Why Keeping a Journal Boosts Creativity

journal, writing, black and white photograph, pen, paper, bedtime
I bring one with me everywhere.

Yesterday, a friend came over to my apartment, agitated and confused. Between bites of coffee chocolate ice cream, she said something I’ve felt a million times. “I don’t know how to explain what I feel,” she said, “and it’s frustrating.”

Immediately I asked her if she kept a journal. Although she had one, she hadn’t been writing lately. After hearing about her confusion, I wasn’t surprised. Journaling has been an important part of my self care for almost 18 years. It’s that important of a practice to me, for both emotional and creative purposes.

a self-care fundamental

There are a lot of negative ideas around journaling. It’s selfish. It’s inconsequential material, navel gazing. We have more images of Harriet the Spy and Sweet Valley High and OMG FEELINGS.

But here’s the thing: it’s the one practice I recommend to everyone, whether or not you like to write. In fact, I recommend it to people who aren’t even interested in creativity.

Why? A journal is both the perfect pressure valve and testing ground. The blank page is perfect if you need to vent, whine, or write a to do list. It’s a place you can leave all the random and distracting thoughts from inside your head.

Allowing yourself space to unravel those thoughts can help you clarify your thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs. It’s not a silver bullet, but it gives you the space to think and know yourself. It can help you show up more fully for yourself, friends, family and for the other people in your life.

The best part? It’s a safe space that’s available 24/7 (as long as you have a pen). No one will judge you if you write in all caps lock, cry, or write a list of obscenities. Journals allow you space to be brutally honest that other forms of processing (like talking to friends) might not.

Why does it matter for creatives?

pen, journal, writing, diary, private thoughts, silver pen, letter, handwritten

Journaling is more than great self-care, it’s a critical practice for creatives of all stripes. For writers, the value seems obvious. It’s a form of training, like long runs for soccer. My journal is not dominated by the fiction or poetry I write but it keep me in shape. Sometimes, pieces do begin in my morning free write, especially these blog posts.

Ok, but what about other types of creatives? Photographers, musicians, or even hackers? I still tell them to journal. Why? Because when you are honest with yourself, you have more energy for the work of being creative.

How does it work? You bring your emotions, your issues with you for better or for worse. If you aren’t dealing with our shit, eventually your energy becomes all focused around denying your issues. There’s no room for creativity, only the tug of war about the problem inside that you don’t want to look at.

Now, some say that they still can show up. For a little while, that will probably be true. But it gets harder each time requiring more and more energy you don’t have. Worse, that stagnation will show up in your work. There’s no energy to try something new. Suddenly, you’re taking 20 versions of the same photograph, or singing the hundredth version of “he broke my heart fuck him fuck him fuck him”.

There are times when you may feel repetitive. You may spend a few years on a theme or idea. A creative person working through it, however, will show different iterations, different aspects of the theme. There will be evolution, not repetition.

Opening the floodgates of creativity

Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way,  also brings up another critical aspect of journaling: finding your creativity. Struggling to find inspiration can feel like you “never do enough and what [you] do isn’t right” (11). It’s like there’s a censor inside your head constantly trying to undermine you. That’s exactly what the censor wants to do: stop you from taking any risk.

Journaling is a way of undermining that internal critic. You can’t journal a wrong way. You can’t write anything too awful, too saccharine, too messy to not count.

When you do keep a journal, something strange can start to happen. You stop listening to your internal critic. You may even begin to doubt that it’s right about any creative work you’ve done, or about anything in general.

Julia Cameron says it best that journaling gets us, “to the other side: the other side of our fear, our negativity, of our moods…Beyond the reach of the Censor’s babble we can find our own quiet center, the place where we hear the still, small voice that is at once our creator’s and our own” (12).

Beginner’s Tips to Journaling

Sometimes we need journal buddies
Sometimes we need journal buddies

Have I convinced you yet? Awesome! Here are some tips to get started.

  1. Start with some basic questions.

Scared of the blank page? Yeah, lots of us are. Try answering some basic questions:

How do you feel today?

What do you need today?

What are you grateful for? Why?

Sometimes, checking in with yourself like this can lead to huge changes. Even now, I love asking myself  these questions. The answers can even surprise you!

2. The internet is your friend.

If you don’t like handwriting pages, no worry. I’ve been using 750 words since 2012. It’s a big blank page that tries to get you to write for 750 words, the approximate equivalent of three pages. Securely log on, and write. No one else can see it. And yes, you can go back and erase what you’ve typed.

While it’s not free, this is a great alternative for those who prefer typing.

3. Harness your daydreams.

One of my favorite games in highschool was playing If. We’d be on the bus, just asking each other hypothetical questions.

Next time you’re stuck, try answering one of these:

If you could spend one night alone with anyone in the world, who would it be?

If you had to make a bronze statue of any of your body parts, which would you chose?

If you could relive any day in your life so far, which one would you choose?

For more If questions, check out the Big Book of If.

4. Draw it out

Journaling doesn’t have to just be words. you can make it your own with visuals as well by answering questions like these:

What color does your day feel like today?

If you could draw your boss as an imaginary creature, what would they look like?

What would your dream vacation look like?

Feel like it’s a work of art suited for kindergarten fridge awards? No worries, no one has to see it.

5. Keep showing up.

Yes it takes time. Yes you have to look at yourself. Yes, it can bring up shit you don’t want to deal with. But here’s the thing: constipation, emotional or physical, can’t last forever. Your shit will need to come out one way or another. Denial comes at a cost.  It could potentially mean physical illness or destroying your creative energy.

So keep showing up. If you don’t want to write, admit you don’t want to write on the page. But make journaling a part of your day. Reward yourself afterward with a big cup of tea or coffee or dark chocolate. In the end, you’ll realize that life and creativity is a whole lot easier when you take the time to process, when you’re clearer about what’s going on in your life and what you need.

Do you have tips for people starting to journal? Share one below!


    1. That’s awesome Thomas! Whether you like to write lists or draw, getting back on the page I think is an awesome habit. Feel free to let me know how it goes.

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