Three week Journaling Challenge

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You don’t need ideal circumstances to start journaling.

You don’t need ideal circumstances to start journaling.

If you’re here, chances are it means you have clicked on the link from an e-mail you got inviting you to take part in the Journaling Challenge I designed to ease you into an effortless journalling practice. Below you will find some introductory information about the challenge.

Prompts and exercises will come to you by e-mail one a day for the next twenty-one days regardless. Do them as they come in without worry about the quality of your writing. This is wholly private work.

If I ever publish this challenge as a book with blank pages for journaling in it between exercises, this is how it will start:


How it works:

Everybody journals differently.  Some people use the journal as a diary of innermost thoughts.  Some use it as a place to record goals set and achieved.  Some vent.  Some make lists, others doodles and thought maps.  All are right, none wrong.  What matters is that some time be spent in journaling if one expects to write more than a single project in a lifetime.  Have a notebook or a Word file to which you return for a given amount of time every day or two for writings NOT intended for public consumption and keep that notebook or file open nearby when you write things that you do intend to publish or release.  Use it as a place to store fleeting thoughts and ideas that strive to pull your attention away from your work.


Why it matters:

The practice of journaling helps distill conscious thoughts in much the same way that dreaming helps to distill unconscious thoughts. The page becomes a crucible for vague ideas and an external drive for the creative memory. 

Regular Journaling provides a pressure-free opportunity to play with language and with ideas free of the imagined marketplace and the imagined audience.

Side-journaling when at work allows for longer periods of focused creativity.  Relaxed focus on the moment-to-moment process of writing demands that we set aside secondary, tertiary and wholly tangential thoughts but sometimes those thoughts feel urgent.  They hint at deeper discovery and demand further exploration.  Indeed, sometimes that promise of profound revelation pans out.  Other times, it can serve as a procrastinator’s labyrinth of convoluted distraction.  Having a place at hand to put such thoughts frees the writer to continue the task already underway by giving a home to the stray thoughts that strive to pull focus from the work.  Jot down the idea and you know you will have the ability to come back to it when its time arrives.


One of my literary heroes, David Sedaris reads bits from his journals on book tour.  He recently published an entire book of segments taken directly from his journals.  The book included observations, inner monologue transcriptions, thoughts, ideas and a good deal of wonderful literary material that never found its way into his stories and essays.

Journaling serves a writer, really any creative person in myriad ways. For the writer, stray thoughts and turns of phrase have a place to live and wait for rediscovery or eventual use. Story, dialogue and image ideas that don’t have a place in a current work can be recorded against future opportunities.  The process of putting words into sentences and sentences into order can be maintained even when the book or the script or the poem at hand resists completion.  Complex emotional states may be explored, examined and grappled with safely and privately.

Creatives outside the literary world, from the painter to the inventor, from the actor to the entrepreneur also find benefit in a maintained journaling practice. The vast mindscape of memories, questions, imaginings, re-imaginings, experiences, regrets, unspoken thoughts, unnamed fears and all the many other workings of the full-functioning mind feed and serve the process, stirring the muck of the psyche to allow new juxtapositions, new alignments to develop, new solutions to appear, new directions to reveal themselves for exploration.

For some a journal takes the shape on an ongoing, ever-lengthening Word file, for others a battered composition book and a chewed ballpoint pen.  For some the pages are filled with rambling, free association paragraphs on tightly filled pages.  For others, bullet lists and doodles half-fill pages with occasional full-spread graphs and giant question marks.

Nikola Tesla, the electrical engineer of the early 20th century who made the leap from Edison’s direct current generators to the alternating current systems that made mass electrification possible, the man who ultimately harnessed the power of Niagra Falls kept a journal.  I strongly suspect it looked vastly different from mine. 

There is no right way to keep a journal.

There is no wrong way to keep a journal.

The experience of keeping a journal will startle you. The differences between keeping a journal and thinking about keeping a journal are as profound and life altering as the difference between doing something kind every day and thinking about doing something kind every day.

In my experience, the real power of journaling comes with consistency.  It comes with the development of a small daily practice, a decent thing you do for yourself and for your future self, like brushing your teeth, moisturizing, or wearing the right shoes for the intended activity.

Many people have great difficulty building a habit of journaling.

Partly, this grows from the dissatisfaction of journaling. Journaling can feel non-productive, like distraction or procrastination, like indulgence or pretense.  Sometimes, journaling can be any of those things, but that’s allowed. It’s private activity.

