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.
This post follows on from So why journal?, where I listed a few reasons why journaling is a sound investment of your time. Here we further investigate the ‘journaling for capturing’ section, expanding those ideas and exploring their benefits in our quest of how to journal.
To capture content
Nearly always the first thoughts and impressions about journaling for writers, and other artists are those of using a journal to bank material that may be used in later work. However, since there is no way of knowing what might one day become usable in a project, it makes sense to record everything you can, squirreling away a stash of observations, sounds, images and curios that can be withdrawn when needed. There are limitations to this thinking, limitations of time and of wasted effort, but the basic principle is sound.
To observe people
Observing people; watching how they act, what they say, and what they do, is the aspect of journaling often stated as being the most important. Although collecting direct observations is important, it by far undersells the true potential of what can be achieved.
By using active observation, by also engaging your mind, you not only see a person’s immediate behaviour but also question why they behaved in the way they did? Question what would have happened if their behaviour went wrong. Question if that person is even aware of their own actions and are the surrounding people aware? You can question how would they react if they were or became aware? By looking beyond the immediate scene you can observe so very much more than what is just presented to you.
"All writers are observers, fascinated with human goings-on, but journal writers are a special breed, I think, suspicious of their own memories, like tourists taking snapshots of everything they see.
They're different from diarists, of course – diarists seem, as a whole, fascinated with their own lives – journal keepers are snoops, fascinated with everyone else's life."
Robin Hemley from "The Writer’s Journal", Sheila Bender
There is nothing wrong with collecting observations, say maybe about a young woman skipping along a path in the park, but you gain more when you ask "#why is she the only one skipping?"
Fortunately people do funny things and people do react in funny ways to other people doing funny things. A journal can be a wonderful repository of all the different character traits you observe in the world around you.
To capture habits and faults
A journal will allow you to capture people’s habits; good, bad or boring. When actively observing you can see how actions stem from the subtle ripples in a person’s world, actions which in turn produce their own ripples that in turn further affect themselves or others. A realisation which makes you acutely aware of when someone is performing out of habit, for no other reason than it was safe and comfortable to do so last time.
Creative journaling requires curiosity and when being curious about someone and asking (in your head), why that person is doing what they are doing, acting a certain way or not doing what they should, you also start to notice their faults and as every writer knows, a few faults in your fictional characters can bring them to life.
To keep a chronological record
A creative journal is not the same as a chronological journal; it is not constrained to a daily entry. However if the entries are prolific then it will take on the appearance of one and can be referenced as if it were.
A journaler seeing the world through both logical and creative eyes will perpetually find an abundance of observations. The result automatically becoming a chronological record of the ripples surrounding the journaler's life, punctuated more by significant events than by dates.
To capture thoughts
Creative thoughts can drop into our minds at the most inappropriate times; they can be as insubstantial as ripples on the surface of a pond. If you wait or look away then they disappear, vanishing before you are able to look again. When trying to hold them, it takes but a moment’s distraction for them to slip from your mental grasp. A journal is the camera to capture these creative thoughts, to take a snapshot to hold them, a quick photo allowing you to recall those brilliant but elusive ideas, thoughts or inspirations.
At other times, thoughts are more substantive, having been the result of some deliberation or external input. This might lead to the belief that such thoughts would stay with you. However, anyone who has left one room to fetch something important from another, only to arrive there racking their memory as to the reason for going there, will testify that even the strongest thought can desert you in an instant.
Again, the journal will capture these on your behalf, to be reviewed later, very much later as is often the case.
To capture transient emotions
What is a transient emotion? It is that gossamer emotion coming from a stimulus, passing fleetingly before us, but forgotten during later attempts to recall the event.
Have you ever stood near the edge of a precipice? Did you feel, just for a moment, in danger of falling before logic took control and assured you of your safety? Can you remember the solid ground feeling insubstantial, ever so briefly?
Have you ever felt jealous of the welcome your partner gives the dog when they return home? Did the emotion last long?
Did you ever get into a boat and as you did, check if water was seeping in? Why? The boat had been floating for months quite successfully before you stepped aboard.
