The power of the creativity journal

When I refocused this blog a few months ago, I maintained an ambitious goal of posting approximately once per week.

Clearly I do not regularly meet that goal.

In my defense, I have a lot going on at this juncture. That’s not an excuse but an admission to myself that there are several other things competing for my time and attention.

Something that’s also taking a hit of late is my creative work. I had developed a creative writing routine in the past few months that led me to accomplish some great things; I also had some external deadlines to give me the motivation I needed to finalize some projects. But, as project drafts are wrapped up, new work doesn’t materialize.

What’s helped me maintain a habit of writing and also provided me with an outlet for exploring my frustrations and ideas is what I’m calling a creativity journal.

I’ve written about work journals in the past (and I do occasionally journal about this). What’s different than “here’s what’s going on in my day” of a standard journal is “here’s what’s going on in my head with regard to my craft.”

You can write about how your commitments are proving to be a distraction. You can mull over an idea for a project. You can write about your insecurities large and small in a space that no one is going to encounter.

collage of journal and pages

I write in a paper notebook but of course this can be digital. (I like using paper because this is one of the few moments when I get to handwrite something instead of typing.)

You can pick whatever frequency works best for you. I aim for once per day, even though that doesn’t always happen. Maybe you shoot for one longer entry once per week, to really do a deep dive on whatever’s been on your mind.

The benefits:

  • You have to write. Even if you’re stuck creatively, you commit to journaling on a regular basis.
  • You get to explore whatever’s on your mind. Identify themes and connect your life to your creative endeavors.
  • This is for creative work. Do your best to aim your thinking toward this goal.

What do you think? Have you used–do you currently use–a journal to help cultivate creativity and keep you on track when things are busy?

You’ve probably got a lot going on–and that’s OK

I drafted this post on the plane while heading home after a trip to visit family, during which I worked my 9-to-5, deliberated on and put in an offer on a house (!?!?!), did some other employment-related tidying up (interpret that as you will)… and spent time with a variety of family. Thing were a little hectic but that’s how I feel like life has been as of late.

I’ve also been revising a short story that I’ve been working on for several weeks. This has been fun, challenging, terrifying, even more so due to the fact that I have deadline to send this to my writing critique group, very soon. (Did I mention that this is also the first critique group that I’ve ever been a part of? And that this is my third meeting with this group? And that this will be my first submission for review? Well, then: all true.) I have quite a lot left to do, but not terribly confident in when I’ll be able to get that work done.

Ever since I’ve re-embraced my creative side, I’ve had to battle with other dynamics in competition for my time, attention, and energy. This very moment, though, is particularly intense. And I know I’m not alone. What I’ve learned so far:

Be realistic.

Sure, I’ll have a draft to share with my critique group, but I may not have the headspace to incorporate their feedback into a next draft until much later. We should all strive to make progress on our work but understand that some goals need to be adjusted when necessary.

Be generous.

While adjusting goals, don’t beat yourself up. I liked the idea of submitting this particular story for competition early this summer but I don’t think that’s going to happen–and that’s OK! I have a goal in mind, and I’m getting so much out of this work, so what’s wrong with pushing back a deadline a few weeks while instead I, uh, I don’t know, move into a new house that I purchased? (Did I mention that I’m a first-time homebuyer and just barely aware of what I’m doing? Also true.)

Be active.

Keep working, in some capacity. Draft, journal, sketch–do whatever appears to require minimal brainpower, or something that can be done quickly. You may not make tremendous progress on a project, but small steps forward will add up.

Re-read everything

… that you read in school.

Please.

My mom (who’s reading this, hello!) always said that philosophy is lost on 20-somethings. I’ll specify by arguing that short fiction is lost on 20-somethings. Not all, and not always me, but looking back on all the fantastic essays, short stories, and novels I was assigned to read as an undergraduate, much of what I remember reading that really should have resonated with me simply didn’t. And those pieces that didn’t hit me hard weren’t because due to a valid critique on my part, but because I was a distracted, moronic, self-centered 21-year-old.

