How Journalling Can Unlock Your Creativity, And Perhaps Give You X-Ray Vision

Someone journalling in public with a notebook and pen

Well, I hope you clicked knowing that I’d sprinkled a smidgeon of clickbait, but x-ray vision is not totally out of the picture, you know?

Maybe not literally, but you could definitely x-ray right through your thoughts. How you like that? Science, witch!

Anyway, I’ve been chatting about all things journalling with my newsletter group this week, which sparked off this follow-up post to a follow-up e-mail to an old post on journalling.

Click on that link and you’ll probably share my thoughts that I give crappy advice sometimes. Because who am I to tell you what to do? What makes me an authority? And can I shut up about morning pages already?

But I’ve since discovered Tristine Rainer’s book The New Diary, and I’ve learned that some techniques that I recommend have been around way before I was even born.

So this week, we’ll be learning how journalling can unleash your creative superpowers. Through science! Or at least through Rainer’s extensive efforts.

p.s. If you’re wondering about the newsletter and haven’t joined already, please feel free to do so here.

What’s worked for me

Before we move on to the actual techniques, here are some best practices on journalling that have worked for me. And they overlap with Julia Cameron’s teachings in The Artist’s Way too, which is another interesting topic in itself.

When it comes to paper, both Rainer and Cameron recommend using A4 (about eight-by-eleven inches). Their rationale behind this is that more real estate allows you to think bigger.

I personally journal in an A5 notebook, but I do my morning pages in A4 loose sheets, and I have to say, I do feel more freedom of expression when writing in the A4.

Cameron isn’t too picky on the ruling, but Rainer recommends a blank page, because it allows you to explore everything from drawing to writing diagonally. After using both, I have to say that I prefer the blank page too.

For your eyes only

Perhaps the most important thing for me is knowing that nobody else is going to read my entries, especially my morning pages, where I have zero filter and admit to hating family members or fantasise about killing the person who cut me off in traffic.

And that’s the level of openness you need for productive journalling sessions. Because you’re not going to get to the root of your thoughts if you hide things even from yourself.

Both Cameron and Rainer are adamant about keeping your entries private, and to eschew any hopes of sharing or performing when writing.

I personally dispose of my morning pages after I’m done. You can do whatever you want as long as you can fully open up to your journey.

Onto the techniques

Rainer outlines some pretty interesting techniques in her book, and she goes through them in great detail too. So I suggest that you read her book in its entirety if you’d like to know more. Below are the favourite techniques I want to highlight.

1. First of all (lists)

Lists are amazing. They’re the basis of bullet journalling. Compress everything to their simplest forms to record more with less.

What this does is it helps you to unload all the thoughts in your head faster than you can write the few sentences it takes to flesh out one idea.

Even Marcus Aurelius did this millennia ago with his staccato-like entries: “Human life. Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of the body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting fame: uncertain.”

We do this with our to-dos, gratitude journalling, and even grocery lists, without realising the power of clarity it gives us through brain dumping.

If you’d like to start journalling—or writing in general—and you have no idea where to start, basic lists are the way to go.

The good: Quickest way to brain dump and break down multiple thoughts.

The bad: Misses a lot of detail, which can reduce recall in the future.

2. Snapshotting moments through words (descriptions)

Mention journalling and this will probably be the first method that comes to mind. You’ve probably done this countless times before.

But while descriptions are pretty straightforward, many people fail to harness their true potential by changing the narrative style.

Examples would be writing from a different point-of-view, or even adding a bit of fiction to your entires (such as writing how you wish the day unfolded instead).

Rainer recommends recording vivid details when it comes to descriptions, such as “the colour of a dress, the way a person sat down, or the exact tune on the radio.”

Not only will they be an enjoyable read in the future, but these type of entries also help train your writerly abilities in focusing on the details that liven up a scene, or crafting something special out of the mundane.

Other than that, there’s not much to say about this method since you’d probably be familiar with this already.

The good: Ideal for recording moments you want to relive in the future, such as a particularly happy birthday.

The bad: Takes up more writing space, hard to capture the entire day, time-consuming.

