This post forms part of a serialisation eventually building into a complete reference on Journaling for Creativity and the writer's notebook. One that will demonstrate how to journal in order to improve creativity and effectiveness of artists, writers or anyone needing to be creative.
One of the immediate rewards from creative journaling is the beneficial action it has on your ability to sense the world around you as you move from passively sensing to actively using your senses.
As you enter descriptions of events, thoughts and activities into your journal, it soon becomes apparent that it is almost impossible to include the richness of your experience. On re-reading an entry it is almost certain that there will be more that you desire to add.
Journal entries can be enhanced with photographs, video and sound samples but even with this enhancement it is not possible to capture fragrances, emotions, physical experiences etc.
This causes a period of learning to take place. In order to capture the essence of an observation, usually in limited time, it becomes necessary to observe in an active manner. No longer is it sufficient to look passively with your eyes and ears; to capture the holistic experience, you have to observe using all your senses and then enhance those senses further by applying your mind to what you observe.
"Journaling makes you see things as they really are and pay attention to detail, rather than just glancing at life."
Geoff Shipp (2009)
At first, creative journaling trains you to see beyond the cursory glance, to become aware of the details that envelop a scene, event or object. But to capture the holistic experience presented to you, you will need to see beyond detail. You will need to let your mind touch those observed details and with your minds-eye see its past, present and future, feel where it exists in the world, and draw on the emotive as well as that which is not present.
One emotive line is worth pages of detailed description; “A battered tin cup sits forlorn in the morning dew, once loved, its shiny blue enamel now crazed, chipped and encrusted with musty potting dirt.” This says far more than a factual description, without explicitly stating it, you know the history of the cup, its future, where it is, its current role, that it was once a proud possession and how much it is now valued by the owner. When this is re-read during review, because of the emotive sentence, far more of the experience floods back into your mind, bringing not just visuals but also emotions, odours and story. Capturing the essence of your observation will not only allow shorter entries in your journal but it also draws on and feeds the creative side of your brain.
Trains the eye to "see" detail
If you look passively at a house, you see a house, of a certain size, of a particular colour, of a certain style, probably during a certain period and so on. The house returns information that fits the pigeon-holes that your logical mind has already formed.
To look actively at the same house, you have to include your curiosity in the observation. Now the house becomes owned by a tidy man, who likes gardening. It is a family home with the youngsters still of an age to paste drawings up in their room. It is old and, judging by the old cracks appearing above the windows, is well settled in its foundations. An antique boot scraper by the door, rusting and now disused, a remnant from when the road was more mud than cobble, more animal than machine.
Looking actively trains the eye to not look solely at the object, but more at how it sits in time and on the fabric of the world. It is being able to see the detail of what is there, what is around the item, what is not there and importantly, what the relationships are between actions, objects and events. Eventually, when you can see detail and function, detail and history, detail and emotion, etc, you develop an ability to see more visual details than the most astute passive observer.
Trains the ear to “hear” background noise
Active listening, employing the same mental curiosity as described for seeing, also allows for more complete journal entries, and although supplementing an entry with a sound sample can help, it is not a complete answer.
When we listen, the mind automatically filters out all extraneous noise whilst amplifying subject noise. It automatically makes judgments on our behalf of what it believes we are or are not interested in, feeding to the auditory cortex only the most pertinent information (noises).
So when listening to a conversation in a busy bar, the current conversation can be easily heard. At the same time, there are other conversations going on, glasses clinking, money being exchanged and many other quite loud noises such as; music, chairs scraping on the floor, people shouting, etc. Fortunately, these noises are all filtered out or reduced in volume by a primitive part of the brain.
Regrettably, It is no good thinking ‘I will listen more closely’ because as it is your lower brain function that is doing the filtering, your higher brain function is not actually receiving anything to listen more closely to.
Active listening combined with sound samples can give you the ability to tune back into some of these suppressed sounds and become aware of the interesting noises that surround us. A recording played back at a later time is filled with a delightful cacophony of sweet raucous sounds. By regularly employing active listening and mindfulness to your surroundings, it is possible with practice in daily life to tune into some of these sounds that would otherwise be filtered out.