I’m sure you can think of a ton of assigned readings from your field of study or area of interest that went over your head at a young age. Now’s the time to revisit those readings.

I’ve gotten rid of a lot of texts from those days but kept many more, lugging essay and short fiction collections east and west, unpacking and arranging them on bookshelves, promising myself that I would revisit them but pushing that pledge from my mind and I found things to concern myself with.

But recently I cut the bullshit. A month ago I picked up a Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories from my junior-year advanced fiction writing class (right.) and turned to Joyce Carol Oates “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” something I’d read for the first time seven years ago (ugh) and not again since but remembered as haunting, absolutely. And it was just that, but fuller than what I remembered. I found another, this one from the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction: Pam Huston’s “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” read for the first time in an intermediate-level short fiction writing class. I remember wanting to like the story but not getting much out of it. I likely attempted to read it in a time span of 15 minutes on four hours of sleep before rushing to a job I had at the time that was preposterously stupid and too many hours for what I was paid. Reading it again, almost eight years later (double ugh), the story knocked me to the ground. The answers I was looking for only half-heartedly when I read it at age almost-22 were there for me when I rediscovered it at age still-29.

There’s a lot to be said about re-reading: it allows a reader to slow down, pick up on details likely missed in the rush to the conclusion. As we age and gain experiences, the themes, characters, conflicts, settings of the things we read and reacted to at a younger age are cast in a different light upon return. That’s all true.

But we mature as we age, thank goodness. Revisiting an assigned text blazed through is a generous act for the person we currently are: likely not a student and therefore without the opportunities for intellectual stimulation as available to students, but someone who can give a text well-regarded by others the consideration it deserves. I certainly know of people in my writing classes who had the focus and discipline to fully immerse themselves in the texts assigned for craft discussions, but they were few and far between.

My experience is that of a nerdy white girl at a public university who turned her English major into basically a creative writing degree and privileged as hell in that regard, but whatever your field, there are probably some seminal texts that are part of the canon for some reason. Maybe you read them, maybe you skimmed them, maybe you didn’t. But go back and read them. Pause and reflect. Think about them after you’ve set them aside. Read them again. Even if the younger version of you didn’t think much of something you were required to read, the present-day you just might.

Be Selfish with Your Work Space

You need a dedicated place to do your creative work. Dedicated. This workspace can be a corner, an entire room, and entire floor (and if this is the case, what a lucky duck you are).

We’ve all see this advice before, right? And it makes sense. You need a place with minimal interruptions and something of your own so that you can focus on whatever it is that you do.

But that act of staking out a place can be terrifying.

Opposite of the act of preparing yourself for writing–talking about what you want to create, setting yourself up somewhere, preparing your tools of the trade at the expense of actually creating something–not having your own work space can hinder your work in a similar way. Even if you’re eager to begin to practice your art, if you’re unable to do it due to external elements that are under your control to quell, you’re putting up a road block.

Key to this is communicating to others. You need to tell your family, friends, pets (in case you have any that listen to you, which again, lucky duck, as my dog and cat, in particular, do not) that your work as a writer, painter, sculptor, something. You need to tell them this and say that you need space to do your work because your work is important to you.

This may be terrifying.

Last weekend, I was jazzed to sit down and write. I had a block of time on Sunday when I decided to not clean bathrooms or vacuum or scrub the refrigerator shelves (all tasks that are still awaiting to be done). So I sat down at the desk where I spend over 40 hours a week at my day job, located in my living room. Nope–the creative juices weren’t flowing. So I moved to the kitchen table, a slightly more private space. In traipses the cat, followed by the dog, and soon, my SO.

SIGH.

Resisting the urge to be passive-aggressive and say “EVERYTHING’S FINE,” I expressed that I felt distracted. SO suggested we move a spare table currently in the second bedroom into the master, so that I can shut the door on the animals and have a work space. Table moved, blinds opened. The cat snuck in but napped quietly (check him out mid-yawn below).

cat and desk

I made a lot of progress on a first draft of a new project while enjoying the relative peace and quiet of this corner of the house that was all mine. Almost as important, I was proud of myself for stating what I needed in order to do something important to me.