3. Just let it fly, man (free-intuitive writing)

Now we come to one of my favourite techniques, which is also known as free-writing or stream-of-consciousness writing.

I’ve really begun to hone this practice through my morning pages, and I cannot stress how effective free-writing is in teasing out the thoughts you never knew you had.

These entries don’t need to make sense either. Back when I’d first started doing morning pages, I took the term stream-of-consciousness a bit too lightly, and still paused for logic. Today, I just write whatever comes to mind without stopping.

So a typical entry would look something like: My neighbour’s blender is being noisy again. Bloody bananas. Need fruits. Do the groceries. Is there a way to be more efficient in grocery shopping? Coffee and bananas.

If you feel silly writing in this fashion, just know that Cameron and Rainer both attest to the power of writing before you think.

In Rainer’s words: “Nothing is irrelevant. You try to capture every word and image that occurs to you. It may all seem silly, just nonsense, but you write it anyway. It may seem embarrassing, but you write it anyway. You write fast, so fast that you don’t have time to think about what you are doing.”

This is the basis of the shitty first draft or writing sprints, where you’re encouraged to write without your inner editor. And the whole point here isn’t to come up with a finished product, but to perhaps spot a gem among the muck.

Also, if you’re into woo-woo, Rainer has also mentioned writers feeling “a sense of possession by another personality speaking through them” when free-writing.

I certainly have, during those tired mornings when I’m nodding off at the page, yet still coming up with fully-written sheets at the end of thirty minutes.

The good: Uncovers thoughts and emotions you never knew you had.

The bad: Tends not to make sense.

4. Dear asshole (unsent letters)

I’ve explored this one in a separate post, but it’s great to revisit this technique with Rainer’s added knowledge.

Have you ever written a letter for your younger self or future-you? Then you’re already familiar with this concept.

It’s not so much a diary entry but rather an exploration of a topic. Like, you get the benefit of exploring the same subject through a different lens.

For instance, think about discussing growing pains with your mum. Now take that topic and share it with your friend. Different, isn’t it?

It’s a way to put yourself in others’ shoes, and to work out your problems from different angles. The best part? The person you’re writing to can be alive or dead, real or fictional.

Want to ask for writing tips from Hemingway? Go ahead. Want to shoot the shit with Carl Sagan? You can too.

And don’t just take it from me. Even the greats like John Steinbeck and Abe Lincoln made full use of unsent letters, through practices that were unique to them.

The good: Helps you explore problems from different angles.

The bad: Could take you out of your own head, which could inhibit reflection.

5. And everything else (miscellaneous)

This is the interesting bit, where we lump a few unconventional methods under one heading, mostly because I don’t have enough information for each of these points to stand on their own.

We’ll start off with this: Did you know that even your silence signifies something?

Some people only journal when they’re emotional, or depressed, or when everything’s going right, so those long stretches of silence can tell you a lot about certain points of your life.

Rainer says, “As it is in poetry, silence is part of the form. The blank time between entries speaks of great activity, or deserts of experiences, or absence for other reasons. The silence in diaries can speak as eloquently as the words.”

Then there’s your handwriting, which could be more telling than the entry itself. Are those chicken scratches a product of anger? Or anxiety?

Also lumped here is the free-writing version of sketching, which Rainer calls ‘maps of consciousness’.

To do this, you relax your mind and let your hand do its thing, in visual form. I’ve yet to try this as a journalling instrument, but it explains why I feel catharsis during my random doodling sessions.

The good: Doesn’t apply.

The bad: Gonna insert this summary regardless, just to see if you’re still paying attention.

Unlock your insights

The more I learn about the journaling, the less I know, but one thing remains true: there’s no right or wrong way to do it.

That’s been a great lesson for life in general. The more I realise that no two people—or processes—are the same, the more empathy I gain for everybody else. Especially for my polar opposites.

And you know what? That’s a pretty cool thing to learn. Perhaps I should write that down in my journal.


If you want in on the exclusive content mentioned above, then click on the button below to be part of the community. There I share more tips, observations, and interesting learnings on topics such as this one.

