How to start journaling—and deliver on your creative ideas

If you procrastinate on your creative ideas or impulses, this post is for you.

Do you believe in alternate universes?

I do, sometimes. There are so many quirks in our lives, so many tiny flakes of coincidence that build and build into a great avalanche of The Way Things Are. But what if one or two flakes had gone missing, or blown south instead of southwest?

A universe where my ex and I went through with the wedding. A universe where my dad visited the doctor a year earlier for his colonoscopy. A universe where I died from a ruptured appendix at age 23. These are all easy enough to picture, and I think about them all the time.

Sometimes, though, my imagination loses itself in truly elaborate what ifs. What if my ex and I had moved into that cute little place with the turret and the comically sloped ceilings, rather than the spacious, sprawling apartment where we ended up? Would the tiny apartment have kept us closer somehow? And if we’d stayed together, would I have been happier last year? Would I have finished my novel by now? Would I have stayed at my job?

Maybe I shouldn’t, but I enjoy spending a fraction of my life in alternate universes. If things go my way, I’m grateful not to live in the universe where that car didn’t brake in time. If things go poorly, I take comfort that—somewhere, in some other dimension—my dad is drinking his second mug of coffee and watching This Old House.

I can tell you one thing, though: there is sure as hell a universe where I’m not writing.


The problem with most writing advice

If you’ve ever read writing advice, chances are you’ve encountered some snobbery. Half the writing books out there are like one unending weeder class. If you don’t wake up two hours early with a grin on your face and confetti in your heart because it’s time to write, they warn, then you’d better get your money back, because you’re not a real writer.

After taking a smug sip of their double espressos, these books tell you: Only write if you can’t not write. If being a doctor or a mother or a barkeep fulfills you, then count yourself lucky and stay the hell away. Oh, and if grocery shopping or dentist appointments or general procrastination ever keeps you from getting words on the page, then you may as well give up now, because you’ll never make it.  

Their message is clear: Writing is for a select few, and if you ever doubt whether you’re part of the club, chances are you’re not.

Where do I even start? Writing is hard. Writing is vulnerable. Occasionally it feels wonderful, but more often it feels like slicing your heart into ribbons and stitching it back together again. Many of us need that particular surgery—to be happy, to know our own minds, to participate fully in the world—but that doesn’t make it easy. Of course we seek refuge and distraction in the form of day jobs or web surfing or even dentist appointments.

And the idea that writing is for a select few, for a small group of tortured geniuses whose minds would wither and whose teeth would fall out if they had to do something as mundane as data entry or washing dishes? That idea makes me want to pull out every strand of my lovely blonde hair.

Here’s the truth: writing is for people who want to write. Painting is for people who want to paint. Creating is for people who want to create. There’s no secret club. No entry requirements, no password, no crazy handshake. The end.


Why you should journal

Back to that alternate universe where I don’t write. I lived there for a while, actually. In 2013, I moved from the city to the suburbs to live with my (then) boyfriend, and I found myself with a long, long commute that scrambled my brain and sucked it out through my toes. I was bone tired, and I missed seeing my friends all the time, and I couldn’t picture where my life was headed. After work, all I could do was lie on the couch.

I stopped writing.

I stopped going to my poetry workshop. I stopped scribbling ideas in notebooks. I even stopped cooking, so my boyfriend and I often ate oatmeal or chips with guacamole for dinner. (Sorry, James.) Every night, I sunk deeper into the couch cushions. My poor doctor ran every blood test she could think of, but she couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

Looking back, it’s obvious: I was mildly depressed. My relationship was in trouble, my career wasn’t going the way I wanted, my friendships were atrophying. Writing felt too vulnerable, too hard, so I stayed the hell away. All perfectly understandable.

But I couldn’t see any of that, so I just felt like a failure, a miserable failure. Here I told everyone I wanted to be a writer—heck, I’d wanted to be a writer since I read Little House in the Big Woods as a seven-year-old—but I couldn’t bring myself to actually write.

This, my friends, is where the miracle of journaling comes in.

Some people roll their eyes at journal writing. Marion Roach Smith of The Memoir Project [affiliate link] dismisses journaling as an activity that keeps you from doing real writing.

Sometimes, though, you find yourself avoiding “real” writing—or whatever your art form of choice is. Sometimes, gearing up for your creative process feels like throwing yourself at a brick wall, over and over.

Have you ever heard of “avoidance coping”? Avoidance coping is when you deal with something stressful—an unopened bill, say, or that novel you’ve always wanted to write—by ignoring it. You put it off for another day, another week. Or you might escape into work, Netflix, or aged Gouda in an effort to forget for a bit.

But that bill still sits on top of the microwave. That creative idea gnaws at the back of your brain. It doesn’t go away. And the longer you avoid it, the more intimidating it becomes. With each passing day, the prospect of tearing open that envelope or brainstorming about your characters becomes more daunting. After a while, you might lose confidence in your ability to make any progress at all. Your opinion of yourself tarnishes.


How to start journaling

To short-circuit the cycle of avoidance coping, open a notebook and just start writing.