You need to get into that mindset–and you need others to know that when they see you in your work space, then know you’re focusing on your work.

So do it. Stake out a place, and from there do you creative work.

An alternative to comparing yourself to others

One of the most potentially destructive things a person can do is to compare themselves with others. I say “potentially” because the act of considering the successes, failures and milestones of others to our own experience can provide us insight into what’s important in our own lives.

For example (as these things have been on my mind lately):

Huh. Seems like a lot (maybe 10 that I can think of…) of people my age are purchasing their first homes. Should I focus on doing that? Well, maybe not; I don’t think that’s a good financial decision for me right now because I don’t know if I will be living in this area for at least five years. The people I see on social media who are doing so seem like they will be staying put for a while.

Or…

Wow, some of my contacts on my age from school seem to be getting promoted, to management or even director-level positions. Is that something I want? Well, not right now. I enjoy focusing on myself and my customers; approving time cards, providing feedback for performance reviews and everything else involved with managing a team doesn’t sound appealing to me right now.

Of course these reasonable thoughts were not the first to pop into my head upon encountering such news on Facebook and LinkedIn, specifically. Re: people my age purchasing houses, my train of thought went more like this: Oh my god, I have no where near enough money for a down payment and I need more in my emergency fund even if I do have enough for a down payment how is it even possible that these people can afford to buy a house how much did that house cost where did they get the down payment oh my god why did I buy that case of wine last month and why did I go skiing last weekend I should have saved that money for a down payment I’m such a financial disaster.

Or, people my age seeming to get what appeared to be sweet promotions: Oh my god, I’m so behind in my career what is wrong with me I’m never going to be promoted I’m never going to find a good job these people are going to be making so much more than me in a few years when am I ever going to get a job like that what am I even doing with my life right now I’m about to be unemployed.

Oh my god oh my god oh my god always seems to be the introduction to panicked, illogical thoughts.

There are truths and falsehoods in both of those thought hurricanes. But what’s so unproductive and detrimental is that I don’t recognize my own truth – what comes out of a rational thought. And there’s the problem: when we’re comparing ourselves with others in a way that puts ourselves at the deficit, we’re not seeing what’s positive about our own situation.

I recently heard a television writer speak at an event at the local university. Mainly the audience was made up of undergraduate students, and therefore lots of advice on careers and creativity was dispensed. One line from this writer stayed with me, though:

Rather than focusing on what you don’t have to offer, think instead about what you do have going for you.

How great is that?

In the context of comparing yourself to others, think about what’s to your advantage. What are you getting out of life that these other people doing and achieving things you’re not getting? And not in a negative context, not to put others down. What does not owning a home right now afford me? What does not having to manage others enable me to do at work?

I also like this advice in the context of pursuing creative endeavors. What unique experiences do you have? What academic training do you have that makes you different than others, in a good way? Who do you know now?

And don’t just think. Every day, write down something in your life that you’re grateful for. Something you have going for you.

Do this to remind yourself that everyone is on a different path. Everyone has had and will have different life experiences that you have had and will have. And that’s cool, because you  have an opportunity to put your experiences and perspectives to use in positive ways. Comparing yourself to other people who seem to be

  • Smarter
  • More successful
  • Richer
  • More creative
  • More popular

… than you isn’t a good use of your time. Think instead about what makes you smart, successful, rich (in any definition), creative, a good person. Imagine the ways you can build on your skill set and talents to bring light into the world, to impact others.

The failures resume: It’s not as awful as it sounds

Yeah, you read that right: the failures resume. Not a document that you’d want to submit as part of a job application.

But developing a list of professional “failures” – programs that didn’t accept you, awards you didn’t win, funding you didn’t receive – can be a helpful exercise, even if not shared publicly. (Inspired by an effort by Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer, detailed here in a Washington Post article.)

