Journal Shift: Public vs. Private

May 7, 2010

Sensing a shift in my journal practice to a more private mode again.

Above: Quick Pentel Pocket Brush Pen Sketch with a background painted with Holbein Gouache (red painted throughout, allowed to dry, and then brushed over with zinc white on a moist brush). Click on the image to view and enlargement.

Before my talk on gouache last week I spent some time playing around in my journal, thinking about how I like to use gouache, both to define a subject and to create a background.

The above image is an example of the latter, but it didn't start out that way. I originally was going to write notes about my day in the negative space on the right page. Then just as I was about to do that I realized that I didn't want notes on my day being read by strangers at my demo.

It was interesting to me that I had that thought. My visual journals have gone through private and public phases before, but that thought signaled to me that the longest running public phase I've ever had might be winding down.

In 1998 I came out of a private phase, and began showing my visual journals frequently when I started teaching arts classes in the public schools. My visual journals aren't that personal. They tend to be about things I see during the course of my day, or sketches that are practice or studies for paintings. Or meeting notes. My written journals are private and never leave the house.

But lately I've seen my written journals be somewhat neglected (impacted by the writing time I spend on my blog). And I've seen an increased tendency on my part to write more personal items in my visual journal.

And I've found that when I ready a stack of journals to take to a class as "samples" the selection process for recent journals is more difficult. You can only tape so many pages together before taking that journal seems pointless. (Additionally, on several recent occasions in the past year, tape and a request for privacy on those pages have not stopped prying eyes.)

Then up popped this occasion where I stopped myself from writing something because I wanted to show the image on the page I was about to write on.

That's the big clue that something is changing for me. Because when I don't write something my mind stops and says, "We can't have that!" I see that as self-editing and my journals only work for me if I am free of any such notion.

Bottom line, my journals, visual and written are for me. It is literally uninteresting to me to try and keep a visual journal that is "decorative" or "beautiful" or "for public consumption." Those approaches are fine if they work for the artists attempting them, but for me keeping a journal is always about exploring my mind and my approach to creativity. If I'm editing that exploration it's no longer valid.

That I would have this moment of shift awareness now isn't surprising to me. I've found myself writing more and more in my visual journals, fall out of the dwindling page count of the written journal. But the shift awareness also comes at a time when I was involved in keeping a fake journal that basically had no text, because of the circumstances of that journal's author. When I made the sketch of the Chihuahua I was at the end of a month long examination of text in my visual journal and the nature of communication.

Why bring this up? Well I know there are new journal keepers out there who visit my blog and I wanted to point out the need for a healthy awareness of your own needs.

Over the course of my life journaling has always been present, but has shifted in seemingly subtle and sometimes profound ways, that at first aren't even noticeable while the shift is taking place. I wanted to write about this new shift in my visual journal to draw attention to the fact that this is NORMAL and not to be feared or worried about if you're new to keeping a journal. It's just evidence of your life changing, your situation changing, your needs changing, your artistic voice changing.

You need to acknowledge that or you're going to end up being frustrated working in a journal that has become work instead of discovery.

I encourage all my journaling students to not share their work with their friends and family until after they have kept up a daily habit of 28 days (that being the length of time it has been determined for a new habit to take hold). I want to ensure that they have a good start to their journaling life. I want to protect them (though I know such protection is out of my capability) from the casual caustic venom of someone else's internal critic blasting them, and releasing their own internal critic. I just hope to buy them a little time to settle in.

When someone makes a critical comment, either seriously or in jest, about my work (in or out of my journal) I have a thick skin that's able to deal with that—take the valid bits and work on them, throw out the chaff that is their own dissatisfaction with their own lives. When you follow your passion there are people all around who aren't following their passion and yet will be eager to weigh in on your progress (out of their own disappointment). Part of this thick skin was developed through a lifetime of journaling, and also a lifetime of being lippy. Another part of this thick skin comes up naturally when you have clients who pay you to make images.

One of my goals as a teacher has always been to help people develop their own thick skins so that they can access their creativity without societal filters.

When I drew this little dog and decided to paint the background instead of write about my day I knew I had to bring this to your attention.

Listen to the clues and cues your mind is giving you. Keep your own needs and process in mind. Protect the journal habit you have taken pains to make room for in your life. (And realize it will change and grow as you do.)

What does all this mean for Roz Wound Up and posts illustrated with journal spreads? I don't know right now. I'm still digesting my fake journal experience, still thinking about that dwindling written journal, still considering what is public and private in my creative life. I'm even wondering what all this means in relation to what I teach in journaling classes.

Lots of thoughts swimming about in my head. Some of those thoughts will probably be future blog posts. Others will disappear as quietly as they arrived—of no importance in how I function.

