By Lorraine Monteagut, Writing Studio Consultant
I journal so I do not have to remember everything. It frees up space in my brain and will help me remember when I forget about it later. – Stacy Duplease
An open writing prompt can be more difficult than being handed a topic, and there are few things more anxiety-producing than a blank page when a deadline is approaching. As a writing consultant and a teacher, students often tell me: “I don’t have anything to write about.” But when I talk with them, it becomes clear that every single one of them is juggling an overwhelming amount of thoughts – about work, about family, about relationships, about politics. Every single one of them has something to say, but they either censored themselves because they didn’t think their preoccupations were important in an academic setting, or they had just plain forgotten about a topic of interest until our conversation brought it back to light.
That’s why I tell them to keep a regular journal. Before you run away, regular does not have to mean daily! It can be a weekly or even a longer monthly entry. In my spare time, I facilitate a monthly community circle in my neighborhood, and one of the things we do when we get together is write in our journals. The entries can be anything — a catalog of what happened in the month, observations we’ve made, questions we’ve been pondering, lists of things we’d like to accomplish, anything! The people who have attended the circles over several months tell me that the process of writing without constraints has helped them remember their ideas and see the connections between their experiences and larger issues in their worlds, and this awareness improves their performance at work and home.
Similarly, keeping a journal can help you keep track of your life experiences so you may later make connections to concepts you are learning about in your classrooms. Even if your writing assignments don’t call for personal reflection, your ability to access your uncensored thoughts will prove to be a wellspring of creative ideas. When you are truly dedicated to journaling, nothing goes to waste! Here are three ways that keeping a journal has helped me generate rich, original writing when faced with open writing prompts:
- Writing observations and questions helps me generate ideas for research.
Sometimes, especially when I’m not feeling too creative, I jot down observations and questions about the world around me. As an example, I live in a neighborhood that is rapidly changing. In my journal, I record the new restaurants, breweries, shops, and apartment buildings that have recently cropped up. I write about my reactions, the pros (more shopping and entertainment options) and cons (rent is going up) of this kind of development. And I ask myself questions: What do people mean when they say a neighborhood is becoming “better”? Is it only about developing business? How will this affect me?
How this has helped with my writing: Sometimes, what I write in my journal ends up becoming the seed for a paper. As I was reading over my journal for inspiration about writing topics, I realized that what’s going on in my neighborhood might interest others who live there or are experiencing similar changes. Returning to my questions, I was able to find a starting point for a paper about gentrification, focusing on the issue of how rising commercial property values affect residents. My personal connection to the issue helped me better understand academic sources about the topic and fueled my motivation to write for a specific audience.
- Not censoring myself in my journal leads to welcome surprises.
Another exercise I often use in my journal is freewriting, the practice of writing what comes to mind without stopping to edit. Usually, I set an alarm for 15 minutes, and until I hear the alarm I will write anything I think, exactly as I think it — even if what I’m thinking is “this is stupid.” If I allow myself to continue, I usually come up with some really weird stuff, things I probably wouldn’t say to anyone. I surprise myself. This is where the gold is!
How this helps with my writing: One of the difficult things about writing is that sometimes we think about our audience (usually our teacher) reading our work and we immediately censor ourselves. The pressure “to be good” can be stifling to creativity. When I allow myself to freewrite, I come up with at least one original sentence per session, something I would have never chosen as a topic until I allowed myself to write anything. (Remember, you control what you share, so you have nothing to lose and everything to gain!)
Here is a link to an article about freewriting: http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2010/04/unleash-your-creativity-now-how-to-freewrite/
- Writing in my journal provides an emotional outlet so I have more energy for my academic writing.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the more I write about my personal life — what’s bothering me, what’s happening in my family, what my dreams and fears are — the more time I have for my academic writing. If something is constantly on my mind without an outlet, it will inevitably affect my productivity. Knowing this, I allow myself to write a weekly “therapist entry” to my journal; I write things that I couldn’t tell anyone else (remember, this is your private journal, and only you are the audience!) until I am satisfied that I’ve gotten everything off my chest.
How this helps me with my writing: Writing as an emotional outlet helps me remember what’s important and become more aware of my reactions to the happenings in my life. Giving myself time to just explore my existence without the need to produce or report to anyone makes me feel more balanced and in control, so later, these thoughts won’t plague me when I have to be on task. And you never know, sometimes a piece of wisdom comes through in these confessional writing sessions — something you can write more about!
You are a unique, complex, intelligent person, after all, and I assure you, you have a lot to share. Try starting a journal without expectation, and see what arises!