Break the ice. Jump.

Even if you find yourself scribbling I don’t know what to write, this is stupid, there’s a cloud above me shaped like a donkey, keep going. Find the sound of your voice on the page.

There are two journaling frameworks I find especially helpful.

Morning pages

The first framework is morning pages. Julia Cameron first suggested these in her classic book The Artist’s Way [affiliate link]. To write morning pages, all you do is pull out a notebook or some loose leaf and fill three pages with something. Anything. This isn’t high art, and it’s not going to be seen by anyone else. Chances are you’ll find yourself complaining or agonizing or writing elaborate lists of Everything That Worries You. (Or is that just me?)

Eventually, you’ll start surprising yourself. You’ll spot unexpected patterns, or discover how you really feel about something. Ultimately, you’ll walk away from your pages feeling more balanced and—in time—more ready to deal with whatever you’ve been avoiding.

Side note: Cameron calls these “morning pages” because, in a perfect world, we’d get them out of the way first thing. I often break this rule and write my pages in the late afternoon, or just before bed. That said, there is a certain magic to following the three-page guideline, no matter what size those pages may be. Just try it.

The diary method

This framework comes from Susan Nolen-Hoeksema’s brilliant book Eating, Drinking, Overthinking [affiliate link], which charts the relationship between women’ mood issues, food issues, and alcohol issues. Not the first place you might turn for creative advice, but bear with me.

Nolen-Hoeksema created this method to help women recognize their emotional and behavioral patterns, and it turns out that this mindful awareness is helpful for just about anyone—especially anyone stuck in the cycle of avoidance coping.

In the diary method, you keep an “ongoing, written record of key events in your day and how you think and feel about them.” A key event is anything that causes an emotional response or launches you into a habitual behavior. Keep a log of these over the course of the day (rather than waiting until you go to bed), and notice how they make you feel and how you behave afterward.

Soon enough, you’ll notice patterns. If you hit traffic during your evening commute, do you skip working out or doing your creative work when you get home? If you get an accusatory email from your boss, do you eat three brownies in the office kitchen and spend the rest of the afternoon browsing knitting blogs? After a visit from your immaculately put-together sister, do you launch into an online shopping spree?

Here’s the thing: you’re filling your days somehow. You’re spending your energy somehow. The diary method helps you see why you keep doing things that don’t serve you. Things that don’t move you toward your creative goals—or any of your goals, for that matter. And once you spot the triggers that send you down the path of avoidance, you can disarm them.


My story

I’ve just shared two powerful journaling frameworks that can move you forward on those creative ideas you’ve been procrastinating. And I mean it when I say these things are powerful. We tend to think of journaling as something you do in a fluffy pink bathrobe while balancing a box of chocolate truffles on your lap—and if you want to go about it that way, I certainly won’t judge you—but these frameworks will bring you in touch with yourself and your patterns and your triggers like nothing else. Brace yourself.

But you might be wondering: what happened to me in 2013? Why did I start journaling, and what did it do for me?

By August of that year, about a million people had suggested to me that I try morning pages, but things had to get pretty desperate before I decided to pull out a notebook. My boyfriend of many years told me he wasn’t sure he loved me enough. I spoke with a writing coach who (I was certain) could solve all of my problems, but her monthly fee was more than my rent. I attended my first kundalini class, which made me wonder if there might be something more to this world than what I could see and taste and touch.

On August 30th, 2013, I brought out a notebook I’d had lying around for months and resolved to fill three pages. I needed to decide whether I should work with the writing coach, I needed to process the weirdness of kundalini, I needed to figure out why I wasn’t delivering on the things I wanted to do with my life. So I wrote.

Just to show you how messy and poorly punctuated and real morning pages can be, here’s an excerpt from that first entry:  

I don’t have so much clarity; many of my decisions feel arbitrary; many of my preferences and desires feel arbitrary, and I worry I will end up slipping somehow on the things that aren’t arbitrary: writing, which I do not manage regularly, which isn’t a part of my daily life; yoga, which I love and which gives me peace but I practice only in spurts; [my then boyfriend], whom I drive away or annoy sometimes with my stress and worry and uptightness and inability to go with the flow; my friendships, which I don’t make enough time for; my family, especially my mom, whom I sometimes take for granted and allow myself to rather (cattily) contradict on every point. These things matter. Eating healthfully matters. But I let them slip sometimes, for reasons I do not understand, and I worry I could let them slip indefinitely, until it’s too hard to recover.

I’d been stifling pretty much all of these worries and insecurities, and committing them to paper felt strangely good.

Over the following months (and years), morning pages helped me be honest with myself. Through them, I found my natural voice. I learned to hear my own thoughts. And I developed a more-or-less daily practice where I allowed myself to write with absolutely no expectation that the result would be any good, or worth sharing. That practice helped me find the strength and will and drive to start my novel.

Do I still struggle with avoidance coping? Absolutely. But without journaling, I’m pretty sure I would be living in the alternate universe where I don’t write. I’d be less fulfilled, less connected to myself, less alive.

And that would be a damn shame.

Do you journal? If not, have I won you over?

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