I think you'll probably see more page spread images with text fuzzed out.  I haven't posted a lot of images that way, but I sense it might be coming. Or the opposite could happen: I could take all that writing and put it back into the written journals, and end up with almost textless visual journal pages.

I don't know, and I'm OK with not knowing. I've been here before. As long as I keep my creative contract with myself I know the issue will resolve itself.

You can resolve your own issue of public vs. private by asking your self questions about your goals and the purpose of your journal (how best it will serve those goals). Just know it's a normal process.

  1. Reply

    Roz, Thanks for such an introspective, insightful, and honest post. I have the common condition of not writing too much in my journals, which are overwhelmingly visual. Sometimes I feel I would LIKE to write more–but here’s the common part–I’m afraid that someday someone will read them!

    Well, at least for now, I’m contented to let my reflective artist process manifest as mostly visual. As you say, sometime soon that may change, for for now it works.

    • Susan Farnham
    • May 7, 2010

    Dear Roz, thank you so much for that drawing. It reminds me so much of my little dog Zipper that you made my day! susan

  2. Reply

    i know exactly what you mean.. so often i find myself editing my written thoughts, knowing that my sketches are posted on my blog where firends, family and strangers might read them. Not only is it the blog thing but when i share my sketchbook in person i can see people reading what i wrote. Knowing that sometimes I can barely find the moments to sketch keeping up with my written journal falls by the wayside.Plus i like the idea of have all of my lifes observations in one place. Funny enough, one post i did “fuzz” out the text and someone commented on that… it’ll all get figured out when it does..just thought i’d share. Thanks for posting this topic Roz!

  3. Reply

    Thanks for this post Roz. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot since you replied to one of my comments on you blog that I was journaling for my family. That is true, in a way, as some members of my family have hazy boundaries and it’s hard to break them of reading over my shoulder, or picking up a journal I might leave out.

    So I have one truly private journal that sits next to my bed; my husband is a great husband and will not look at what he hasn’t permission to look at. That journal is where I do a visual and written journal every night before I sleep, full of private thoughts and personal chatter. I have other journals for public consumption, in which, oddly, I’m more free in some aspects, as I’m not as personally attached to them.

  4. Reply

    Susan, if you get to live with a little cutie like that then you are very, very lucky! (I’ve been quite drawn to small dogs in the last two years!).

  5. Reply

    Kim, there are a number of ways to get over the sense that “someone may read” your journals, and I think it’s important that you look at that.

    For me, even from an early age it’s never been a thought that someone might read them because no one in my family was interested in my journals and we all had good privacy (i.e., no intrusive mothering or sneaking around to read things). My journals now are right out in the open and I know Dick doesn’t read them (that would be a full time job!).

    I think the idea of possible readers is an important one to get a handle on because I think it is one of the ways internal critics control creative out put.

    I think the easiest way to begin to get around this is to keep pointing out to yourself that you get to decide who reads your journals or not.

    If the idea that someone might read them after you’re gone, or if you have an accident (which knock on wood won’t happen, but our worrying minds conjure all sorts of things) then you could always ask a friend to be prepared to come in and destroy them in that eventuality. I have a friend who has asked me to do that. She knows I’ll get the stuff and destroy them without peeking (I won’t be tempted at all so she knows she can trust me).

    Sometimes, if that’s the issue you’re worried about, that can be the best ease for it—to make it a non-issue.

    If it’s important to keep showing your visual journal then you might consider keeping a written journal that gets shown to no one. I really want you to have a venue in which you can express your written thoughts which are cropping up.

    For me, showing my visual journals is something I do because I want to provide examples, first for my students, and then that expanded to people on the blog. But I’ve never had any push to show my visual journals to anyone else for any other reason. There would be the obvious showing situation if I were sketching with and they wanted to see what I was doing, but other than that and the need to show them to students so they can see what I’m doing and talking about—I’ve really never been pulled to show them.

    I guess I’ve also been fortunate that most of the time the visual journal is not private in nature so there has been no need to worry about screening things.

    But now as the written journal languishes because of time spent on this blog I do feel the more personal aspects of my life creeping into my visual journal. Don’t get me wrong, my visual journals are personal, and for some people they seem painfully so, but there is a boundary line in me about what is public and what is private and for the past 10 plus years the visual journal has been OK in both categories and now not so much.

    The main thing we have to do is protect the journal as a useful tool. So if the visual is working for you that’s great. Just take a moment to think about that call to the written and how that might manifest in your practice (either in a totally private visual journal, or in a private written journal, or in some other way that I’m not coming up with at present).

  6. Reply

    Genine, thanks for weighing in on your own puzzle. It really comes down to balance that we have to find what works. I cannot tolerate ANY SELF-EDITING. It’s the deal breaker for me. And so if even a little of that comes up my journal self goes into to private mode.

