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.
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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.
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