55 thoughts on “How Journalling Can Unlock Your Creativity, And Perhaps Give You X-Ray Vision

  1. I do lists with my manuscripts. When I start a new chapter it starts off as a skeleton of lists of events, and then I build off of those bullet points. It comes in handy when I’m on a time crunch or my brain is just too muddied to put proper sentences together.

    • Right? Some people hate it, but I find that when I have too much on my mind, lists do help get out the important bits first. Once the skeleton’s out on paper, it becomes that much easier to flesh out the story, bit by bit. Love your take on it!

  2. Stuart I think this is one of my favorite posts by you (I mean I have a few but this is among the top! 🤪). Journaling is something I love doing. I have bullet journals and smash journals and sketch journals, watercolor journals, and writing journals! The only thing I don’t do however is write whatever I want. I always write things as if someone may read it because if it falls into someone hands… then chances are someone WILL read it. I need to do better! I have seen the light and the freedom in this post and I should do better. Thanks so much!!

    • Another lovely comment. I myself have bought a blank A4 book (though it’s wire bound, and I don’t like the aesthetics of rings) just to see if there’s a difference in the way I journal.

      It’s so cool to meet a fellow journaller here, but yes, please let yourself go, because I’ve found great power in writing for my eyes only.

      However, I totally get you, because the journals that I keep in my cupboard remains somewhat safe for consumption.

      That’s why it’s time to start (disposable) morning pages :P

    • Like meditation, I think its strength lies in having zero expectations, so yeah, do give it a whirl and see what it takes you! I, for one, was pleasantly surprised. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  3. I actually hate journaling, but when I travel I force myself to do it, just to record the events of each day. I’m traveling in a different part of the US right now (Colorado), and I’m already behind in my journaling! I laughed at your comment about being into “woo woo.” For the record, I’m open to the existence of woo woo, but I’m not into it, per se. :)

    • Oh yeah. I’m governed by a pretty strict sense of skepticism, so I’m the first to denounce things like fengshui or mediums, but then I get experiences like this and totally dive into woo-wooism, lol.

      Anyway, have fun in Colorado and thanks for stopping by!

  4. I love journaling and have been practicing it for many many years. I don’t have a style, I write what I need to clarify my thoughts, or organize them. It’s a form of expression, a talk to myself kind of thing.

    • Talking to yourself is the best type, to be honest. I ask myself questions and answer them in my journal, and talking to myself is the exact way I’d put it. I also liken it to learning to listen to myself. Thanks so much for stopping by, Elizabeth!

  5. Okay, so I don’t imagine this was meant to be a humorous post, and yet: “The bad: Tends not to make sense.” Made me laugh, only to then be followed by:
    4. Dear asshole (unsent letters) and finally, the coup d’etat:
    The bad: Gonna insert this summary regardless, just to see if you’re still paying attention.
    Fun stuff, Stuart. And useful! :)

  6. Thank you so much for this post, Stuart! And a hello after a hiatus from commenting or posting. Exams season, you know. But great ideas! I loved the part ‘unsent letters’ and it ignited something in me. And you might — just *might* — have gotten me into this whole journaling thingy.

    Well, you may have done that.

    Well, you have actually done that. I might — sorry, I will — give journaling a go sometime, I hope.

    See you!
    xox
    Leccino Olives (and yeah I’m not new at all with the olive type things but it’s cool to know Leccino olives are a thing. Cheers!)

    • You have no idea what it means to me to be able to affect someone’s life halfway around the world, even if it’s just to start a journal. Who knows? It could turn into a long-term thing that give you lotsa things to read up back on.

      I myself can’t really recall why I started (maybe it was travel journalling) but I’m glad to be able to differentiate one day from the other.

      Hope your exams went well, and great to see you here again!

  7. I may have to read those titles! I actually like the idea of randomly writing everything down. I’m not sure people would want to read it, so burning would be best! Nice post Stuart!

  8. I rarely journal, but I was intrigued enough to read your post, Stuart. Well, maybe I do keep a journal of sorts. It’s more of a place where I jot down ideas for possible writing topics. I can certainly see some benefits of journaling. The idea that jumped out at me was the unsent letter one. Whether these letters get sent or not, I envision some therapeutic benefits.🤣

    • Oh yeah. I’ve actually taken a play out of Steinbeck’s book and wrote a letter to my intended audience about an article I was about to write. That letter turned into a pretty good outline for the actual piece, so it can be a pretty interesting method. Let me know how things go for you!