Creative journaling also trains the ear to listen to the stream of language used around us; to hear the rhythms in sentences, to learn where words and word combinations flow and balance, subtract or reinforce, draw or distance. This additional mental training allows you to become aware of what pleases and what does not.
Trains the nose to be aware
In ‘Writing to save your life’, Michele Weldon shares a story of a friend who sprays furniture polish into the air of her apartment just before her mother visits. Apparently, on arrival this friend's mother always remarked “Your house is so clean”, demonstrating the power that aromas have especially when associated with beliefs. To the mother, the house was freshly cleaned. Of course, it wasn't clean; it just smelled of polish which triggered her belief that it was.
In the main, we are not aware of the smells around us; the brain records them subconsciously and associates them in the primitive part of our brain, first with emotions and then, in turn, with events. We also recall and talk of smell by association; old socks, fresh linen, burnt fat, wet fur, etc.
Because it is difficult to lie with aromas, we have learned to trust our sense of smell. This makes the sense of smell important to a writer because aromas are a dependable path to the reader’s emotions. To exploit this, creative journalers again enhance their sense of smell by actively seeking and attempting to identify the scents and aromas of life around them and recording any newly identified scent and its associations.
Once you start to be aware of the aromas surrounding your everyday life, you are able to tap into a whole dimension of powerful sensory information that previously was lost to you.
Trains the mind to be aware of touch
We are programmed from birth to explore our world by touch. Infants touch everything within reach and use touch to reinforce the physical reality of what their eyes have just presented them. Sensations from surfaces, edges, holes, weight, temperature, texture, flexibility, hardness, softness, rubbery-ness… many different touch sensations, all used to confirm what something “is”.
"The word 'touch' has… the longest entry in the Oxford English Dictionary."
Ashley Montague, “Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin”
Yet despite its importance, there are limited words that categorise surfaces and touch sensations. For example, most surface descriptions, as it was with smell, are performed by association; orange peelish, glassy smooth, baby soft, etc. With these associations come strong emotive phrases that tap directly into the creative side of the brain.
The creative journaler needs to seek these experiences and actively feel the wind across a cheek, touch that tree, stand in the sun, the rain, the hail. They need to experience the multitude of sensations that are related to touch, let each of these touch sensations soak in to their awareness and then search for and find appropriate associations.
Trains the mind to take notice
Active observation uses the brain to coordinate the other senses so that they surpass what they would normally achieve. Consistent practice of using the brain in this way eventually expands the ability to take notice, not just of the world around you, but also the importance of events and actions, and the relationships present there.
Michele Weldon when teaching at North-Western University, sometimes addresses her class for a half hour and then requests the students to describe in a few paragraphs what she is wearing. She then quickly walks out of the room. (Michele Weldon, “Writing to save your life”)
Without performing active observation and awareness of the world around you, how well do you think you would fare?
Trains the mind to ask questions
The marketing and ideas guru Seth Godin, has a disparaging view on how the world treats curiosity:
"It’s easy to underestimate how difficult it is for someone to become curious. For seven, ten, fifteen years of school you are required to not be curious. Over and over and over again the curious are punished."
Seth Godin, “Tribes”
But even before school, your parents could be heard saying "Don't touch that!" or "What did you do that for?" Why? Because, chances are, you were being curious about something. Conditioning which starts so early is hard to break.
But creative journaling has the power to break this conditioning, by setting the requirement that not only allows for the mind to become inquisitive, but also actually feeds it. Creative journaling expects the mind to ask questions on why or when or who for any given observation and most of the time one question leads to another.
The more you practice creative journaling, the more capable you become at looking beyond the immediate senses of; sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Questions present themselves, questions that explore the potential which surrounds all observations, e.g. who thought…?, who felt….?, when did…?, who started…?, what could…?, is there more…? etc.
Writers cannot write beyond what they know, they cannot add detail they are unaware of. Practising creative journaling trains the writer in the skill of asking questions, of being curious. It is by being curious that the writer can obtain the material which adds colour and interest to writing.
"The real discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."
Marcel Proust, “À la recherche du temps perdu” (Remembrance of things past)
Creative journaling can provide any correction that is necessary for your eyes.
Photo credit: Touch, by Hieu Ng.
"The effect of journaling on the senses" by Andy Shackcloth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.