These primitive emotions that stem from the inner primitive mind flare up and are gone in mere moments. They are there to see, provided you set out to observe them and having a journal to hand allows you to capture them and record their significance in people’s behaviour.
"The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with."
Henry David Thoreau, from “Writers and Their Notebooks”, Diana M. Raab.
Recording at the time of observing/experiencing allows you to record feelings and emotions as experienced by you, complete with all the nuances. Trying to document them later causes the record to be inferior, because during the delay, fine detail is lost, leaving only the major feelings and emotions available for recollection.
To help with remembering
Most of us make lists or notes to help ourselves remember things, but the funny thing is after making those lists and notes, it is only a small percentage of us who actually use them and cross things off as we complete each item. The rest of us, having made a list, tend to then work from a visualisation of the list in our minds and only consult the list at the end of the day, or at the last moment in the shop, just in case we forgot something.
Journaling works in a similar way. It's the time taken to write the journal entry, the shape of the entry, the act of writing it, its position in the journal, the position on the page and the ‘impression’ of the subject that becomes lodged in our brain. These right-brained aspects of the journal entry make many additional mental connections, so allowing us to recall and make better use of the knowledge than if we had simply tried to remember it.
The time spent writing a journal entry is time spent tying pieces of string around that thought. It works in exactly the same way as when tying a piece of string around a finger, or picking up a stone and placing it in a pocket are used to help us remember.
To rediscover experience
If you write something down then obviously you can look it up, rediscover it, find it; the idea seems so obvious that it hardly needs listing.
Or does it?
A creative journal will contain entries that you can still recall and you can use that knowledge to find the entry. It will also have entries that, although you made the entry, due to the nature of our minds you will no longer be aware of its existence; until that is, immediately after you review it.
It is not just what was entered into the journal on such and such date that can be looked up later, but also a reliving of the experience. The more emotive the entries, the more the experience is recalled and with it more of the sensory memories that were never committed to paper.
You may not be trying to find an entry or specific knowledge; it may be a more tenuous discovery, one that may only now be relevant. For example, in a descriptive entry of a church you may have made reference to the wear on the edges of the old oak, indicating the presence of many generations of use. In an essay entry, the words may show an insight into an antagonist that you have been blind to. A new story might be prompted by current news combined with an old photograph.
All these thoughts, feelings, observations, emotions, ideas, concepts, sounds, sights, vistas etc., can be looked up by reviewing your creative journal. Not just what was entered into the journal on a certain date, but also what you experienced on that day and the surrounding days.
To never (completely) forget
A record in your journal is there for keeps, no matter how much time passes. They are there waiting for you to find them. You may have forgotten which journal it is in or which year the entry was made but the entry itself cannot be forgotten or totally lost.
Even if, at first, it is difficult to find something, the action of scanning through past entries will start to bring back enough memories to provide a ‘feeling’ of location, which then makes the last part of the hunt quite directed.
To keep physical items for later description
A journal is a wonderful place to collect items for later description, although at first thought it may seem limited to holding flat objects such as leaves, documents and anything that can be trapped between two pages.
However, a creative journal is not limited to a notebook, it is any media or medium that allows you to tap into your creative mind and so by all means put thin objects in your notebook but then continue to fill your pockets and bags with bigger items.
“We mistake detail for being picayune or only for writing about ants and bobby pins. We think of detail as small, not the realm of the cosmic mind or these big hills of New Mexico. That isn't true.”
Natalie Goldberg, “Writing Down the Bones”
Later, maybe when there is more time to journal, holding an item, turning it over and over in your hands can invoke the experience at the time of collection, an experience that can be as fresh as the moment that you first picked the item up.
The tactile sense is amongst the strongest of our senses, the desire to touch an object we are scrutinising can be overwhelming. Using your journal to bring things home allows you to take advantage of this powerful sense and not only helps in the initial recall but also in building stronger memories of things by adding the tactile information of how it feels and smells.
It is even possible to bring massive objects like buildings or trees back with you. Although this time, instead of carrying them in a pocket or bag, you carry them in a camera.
Photo credit: The best faces on Flickr 03/2006, by Zohar Manor-Abel.
"Why Journal: Journaling for capturing" by Andy Shackcloth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.