  9. Great reminder Stu! Journaling is always a safe bet. Regularly doing it can definitely help writers exercise their writing muscles. You once marveled how I can cough up three blog posts weekly (including a poem). Well, you can say I see my blog like a journal I’m updating; it’s like my only means of exercising said muscles!! Haha…maybe that’s why I have to keep at it so that once my writing style achieves the following your blog attracts, I can parry it down to just weekly instead. Sighhh…a guy can only hope LOL Thanks again for ‘feeding’ us fellow writers so well each week with your writing hacks man! Appreciate as always…

    • Ha! Using blogs as journals is a pretty neat way to kill two birds with one stone, really. And yeah, your output is amazing, plus you’ve been keeping it up for the longest time now. It’s all reps, and your writing muscles must be pretty sturdy right about now. Thanks so much for sharing your process, Kelvin, and once again, for always being here!

  10. great post Stuart. Do you really through them away? Hell, I can barely write with a pen anymore. Or get to them the way I intend to right now. Truth is life is on overload.
    I think it’s great as I’m so lost on how to find things, store my work in folders for different submissions etc. to actually burn them and move on.. 💖
    Can you tell I’m just brain dumping here. 😂💖

    • Oh, formal stuff gets kept indefinitely. It’s only the morning pages where I dump my most honest thoughts that get destroyed, since those are for my eyes only.

      Often I find that the act of writing them down makes those thoughts less intimidating, and I can then begin working on them.

      Thanks as always for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Cindy!

      • oh gotcha. So smart of you.
        Yeah we might not want everyone to know about all the times we’d really rather eat bon bons than right or sleep instead of workout but we gotta say it all.

        Anything to get us present and move us to the next chapter!
        It’s always my pleasure.
        You’re most welcome!
        💖

  11. I’ve been a journal-keeper for many years, decades really, though in an off/on fashion. For a long time they were only records of negative thoughts, then I committed to stop doing that. I started a diary in January to focus on the daily happenings of my life, instead of just the emotional stuff that journals typically reflected. I did this because I don’t remember one day to the next, so it’s a way for me to distinguish what I did on certain days. I do it right before I go to sleep (along with my gratitude journal which is one of those “non-negotiable” habits).

    • That’s exactly why I started journalling too! With the intent to differentiate my days. And it’s getting worse as more time passes. Like, 2020 till today seems just like one huge blob of time, if it wasn’t for my journals.

      I welcome all thoughts though, negative or not, because it’s only fair to record the state I’m in through time. Maybe that’ll give me some insights through patterns.

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your process, Hetty. It’s awesome!

  12. Stuart, I know I emailed you I response to your newsletter, but I’m just all for journalling too and I know I’m meant to tonight. I’m definitely a free form writer, but I need to try the “dear aashole” approach with a few things maybe? Hmmhmm, that’s food for thought. Thank you as always Stuart, don’t stop inspiring!

    • Oh yeah, I definitely enjoy our chats, even though I can be tardy in replying sometimes.

      Free form is the best! And I’ve tried so many methods to see which fits right. The only one that’s remained so far is just simply sitting down with pen and paper and going to town.

      Reading other people’s journals also fuel me. Am currently going through David Sedaris’s.

      Anyway, always great to see you here, Helen!

      • Haha you and me both, Stuart, you and me both! Shamefully it was on my ro-do list to reply to comments on the 13th. That didn’t happen, so here I am now, picking up on the backlog. It’s nice in a way because it feels like I’m more popular than what I am, but it’s probably not something that I can get away with doing too often lol. I’ve been working out in the garden this week and I’ve been laying a new gravelled area. I can’t do a lot in one day, but bit by bit, it’s getting there.

        Absolutely I agree with you, and certainly that can even be a very healing way to write. I know that when I was younger, I used to write like I was confessing things to a best friend. I think it was inspired by a rather cheesy Britney Spears’ song, “Dear Diary”, which is about having a crush. I know that I first started journalling around the same time as I had a huge crush on Matt, my now husband, and I think that inspired me. In fact, he even made a playful reference to some of my diary entries about him (that I let him read) on our wedding day! Lol.

