When I graduated from High School, my sister gave me a copy of “The Artist’s Way.” She described it as “a kind of new-age guide to making peace with your creative spirit.” She said she hoped that I could overlook the corny parts of it, and find some valuable lessons for the journey ahead, while I was still young and impressionable. I love my sister, so I read every page.

If you’re not familiar with the book, it offers two prescriptions for a creative life The first is to write three pages of free-form writing every morning called “morning pages” or “brain drain”. The second is a weekly practice of self-care exercises called “artist dates” where you do an activity by yourself to find inspiration, imagination, or stiumlation. I started doing both, and still do them sometimes, but I was most committed to the daily writing. Every morning, almost without fail, for years, I wrote three pages to dump out all of what was on my mind. What needs to be done? I can’t believe I forgot about that; I should do it now. What did someone really mean when they said or did what they did? I’d better get an oil change this week. Where am I going and why am in this hand-basket? All of this was good for me, because it got all the noise out of my head and onto the page. There were positive effects, at first.

Over time, the practice began to change from one of expression to one of rumination, and from there it progressed to brooding, rehashing, and over-thinking. I found it helpful to log my ordinary mundane thoughts each day and it did help me to chart a course for my goals each day, and I got to be good at doing that. But things moved beyond that. I found myself writing and re-writing the same doubts, frustrations, worries, and confusion, day after day. Why is this kind of thing still happening to me? I’ve never been good at doing that. I suck. These were harder problems to solve, things you can’t fix in a day, things with unknown solutions. The practice went from being transormitive to being toxic. After nearly five years of daily writing, I stopped doing it. I’m glad I did. Looking back on all that writing, which I still have but rarely read, it is amazing to me how little of it is about concrete, sensory information. Rarely does any of it mention any of the experiences leading up to or following from the thoughts and feelings I’ve cataloged.

Since then, my journaling practice has been fitful. I regularly maintain a to do list, without commentary, and I take detailed notes in most of the meetings I attend. I don’t regularly write about life, though, and I’d like to try again. This time, I’d going to try a different approach.

A New Approach to Journaling and Notes

There’s still some value to doing “brain drain” in the mornings. Like any physical exercise, it will keep me in shape and ready to do more. But, also like physical exercise, if you don’t do it with the right form, you could hurt yourself. I should target the muscles that need to be stronger, and use them. Worrying about shit is not a good muscle to exercise! Instead, I should focus on observation, gratitude, and positive problem-solving. The observations could inform other writing later. The other two will help to keep the brain-drain constructive, and to avoid injury.

In addition to my morning exercises, I’m going to start carrying around a little notebook. I love a little notebook! I’ve decided on a little notebook for social reasons, really. Until recently, I have always preferred to take notes on my phone. I do most of my work digitally, and so I love to be able to copy and paste the text. The trouble with that is a social one. Let’s say I’m at an artist talk, or a reading, or in a good conversation… I hear a quote that I like. Or I have an idea. I pull out my phone to write it down, and suddenly the tone changes. It seems I’m no longer listening. Perhaps I’m texting way too much, ordering a pizza, or looking at funny cat videos? No, I’m taking notes, and if it were a notebook and not a phone, I don’t think I would change the tone of things. A small paper journal also allows me to doodle, something I can’t do on a phone.

I’ll try journaling this way for a while and see what comes of it. I’ve got a writing retreat coming up this week to help me get the habits to set in. If you have any journaling practices that work for you, I’d be curious to hear about them in the comments.