A resume is not very different from a social media profile. Different audience aside, these spaces enable us to curate a portrait of our lives. While some may be prone to overshare tidbits that may not be seen as terribly positive in the context of our social profiles, the decisions we make for both our social and professional profiles are deliberate. We filter out the unseemly details: just as the Instagram post of shot you captured from a seaside cliff doesn’t let on about the argument you had with your partner on the drive to said cliff, the resume you post on LinkedIn or send to a hiring manager doesn’t describe the late nights spent on a project scrapped by an executive.

While not a misrepresentation, the person portrayed in our social and professional profiles, through resumes and CVs for the latter, has encountered tremendous experiences that have afforded plenty of lessons. Listing those “failures” can remind you that those moments provided lessons learned, helping you get to where you are today and wherever you’ll be tomorrow.

So what’s on my own failure CV? Some patterns, specifically re: the University of Oregon, some flakiness, and a lot of rejection.

Listing failures also diminishes the power of these failures. In line with my argument in a previous post about the silver linings in the jobs you didn’t get, these missed opportunities may actually be bullets dodged. When I think about the cost of living in Seattle on a graduate student stipend, boy am I glad I was rejected from the University of Washington’s program and instead pursued my master’s degree in a tiny, relatively affordable town in western Oregon.

Some of those failures may not seem like a big deal with some perspective. All of my essays submitted for contests/publication when I was 22 didn’t do so well. Because no writer has ever been rejected before me. I also remembered that I never won any awards as a journalist, but even if I had, I still wouldn’t be pursuing that line of work.

Of course there are things I still need to routinely practice: proofreading, preparing for presentations and meetings, fostering professional connections. Reviewing those items is a reminder that I don’t have to continue making those types of mistakes that I generally have quite a bit of control over.

Let me be clear: I’m not an Ivy League academic. I’m not a published author, other than what I’ve published as a journalist and freelance writer. I’m not an executive of a company. I’m not the founder of a startup or blog rolling in the cash. My failures don’t compare to those of someone seemingly more successful than me; my highs and lows may not seem as spectacular as those of others. However, I feel comfortable where I am professionally at the moment, and the missteps I’ve made and failures I’ve endured were painful to experience at the time.

Overall, my failures resume is a reminder that my professional life is a journey – and that while one chooses to show only what’s positive to others in the form of a resume, one can also choose how to look upon success, mistakes, missed opportunities, and what can be learned from all.

Gail M. Cole

Academic programs that did not accept me:
  • Clark Honors Program (undergraduate) at University of Oregon (technically, I was waitlisted)
  • Master of Arts in English programs:
  • University of Washington
  • University of Oregon
Score on GRE, for which I barely studied:

Not good.

Publications that did not accept my creative work:
  • Oregon Quarterly (was told I was in second place, but it turns out there was an error and I was only to be honorably mentioned. That one stung more than it needed to. Foiled again by University of Oregon!)
  • Oregon State University Provost’s Undergraduate Essay Contest
  • All submissions to OSU’s literary and arts quarterly magazine (I was even friendly with the editor, dang it!)
Zero Awards for:
  • Any news reporting
  • Any academic term papers
  • Either undergraduate/master’s thesis
General dishonors:
  • Misspelled the word “education” in the subject line of an e-newsletter
  • Reports I painstakingly compiled thoroughly ignored by self-serving higher-ups
  • Awkward, stilted master’s thesis defense for which I didn’t prepare enough
  • Way too many misspellings and other errors to count while as a reporter
  • Too many classes skipped as an undergraduate
  • Many professional connections not maintained

How do you learn to trust yourself?

The inspiration for this post comes from Dear Sugar podcast episode “How do I find the courage to be my own guide?” and, perhaps more indirectly, from Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. This topic is relevant to so many areas of life but I’m going to consider this question in light of creative pursuits.

I’ll admit that I feel like a fraud for this post.

