!
- Use stream of consciousness, also known as freewriting. Rebecca Reid shared her experience: “I kept a journal for about 10 years: it was combination train of thought and ‘diary’ of my day. I think a train of thought journal would be nice now too.”
- Dreams are a popular source of inspiration, and ideal for journal writing. You can get story ideas, imagery, and bizarre notions from your night visions. Write down your most interesting dreams in your journals. When I mentioned dream journals in another post, Trisha from Marketing Journeys responded, “Journaling my dreams has been on my list for quite a while – you’ve given me a jumpstart and the inspiration to get going!”
- Use journal writing to engage in dialogue with people who are inaccessible. Write letters or short notes to people you’ve lost touch with, people you’ve broken up with, and people who have passed away. Chat with your characters. Converse with your heroes (dead or alive).
- Deep Friar told us that his mom (who is very wise) suggested a “Happy Compartment” journal: “When something nice happens, you put it in your ‘Happy Compartment.’ Then, whenever you feel bad, you just open up your Happy Compartment, and relive the happy time and make yourself feel better.”
- Monika Mundell mentioned in a comment that she keeps gratitude and travel journals. She added, “Come to think about it though, I do have a lovely creative journal from years ago. I used to draw, stick pictures in there and sketch. Loved that thing.”
All-Purpose Journal Writers
As I searched through the comments across this site to find out what readers had shared about their journal writing habits, I discovered that lots of writers already use all-purpose journal writing creatively and freely:
Cheryl Wright keeps “an all inclusive journal where I record idle and focused thoughts, ramblings about my life issues and life in general and everything else for that matter.”
And Karen Swim has journals “for life, writing, dreams, ideas, notes, and prayers.” She mentioned all of these journals more than once while visiting Writing Forward!
T. Sterling Watson kept a journal that “contained funny quotes I overheard, random ideas for future poems or scripts, doodles, and general thoughts.”
Michele Tune, who writes the cyber highway, commented, “I draw, write poetry, document the day’s events, or whatever I feel like putting on paper. I’ve written in pretty journals, on scratches of paper that I’ve tucked into journals…”
Milena uses her journal to “paste images, cartoons, photos, write stuff, even jot down grocery lists (these can be interesting to come back to sometimes), impressions of any sort or anything that comes to mind and which I fear forgetting.”
That’s what I’m talking about!
Of journal writing, Amy Derby once commented, “Those paper journals of mine are priceless.”
Treasure your journals! Let them them get wrecked up and messed up.
And keep on writing.
Do you have any fun, unusual, messy, or liberating journal writing tips to share? Interested in trying any of the ones listed here? Share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment.
Journal Writing Resources: