Journal method #4: Loosen the bounds–work outside the book

Some journal prompts bring up a strong feeling of resistance. Why? For me, it’s the loose and sloppy ideas, like free-writing for 20 minutes without ever lifting your hand from the page, experimenting with the pen held in your non-dominant hand (reviving the awkward stage of learning to write), or scripting a dialogue between yourself and some imagined entity, such as a person who once wronged you, a spiritual wisdom figure, or your own body.

I recognize that formal experiments generate material you wouldn’t get otherwise. They make you loosen up and try something fresh, even risky, in your journal. Like anyone, I feel tempted to see what may emerge from my subconscious mind if I try such methods.

But when I imagine those “loosening up” activities on the page of my journal, I come up against something I am reluctant to admit: I view my journal as not just a process, but a product.

I know. Most schools of journal-writing caution us against holding our journal to any standard. In a journal, they say, “anything goes.” You can’t do it wrong. The journal creates a place of freedom from our inner critic, release from the perfectionism that too often creeps into our writing.

Besides, to see journal-writing as pure process feels therapeutic. A free and open-ended diary offers great value in helping to sort out ideas and feelings. The practice of writing a journal settles the mind, and often brings new clarity to a confusing situation. I’ve found every one of these claims borne out in my own experience. But . . . that’s not all I want from my journal.

I want to go back and read the journal someday. Maybe others will read it too. And speaking for myself as future reader, I don’t relish the prospect of wading through illegible pages poured out in a rush as the stopwatch ticked away. I don’t want to revisit those embarrassing efforts to speak in the voice of my body or of my nemesis. I don’t want, in a word, to cringe.

Fortunately, I have a solution. Turns out you can have it both ways. How? Simple but radical: You can engage in journal-writing that doesn’t end up in the book.

When a journal-keeping prompt gives you that doubtful feeling, yet you can’t keep from wondering what the process might reveal, take up a loose sheet of paper, and get down to writing on it. That piece of paper may end up getting inserted into your journal as an entry, or it may get filed in a folder that feeds other writing projects—or it may end up in the trash. Even if you crumple and discard the page, you’ll know something you didn’t know before.

Maybe in your journal, you’ll reflect on the insights gained from writing in this undisciplined manner, this cheesy format or this kooky style. If it opened your mind and widened your perspective, the investment has paid off. At the same time, you don’t need to preserve something that was never intended as a product. Developing a skillful and versatile style for your journal may entail some detours that boost stylistic experimentation and personal growth, but these don’t have to become part of the journal that lives on into the future.

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