Why? I don’t know if I do trust myself very often, especially when it comes to anything requiring abstract creativity. I’ve made the wrong choice in decisions relating to my career, friends and family, academics, and especially writing.

Lessons can be learned through any of our choices, but the difference between a not-terribly good decision (“I can’t afford this dress and have no occasion to wear it, but damn, I need to have it!” “I should probably stay at this shitty job so that my resume doesn’t make me look like I have a spotty work history.” “Our roommate won’t mind if we open her half gallon of shitty rum and accidentally drink it all before we go out tonight.”) and painful experiences is the intensity of the feeling of shame. The more vulnerability involved in a decision, the more humiliated and filled with self-doubt we feel when we find that we didn’t take the best course of action.

Mistakes happen, but sometimes the weight of the wrong choice clings for years, letting it influence our choices so that we don’t make that apparent mistake again.

I’ve realized that I’ve associated moments of vulnerability during times when I felt uncertain about my life – when I felt like I had made the wrong decisions – with creativity. This lead to incredibly self-limiting beliefs, mostly that I couldn’t trust myself to create anything worthwhile. It’s OK to nod along, I know you’re out there.

The culprit incident that lead to me having zero confidence in my creative abilities occurred during my first term of graduate school. I left a full-time job, one that paid shit and added an obscene amount of stress to my life but to which I hinged my sense of identity, for the life of a full-time student. I went to grad school to get out of that shitty job, to qualify myself to be a college-level writing teacher (which I thought I had wanted to be), to figure out the next steps in life, as many a 24-year-old is wont to do.

One of the courses I signed up for that first term was benignly named “Advanced Composition.” I took the undergraduate equivalent at the same university, a creative nonfiction writing course, and the instructor for this graduate course was a newly hired creative nonfiction professor. Still, I enrolled, even though this course barely fell within the parameters of my program. Part of me thought this course would bridge the gap between my undergraduate work (I got an English degree but mainly focused on creative writing and the study of contemporary fiction and nonfiction craft), my professional work (journalist and copywriter), and my long-term goals (I assumed that I wanted to be a teacher so that I could write on the side, because all writers are either journalists or teachers, obviously) and help me forge an academic path forward; I’d have to write a thesis on something, after all. This particular class would likely have Master of Fine Arts students in it, which gave me pause – these were students from a completely different program than mine – but I had dealt with future MFA-ers in my undergraduate classes; I could deal with this new crop. To assuage the hesitation I felt in the days before the start of class, I emailed the professor to confirm that I would be the right fit for this particular class. Indeed, this was a creative nonfiction-writing class, but the professor gushed: of course I was invited and welcome.

Nope. Not accurate.

The other 11 graduate students gathered in that room for a once-weekly, three-hour evening class were teaching assistants, except for me, meaning they all had a connection as brand-new or second-year composition teachers. Enter the outsider. I’m naturally introverted, at times obscenely, but in these types of new situations I am eager to be friendly to strangers even if it gives me mild anxiety. For the first several classes I fished for conversation. I tried to jump into group discussion. I forced smiles. No takers. I couldn’t help but feel completely excluded from this new group. Of course no one was actively plotting against me, excluding me, but a first-year, non-creative writing student who wasn’t teaching the same first-year composition class as everyone else didn’t seem to have a place in this space.

As the class unfolded over the term, I felt more and more excluded. The points I’d occasionally bring up were quickly contradicted or followed by silence from my classmates. I stopped speaking. Better to stay silent than invite discomfort. The enthusiasm for tackling creative writing projects on the ideas rattling around in my mind soon faded, too. I stopped writing for the love of it, but because I needed to finish my assignments so that I’d be closer to the end of this awful class.

Which brings us to the moment when my essay was workshopped. I’d participated in many workshops as an undergraduate and knew the drill: hand out printed copies of a creative piece of writing to your classmates at the end of one class, and at the following class, they’d spent a chunk of time critiquing the work. Eventually you’d receive your printed copies back with comments, questions, and feedback, both positive and negative. While the experience is painful due to the exposure of your work to a wider audience than just you and your professor, the result is often helpful. A few deflating comments can be absorbed when you ultimately can walk away with helpful feedback to put toward improving a specific piece and your craft overall.

