Why Keeping a Journal is Vital to your Creative Practice

I’ve written in the past about the value of keeping a creative journal: a place where you can reflect upon your current project while you are creating it, but this post is different. This post is about journaling in general and how this practice can help your writing. 

Perhaps you’ve kept a diary or a journal in the past; a place where you could record activities, events, meetings, or appointments. But have you ever kept a journal that recorded your observations, thoughts and feelings?

If you can become an observer to your own thoughts and feelings, then you will be able to articulate certain experiences and sensations better than a writer who doesn’t take the time to analyse or reflect upon their life. 

By recording and critically evaluating your behaviour, feelings and thoughts, you will begin to clarify what your core values and beliefs are. As a writer, you need to know where you stand on particular issues so that you can write about them from a conscious and informed stand-point. 

Do not get hung up on the ‘proper’ way to keep a journal. There is no right way to record or reflect upon your day. To begin with, you might like to keep a bullet-point journal where you list the day’s events in bullet form followed by a brief (1-2 sentence) description of your thoughts or feelings. Maybe you’d prefer to write a paragraph about one event.  If you lean towards the spiritual/mindfulness side of things, you might like to keep a gratitude journal where you list all the people, experiences and objects you are grateful for. If you’re more of a pessimist, you could always rename this exercise as a what’s not wrong right now list

Writing cannot be separated from living.

If our writing becomes too detached from lived experience or from the world, then our stories will fail to connect with readers. Our words will become flat, our characters dull and our plots predictable.

If truth is stranger than fiction, then what better inspiration can there be than the content of our own lives, community and world? 

Inspiration is ‘out there,’ but it’s through our internal processing that we can turn the messy, perplexing, beautiful, scary, dramatic and reverent event into gripping stories. 

Writing is not a purely intellectual activity. It is a combination of imagination and intellect.  As Virginia Woolf said, it is the result of “discipline and the creative fire.”

All brain and no heart leads to unremarkable writing. 

Journals are loose, unpredictable and creative. You can write about the weather, reflect upon the day’s events, record your sleep patterns and dreams, your goals, your disappointments, that shitty thing you did to X and all the ways you were incredibly generous to Y. You can riff on a topic that’s gotten you all fired up or write about how a certain book or movie made you feel. What did the storyteller do right? What would you change about it?

You don’t have to write in your journal every day, but taking the time to regularly reflect on your life is a good practice. Not only for your craft but also the development of you as a human being. You needn’t write for hours. Fifteen minutes is good; three pages is enough to satisfy Julia Cameron. 

Keeping a journal may seem self-indulgent or juvenile, but that’s simply a matter of perspective. Learning to meaningfully reflect on your life, behaviours and thought processes isn’t childish. If anything, it is the mark of a person who is brave enough to examine the beautiful and the disfigured facets within their own character. 

Writing will make you a better writing. Keeping a journal will make you better still. And I can think of no better time to start than right now.

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Keeping a Creative Journal

Last year, I decided to publish three YA novels under a pseudonym. Prior to publishing, I asked a skilled friend of mine to proofread each manuscript. After I had read through their comments and mark-ups, I complimented them on their editing skills. This is when my critique partner suggested that I start keeping a creative writing journal.

I love reflecting on the creative process (hence this blog!) and I’m already an active journal writer (it frightens me how quickly we forget things!), so I was instantly intrigued and wanted to know more. ‘Why do you say that?’ I asked.

My critique partner then informed me that the volume of suggested corrections varied widely throughout the manuscript. Apparently, they would read through several pages without noting a single error only to then find three error on one page. I confessed that I too noted this pattern during my revisions and had chalked the errors up to ‘bad writing days.’

A creative writing journal is a good place to record your daily word count and hours spent writing, but more importantly, it is a place where you can reflect on your creative process. Journal entries are a way to document how you feel about the day’s writing session. Did the words come easily? Did the story go in a direction you hadn’t expected? How do you feel about what you have written?

I’m a daily writer. I find it easy to slowly chip away at a project day-after-day rather than binge write for 8-10 hours every now and then. I enjoy the sense of daily progress and the satisfaction of crossing things off my to-do list. So, I write every day – whether I feel like it or not. (*Insert obvious disclaimer. Life happens. Some days I don’t write because events outside of my control prevent me from doing so).

Here’s the thing though, I can’t help but believe that the pages clustered with typos and errors were written, revised or edited on days when I didn’t want to write. Days when I was tired, unmotivated, distracted or pressed for time. Days where I chose to white knuckle through my writing session rather than take the day off.

Of course, those typos and errors could have just as easily been made on days when I was struck with inspiration. Days when the words came quicker than my fingers could type them. Days when I hurried to get the story down before it had a chance to escape me.

The problem is, I have no idea whether those typos ridden pages were written on ‘bad’ days or ‘good’ days. Keeping a creative journal would allow me to identify the correlations between the quality of the writing and my mood, mental clarity and energy. If a pattern was pinpointed, then I would know which sections of the manuscript would require further – or more careful – editing/revisions prior to sharing them with others.

Using beta readers, critique partners and professional editors will certainly assist in the correcting of errors, but personally, I would like my manuscript to be as clean as possible before I share it with others. Typos are distracting. If I’ve asked my beta readers or critique partners to read my manuscript and to provide thoughtful feedback, I’d hate for them to spend that time marking up typos rather than reflecting on the quality of the manuscript.

Even if a particular pattern is not identified, a creative journal could provide further insight into my own creative process. This, in itself, is reason enough for me. Obviously, this is a new practice for me, and if this tool proves useful, I’ll certainly write a follow-up blog. But for now, I’d love to hear from you! Do you keep a creative writing journal? If so, what do you record? How has maintaining a creative journal assisted your process?