    Happily I don’t make a living from sharing my journals with people either in class or on my blog, so I can stop whenever I want. I can go back to totally private mode, knowing what that’s like.

    If the balance for you is to continue to post on your blog but fuzz out private text (names, and such) then I say go right ahead and do that. It doesn’t matter what other people think about that. It’s more important that you find a balance where you can express what you want to express in YOUR journal. Sure people might be curious but bottom line don’t let that matter to you.

    The only thing that matters is reaching the balance that works for you, and maintains your journal as a useful tool. The moment it stops being that, the moment it becomes something for show instead of exploration, it will be work—I’ve seen it happen to a lot of people. It becomes something less authentic because they are working to an audience’s preferences and tolerances instead of letting the journal come out of them organically.

    Keep your journal for yourself and find a balance that allows you to do that. Fuzz away!

  7. Reply

    Maggie, it’s great that you have a system that works for you. Everyone is going to have a different sense of boundaries about their journals. I suspect that if you told your family your visual journals weren’t for them to peek over your shoulder at they would do that. And you have a private journal too.

    Sadly some people don’t have the boundaries in place that can protect their creative work as it grows.

    It’s good for people to see different approaches.
    Thanks for writing in.

    • Meinhild Selbach
    • May 8, 2010

    Roz, thanks for this post and your replies to the comments. This post came just at the right moment for me. I started a new notebook with the goal to turn it for the first time into a “illustrated journal” but all week I was debating whether or not to post images of it on my blog. Now I have more food for thought on this.

  8. Reply

    Great post Roz. My journals are all private, but I don’t go to much effort to hide them away from prying eyes. Maybe because I think that if you read my entries and become upset or fearful, it comes from the terror of seeing so deeply into my soul. I wish my great aunt Mona had kept a journal that still survived. Maybe I’ll have neices and nephews who will find my journals some day and treasure them. Or not. 🙂

  9. Reply

    Meinheld, I’m glad this discussion has provided some helpful points to consider.

  10. Reply

    Gwen, I think that for new journal keepers (and I don’t know if you are new or not, but it sounds like you have been at it for a while) my worry when they show their journals is that someone will snipe at them out of their own lack of following their creative passion. I have seen this happen to so many of my students, and to people who have come up to me at my talks and demos. Sometimes the comments that shut them down in their pursuit of journaling come from those closest to them—people who let the negative energy seep out in ways that actually seem supportive. Critical energy can be very subversively applied and it is important that people develop a skin to protect their creative self so that they can continue to have unfettered access to that creative self, regardless of the good or bad comments that come their way. Your attitude that your readers discomfort comes from the terror of seeing so deeply into your soul, is an example to me of how you have built your skin—kudos to you.

    Sometimes readers, however, aren’t interested in seeing into anyone’s soul, but only in criticizing and venting. I spend a lot of time helping students through that.

    My attitude, when people see something in my journals that is personal, and which upsets them, is, well that’s too bad for them, because my journal is what it is.

    My issue with privacy however, is that there are times when I don’t want any one in my journals at all, for whatever reason. I don’t even ask myself to come up with a reason. I just know that if it doesn’t feel right for me I don’t show my journals—my journal as a useful and non-edited tool is most important to me.

    I don’t have any thoughts of anyone looking at my journals after I’m gone. No one in my family has been interested while I’m alive and I can’t imagine they would be interesting to others.

    I think Dick will keep them because he enjoys my work and will look back on them from time to time with fondness, but I suspect when he is gone they will all end up in the dumpster—and it doesn’t bother me at all because they will have served their purpose—they have let me understand and improve my creative process.

  11. Reply

    These are really good issues to consider right now, about a year into keeping a combo diary/sketchbook. I thought I lost a journal about 8 months ago. VERY FREAKED OUT.OH BOY. Did find it.Tried to read it like a stranger. Nothing was in there that would be unusual for a person at my age in this time. A humane reader would understand. Your ” w/o editing” has been a touchstone to me, and honesty carries a certain truth.

  12. Reply

    Ellen, I’m glad you found your lost journal. And it is interesting that you read it “like a stranger” and found it as you say.

    I would for purposes of this post’s discussion still suggest that over time your own view of that volume will change. Somethings will be more transparent, other things more opaque perhaps. And the question of whether or not to show your journals becomes more complicated because we change over time. What kids on Facebook don’t understand is they can’t get those images and such down. In the same way, once you’ve shared something in your journals it is not longer yours alone but exposed. This may have unintended impact on your future work. So all artists, I’m convinced, need to really think about the no editing aspect of having a playground for their mind. I actually have a new post coming up about this in a week or so (if I can ever sit down to correct the draft!

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