This workshop, however, was different. Silence dominated what should have been a conversation among the class. Bless the heart of the professor, who tried to force discussion (I wasn’t allowed to talk, as this was a bona fide creative writing workshop), but hardly anyone wanted to contribute anything to the discussion. A few said relatively unhelpful things. A second-year fiction writer flipped through a few pages and sighed with just enough impatience to make me want to call the whole thing off: “I feel like this is like my writing in my first year, where I assumed things would just come together.”

To be fair, that workshopped essay wasn’t good. I don’t have the file saved anywhere and have long tossed the printed workshop copies of the piece, but from what I remember, the essay was some clusterfuck about three of my family members and their own individual connections to the Vietnam War, with my own relationship to the war in Iraq sprinkled in. Politics. Family. Big topics that required a lot of space, longer than 10 or 12 double-spaced pages and a few weeks of sporadic, undisciplined writing and revising.

Part of me knew that essay wasn’t great as I worked on it, but rather than scrapping it and focusing on improving one of the other essays I’d begun in that class, I cobbled together something I was far from proud of, something I knew I probably wouldn’t work continue to revise. Something that wasn’t worth the time of my classmates, though I don’t think that was part of my intentions at the time.

I sat with patience through that awkward, painful sham of a workshop, a tedious experience for all no doubt, then collected the copies of the essay that others had scribbled on (weeks later I looked at their notes, which were so much more sparse, textually and emotionally, than what I’d been writing on others’ workshop drafts. I pulled back on my own reading and feedback on others’ essays after that), waited for that class to end, and went on my way.

Four years since the end of that class, I hadn’t written a single thing that could be considered “creative writing” until very, very recently.

That perfect storm of changing career paths, from something that structured my identity to something that I wasn’t sure I even wanted, combined with beginning a graduate program that I could already feel myself doubting was right for me, and being surrounded by new, unfriendly people in a class that wasn’t right for me, simply deflated me creatively. Of course that crabby second-year MFA’s comments about my essay not having a deliberate narrative thread running throughout – that I can’t assume a reader is going to clearly understand my argument without some damn work on my part to make that argument understood – was legitimate feedback and helpful advice. But her tone and the overall disdainful vibes from others made me wonder what the point was of such creative vulnerability. I dropped my dreams of being a writer.

I don’t know what’s caused me to open back up, just slightly, to writing. Maybe being in a new place yet again. Maybe it’s having more time on my hands than normal, with there being no side projects and a nonexistent commute to work. Maybe enough time has passed, some emotional maturity has occurred, some relative career stability and self-confidence has developed.

I wasn’t wrong to have such a negative reaction to that experience, but the time has come to drop my association of creative pursuits with major life upheaval and the insecurities that come with this.

We, and that includes myself, have to learn to understand that there will be struggles and disappointment and failure in whatever we do – that struggle can particularly searing when it comes to our creative efforts. And along the way on our creative journeys, there will be feedback of all kinds: the good, the bad, and the good masked as bad. And there will be radio silence.

But we also have to learn to trust ourselves, to live in the truth of whatever it is we so deeply desire to do. A small amount of faith in our abilities and dreams can carry you farther than you would have gone otherwise.

So put trust in yourself by finishing a small piece of writing, art, or music you’ve been working on. Put trust in yourself by sharing a draft of your work with someone whose feedback and honesty you trust. Put trust in yourself by submitting a piece of work you’re proud of into a competition without any certainty that you’ll win. Put trust in yourself by feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment in your work. Put trust in yourself by opening yourself to honesty and knowing that great art follows vulnerability.

Trusting yourself, an ongoing exercise, takes practice and deliberate action. But know that you’re not alone – and know that I’d love to hear about your journey.