        I don’t know about reading other peoples’ journals (I would feel too nosey lol) but certainly I think it’s interesting to see how other people journal. I know things like question prompts can be helpful for some people too. Waffle (which I know I mentioned to you in my email) now use question prompts. I don’t personally find them that helpful, but I answer them anyway, just because it’s something to look back on.

        As always, thank you for having me, Stuart!

  13. The Marcus Aurelius entries are truly depressing and cover so much ground in a few words – thank you for that example. I like the combination of text and art/sketching when I journal, they both provide almost the same outlet for a form of meditative thought for me. Agree, it is a creative way to unlock insights!

    • Once I’m done filling up my sketchbook, I think I’m going to start sketching in my journal as well! My only gripe with visuals is that it takes so long for me to complete something, sometimes days, and by then, the emotion may have changed. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

  14. I like that you mention adding vivid detail to your descriptions. I’ve been a journaler all my life (probably filled up twenty of them), but I neglected that for years. I focused on what I was thinking or feeling, which helped wonderfully with processing and brain clarity, but now I’m reminding myself to write down those mundane details or routines. They’re valuable in retrospect.

    • Ha. We’re the same. If I were to go back on my old entries, all I’d see are thoughts and feelings. It’s almost as if that’s my default. I’ve been reminding myself to add daily details to at least trigger my memories in the future.

      Like, my dog throwing a toy at me to get my attention may seem mundane, but it triggers so many other memories related to that day!

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  15. I could never do blank pages. I’m not a drawer or doodler, so writing is my method. And I can never write straight on blank pages (I know you don’t need to…but it bugs me when it’s not straight).

    • I used to be exactly like you! Especially during my bullet journal phases.

      Then I started doing morning pages and my preference for substance over form just shifted. Now I’m not bothered by mess, and when I used dotted pages, I don’t even follow the guides, lol.

      I find that being that lackadaisical with my ‘formatting’ makes for yet another tool to improve my honesty in my journal.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by, Steve!

  16. Fantasizing about murdering someone, now, when did I do that last time?

    Oh yeah, just a minute ago. I believe it is best you let out your hate in a diary or a computer file instead of trolling people online.

    • Lol, we all have dark thoughts, and it’s better to admit them than to pretend they don’t exist. That’s what makes us human, after all.

      Unfortunately, trolls will always exist, am I right? Anyway thanks so much for stopping by, Tanish!

  17. I don’t like lists, never have. Do like the freeform writing, as it often leads to unexpected thoughts and ideas. A good writing challenge – I think you might try this – is to write your own obit. I did a post on it a couple years ago. Did a draft obit. Hardest writing I’ve ever done.

  18. I’ve started a couple journals now. One listing things I got done during the day with a section for gratitude and another for my exploration of a different spiritual outlook than the one I grew up with. Both have been helping my mental health as of late but I still want to try some more types of journaling to see if I can get more improvement for my mental state.

    • I used to have multiple journals too, but I’m slowly phasing them out and just depositing all forms of thoughts into one book. Might sound horrific to the more organised people, but have ‘The One Book’ really does simplify things for my mind.

      Definitely give it a go! There are so many forms of journalling, and you’re bound to find one that best fits you, especially since you’re already practising.

      Wishing you all the best!

  19. Journaling is such a powerful tool to help with physical and mental health. As well as helping with creativity. These are some really good points! Thank you for reading and commenting.

    Lauren

  20. Great post Stuart as always – I love journalling. Free form is my style of choice. I also ask myself a series of questions every morning/evening. Some examples: What is worrying you most today? What can you do about it? What can’t you do about? What’s your purpose/intention? What are grateful for? What did you do well? What did you learn? How can you do better tomorrow? etc.

    • Wow, those are a great selection of questions you have there. I heard in a podcast before of three important questions you can ask yourself:

      When did I feel energised today? When did I feel drained? What can I do to make tomorrow better?

      Oftentimes, these questions will unearth patterns that you can address

      Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your process!

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s