On days that the creative process becomes unyielding, anxious or overwhelming, the simple act of opening a journal and putting ink to page or characters to the screen ensures that the flow remain active – if only at the barest trickle – so that when the unknown problem becomes apparent and it goes from being a block to being a puzzle and therefore solvable, the impulse to creative response will activate with effortless fluidity.

On days when the creative impulse is strong, when the project at hand falls together idea upon idea, thought upon thought, Journaling may seem a waste of valuable time that could be spent in that joyous flow. Your call, really, how your time gets best used.  But in those periods of creative exultation, a continued journaling practice can serve to track tangential and tertiary thoughts that can’t be used in the current circumstance and therefore cannot fully be indulged at this time.  Put them on the page and on some dry, open day when it seems your brilliant mind can find nothing of worth to investigate and express, look back to those pages and find the thoughts of a more inspired you, passed through time to spark new curiosity now when inspiration falters.

For a time, journaling may feel self-conscious.  Questions arise.  To whom am I writing this?  For whom am I sketching this idea for a shoulder strap? Why does one suppose I’ve suddenly adopted a stilted Victorian sort of voice in my writing? Do some anyway.  The prompts and ideas in this book may help with those questions but they will definitely assure that you never ask this one: Did I just sit here staring at my journal for twenty-minutes and find out that I have NOTHING to write in it?

To become a habit, an act must be performed Twenty-one times.  For a habit designed to become a daily practice, that means you’re looking at journaling twenty-one consecutive days. 

You don’t need to commit to a lifetime of journaling.  Commit to three weeks.  At the end of the three weeks, you may naturally continue the process, the momentum you create draws you onward into your thoughts, onto the next page, toward another day of fearless self-expression and self-exploration.

Possibly, even within those first twenty-one days benefits of the practice will begin to become apparent to you.  Most certainly by the end of those twenty-one days some of the resistance and inhibition that makes journaling uncomfortable will fall away and you will begin to feel a freedom that goes beyond the pages of your journal, opening the floodgates of your very thoughts.

Memories lost, re-emerge.  Events that shaped a world-view may come into clearer focus, rewriting unconscious, limiting, self-imposed ground rules.

The prompts and writer’s thought experiments collected here may be taken in order, one per day to support your efforts through those twenty-one days.  You may go back to those you find you useful.  You may pick one at random each day.  In short, no rules apply to you.  As a writer, you live in the world of unfettered imagination.  You can decide how to use the suggestions in this book and you can think of ways that might never occur to me.  Allow your journal to be the safest place you know.  Nothing you do here can be wrong.

Decide how long you intend to journal each day.  I recommend setting a minimum somewhere between 9 and 27 minutes and setting no maximums except as dictated by scheduling conflicts.  As much as possible, set the journaling period to occur at the same time every day, a time when you can be alone, undisturbed, unobserved.

One of my clients confessed to pulling over every morning on a residential street and journaling in the car between dropping off kids at school and getting to work as though it was a shameful secret I might use as blackmail material.  Another told me of lunch breaks in an underutilized stairwell. If you can do morning coffee on a humming-bird patio with sunlight slanting the way it would be in a stock photo tagged “journaling” that’s great!  But surroundings needn’t be perfect.  They must only be private.

At times in these first twenty-one days you will want to stop.  You will think that missing a day won’t kill you.  (That’s true) You will think that you’re not getting any better at it. (That is not true) Nonetheless, continue just to sit with your thoughts and put them down to the best of your ability.

The reasons and excuses and avoidances that feel entirely rational are all lies told to you by anxiety.  The creative process, even – perhaps especially-- the private creative process of journaling generates anxiety as a natural byproduct.  Journaling can stir up deeply uncomfortable ideas, thoughts, images.  Journaling may reveal thoughts and belief systems and contradictory ethical structures that you have worked hard never to look at too closely. Your unconscious mind, the one that believes it can protect you by hiding vast swaths of your experience from you, by silencing the most urgent voices in your psyche, by reassuring you that the way things are right now is the way things should be. Journaling can help you expand exponentially as you raise your creativity to its highest power.

Stasis is not safety. 

Growth is not dangerous.

Grand thoughts do not imply grandiosity.

You are not your limitations.

When you find a perfectly good reason not to journal for a day, or a week, or any more, recognize that as a disguised anxiety response. Know that it means you are close to changing in a way just profound enough that it has set off your pre-lingual fears of the unknown and that all you have to do to shine light into troublingly oppressive darkness is the next page’s work in this simple 21-day guidebook.

Your anxiety does not own you.

Its lies no longer confuse you.

Dylan Brody1 Comment