Journaling Toward Inspiration: Five Ideas

When I hit a creative slump, I’ll often turn to my writer buddies for encouragement. I’ll also whine to my husband, other friends and family, and my cat. Eventually I’ll turn to the one place I can vent completely, without fear of judgment or embarrassment or annoyance that I’ve repeated the same thing fifty-eight times in six days. No, it’s not my therapist’s office—it’s something much cheaper: my diary. Here are some of the different ways I use my diary* for inspiration:

[*I’ve got a lot of passion (and gratitude) for my diaries, but I realize not everyone has the inclination to keep a diary. If that’s you and you find yourself blocked or uninspired, you might consider opening a notebook or a new document on your computer and trying out one of the ideas below.]

1. Setting Goals. This is one of the best things a writer can do for herself. The goals can be anything from finishing a draft to planning how to get the next scene ready for a critique group meeting. Goals should be achievable (don’t set yourself up for failure!) and they should come with a deadline. When I have some good goals, I’m motivated to work, and that motivation often leads to inspiration.

2. Introspection. Examining past dramas of my life can dredge up various feelings—pain, joy, embarrassment, annoyance, and more—and those feelings and events will often make their way into my fiction. I’m not saying the loss of my kitten when I was eight is going to become my next YA novel, but something about it—the feelings, the people involved—might show up in my writing…and sometimes I won’t even realize it until much later.

3. WIP Issues. My diary has saved my butt so many times! If I come across an unfillable plot hole or a weak character motivation that I can no longer ignore, I go crawling into the arms of my diary like the repentant egomaniac I am. And the diary (nearly) always comes through. (One time it did not, and instead Katy Longshore came through in a three-hour brainstorming session and I will never ever forget that, Katy. You rock!) As I was saying! Somehow the very act of listing random ideas, of being free to suggest the most ridiculous of possibilities and crack up laughing—somehow that inspires me.

4. General Writing Introspection. Thoughts on the journey, explorations of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, kvetch sessions on how nobody understands my pain as a suffering artist—all that goes into the diary. Also, those fantasies where J.K. Rowling calls up begging to beta read my next book? The ones where my book gets turned into a movie directed by Joss Whedon and starring the cast of Firefly? Straight into the diary. If I write that stuff down at night before I go to bed, I’m practically aching to get to work on my book the next morning.

5. Dreams. I am a strong believer in dreams. So far one dream has turned into a novel, others have become short stories, and many more have gone absolutely nowhere (but they’re fun to read about years later). Even if you don’t usually remember your dreams, if you start writing them down when you do remember, you might find that you remember them more often and in more detail. And all those crazy (or creepy) situations and characters can inspire your fiction.

Do you keep a diary or journal? How do you use it to capture or nurture inspiration?

Also, if you want to snap a photo of your diary or journal and show it to me on Twitter, I’d LOVE to take a look. I’ll post a few of mine throughout the day.


First, Beth--you're welcome. I had so much fun at that brainstorming session! Secondly, thank you. I got my journal out this morning...

When you say you go to your diary, do you mean you brainstorm in a current diary or go to an old diary for inspiration? Both seem like good ideas, actually.

You're welcome! I think I need to break out my journal, too.

Ooh, good question, Steph! I generally brainstorm in a current diary. Every now and then, though, I'll look up old events to see how I was feeling--especially those high school years. My memory is terrible, so it's nice to have things (however biased or melodramatic!) on record.

My burning question (because I can't decide for myself): Do you have orders to burn your journals if something happens to you? Or are you going to let your family keep them for posterity?

Love this, Beth. I don't keep a journal per se - but I have tons of notebooks I write things in - and I now want to go through them. I usually keep a notebook for a WIP for research notes, etc. but might be fun to include other thoughts in there, too. Really a great post and resource! Thanks.

Before I got married, I made my best friend promise to squirrel them away in the event of my demise. Now my husband has orders to keep them until the kids are older. Maybe the kids can use them to figure out why they're spending gazillions of dollars on therapy bills. :)

I'm so glad you found some things you can use, Robin! I have a BIN (a Big Idea Notebook) that's "exclusively" for writing ideas & working out WIP issues...but inevitably there's crossover (angst in the BIN, WIP issues in the diary). It's a nightmare if I ever need to go back & look up something specific.

Love the idea of a BIN (a Big Idea Notebook)! I have, and use, notebooks, but I'm not very organized about labeling and categorizing them.

Yeah, Lia, that is a problem. It's probably a good idea to index a few of the things in the notebooks - a label on the outside with just some words that describe the content. God knows I need to do that.

I have an idea notebook but no longer journal – Maybe I should get back into it! I generally jot down lines of dialogue, images, or plot notes as they come to me in my moleskine, but don't write anything personal down. I love your point about setting goals – I'm very goal-driven and find this particularly helpful too.

Okay, so I got really dorky and numbered the pages and made a Table of Contents on my BIN, and any time I start a new page for a project, I write it down. So "ATRS" has pp. 5, 71-74, 83-86, 91-96 (and quite a few more). Sticky notes are also very useful.

Oh yes, the goals. We could probably make that into a YA Muses topic sometime!

I'm from Wisconsin, so I always think "diary" is "dairy." Instead of writing things in a neat little book, I eat cheese. It's getting me nowhere.

Maybe one of your characters is a cheesemaker? Or you can be inspired by the vein-y looking things in Blue Stilton? There have got to be possibilites.

I love really helpful nudges like this! Am getting out my dream diary once again. Kept them for years (when the dream state sometimes seemed more real than the waking state) until there wasn't enough space on my bookshelves. At that point, I simply built more bookshelves. Thanks so much for the inspiring post!

Pat, I think more bookshelves is ALWAYS the right answer. :)

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