Project Friday: How To Deal with Crappy Days in Your Visual Journal

May 11, 2018
I find that even a quick sketch of dogs will bring me out of a funk and get me back to focusing on actions I can take to turn things around. Dogs are about living in the present moment. If we can’t live with them (and currently I don’t have dogs) we can still remember and learn from them as we draw them. (These are two lovely dogs on Sktchy.)

Here’s a question I’m asked frequently: How do you deal with crappy days in your journal?

Not long ago a student explained to me that when she kept a written journal she would often write about the stress and frustration in that journal, but then never look back at it. 

She felt that her visual journals were different. She browsed through them frequently and didn’t want to be reminded of an unhappy day over and over again. 

Tellingly she did add that she wanted to see “struggles overcome.”

She wondered how I deal with writing about unpleasant experiences in my journal.

First I would like to state that this is an essential issue that any journal keeper needs to address. How you address it will relate to your past experience and actions, your desire to change things that aren’t working for you, and your own unique temperament.

I would also like to point out that there is no way to see “struggles overcome” without seeing some of the mess of the struggle. That’s just a part of the mess of life.

If you find that this particular issue is really dominating your thoughts on this you need to ask—For whom am I keeping my journals? What matters most to me—details, honesty, process, outcomes, or some sort of finished-sharable product?

Your answers to all of those questions will help you decide how to deal with crappy days in your visual journal.

I would like to point out a couple things to watch out for. How you go forward will be determined by your own goals and your own desires for the role your journal plays or can play in your life.

Angst and Negativity

I think most journal keepers have had an angst period. It’s pretty common in the teenage years when we are adjusting to having adult bodies and new responsibilities while still experiencing limited freedoms and limited awareness of the whole scope of the world.

I decided at a very early age that I wanted my written and visual journals to be about my process. And I also decided that I didn’t want an angst driven process. Why? I saw people who were driven by angst as wasting a lot of time. From the age of 5 I believed that I would die before I was 35 years old—so I believed I had little time to spare on angst.

Also, from a very early age I was encouraged to read the books in the family “library,” so if something puzzled me I sought out answers. If they weren’t in the books found at home, I went to the public library. This led me, at an early age to read a lot of philosophy. It helped that I had an older brother (18 months older) who was interested in philosophy. My parents could have cared less about any of my concerns, both for my personal concerns or for my concerns relating to the environment and world peace. They focused on their own concerns as parents who provided for their children. We already had divergent world views and concerns.

Instead of angst, much of the writing in my early journals is about questions of philosophy and human behavior. I’m observing and trying to understand what I observe. 

I’m grateful everyday that I didn’t spend my early years mired in angst.

I’m also grateful that a self-evaluation in my college years led me to move even further away from angst or complaint filled journals. I didn’t want those to be my “memories.”

I know that we all get to different stages, and sometimes the same exact place, by different routes. Therefore, if you find venting or letting out your angst in your journal helps you in someway balance the pressures of your life, I suggest that you vent away.

I have one friend in her 50s who does exactly that. The writing feels great and she burns all her journals as soon as they are filled. 

If you have a system that works for you don’t break it. But do make side experiments to see what could augment your system.

Others find that they vent the negativity into their journals that they don’t feel comfortable sharing verbally with others. 

If that’s working for you and allowing you to find balance, keep at it. 

If you find that you are dwelling on too much angst, or too much negativity and believe it is reenforcing itself (and I believe it can) then it’s time to look at another approach.

But remember—if you want the outcome of the struggle in your journals, you’ll need the mess of life as well—or you’ll need to set up a separate journal for ranting!

Ways To Manage Your Journals

I like to keep one journal with writing and sketching. I like that to be a private journal. For various periods of my life, because I teach journaling, my private journals have been shown publicly. This has caused some stress in my inner life as I want to keep my journals just for myself. I have coped by showing journal pages which don’t contain writing, or journal pages which are several years old and not as sensitive any more.

In recent years I find that I have been showing my journals less and less as I get back to the personal work I want to use my journals for. That feels great.

If I have serious issues I want to unknot, I’ll write about them in my written journal. More and more I find that I can write about them in my visual journal in a quick fashion, knowing that all the details aren’t important to me. I’ve lived past 35 years of age and having a “complete” record is no longer important to me.

What is important to me is having a daily record of my life and the things that mattered to me in the moment.

This record doesn’t become burdened with good or bad because the balance I have found is that every day I work in my journal and the process of doing so helps me focus on the positive through gratitude.

There are lots of things to be grateful for in life even if you are ill, injured, overworked, underworked, needing to replace all your appliances, burying your dog, caring for children who are having a hard time learning or coping with life, dealing with family addiction issues, death, etc. I have friends who face all those things and yet they every day they are balanced individuals because they have taken time to find gratitude for the things they do have, and taken steps to make positive change in their lives.

They have ceased to compare their lives to the lives of celebrities. They have taken time to see how a kindness to another human matters more than some goal they might have. They have looked for what is real in their lives and found balance.

I think ultimately looking for what is real in our lives is what journaling is about.

To find what’s real may be a messy process, and will definitely be aided by keeping a journal

What I Do Now in My Journals When I Have a Crappy Day?

I don’t have an angst or complaint filled journal because I made a decision to leave that behind and focus on positives that get overlooked. 

I find that drawing brings me out of a funk and restores balance also to my thought process. Therefore I use drawing as a journaling tool to get me outside of myself to a bigger perspective. I draw things that cheer me—dogs, birds, people’s faces. If there is a “no-live-model-emergency” I use a dinosaur toy or a pepper.

I put sad and horrible things in my journal because it’s part of the honesty pact I have with myself. Because my focus is mostly on the positive, even with the grumbling and complaints (and some do find their way into my journal), everything is set within a context of the positive. The moment the negative and sad things are stated is the moment I’m beginning to solve them.

Even in situations where I’ve had vertigo, an illness, or injury, I might make a comment about that on the page, but I tend not to whine about it. If I see myself starting to whine I try to deflate it with humor or otherwise snap myself out of it, and I push through on the drawing. Drawing on vertigo days (or any “bad” day) reenforces that things are OK in a positive way, that I can still get things done. That becomes it’s own buoying positive.

Pushing through with humor also restores my balance. It reminds me to not take my ego seriously, but to take myself very seriously (and seek balance).

I think it’s important to find a way to cope with this, either by having a separate writing journal where you do your angst or by having a way in the visual journal to turn the focus on the drawing you get done, as I’ve mentioned above.

It is important that you acknowledge your REAL life, and if things are going bad you need to acknowledge that life isn’t great, but you counter that with what you can do visually and how you can stay on track with your goals (both personal and artistic).

In this way you see the whole scope of your struggles and the outcomes in a positive, healing way that shows how you are growing and seeking balance in your life. The whole is important.

I have found that this method of not filling my journal with angst or complaint has actually led to less drama and more understanding in my life. It certainly helps me maintain a high level of productivity. At the same time it doesn’t ignore that unpleasant things happen in my life; it doesn’t negate that sometimes I struggle. But it frames those situations in a way that reminds me that I can keep going forward.

The other aspect of this is that my journals are really just for me. Dick doesn’t read them, no one does, and what people see on my blog is less than 1/4 of the pages I do in a year. So I never have a situation where I find myself editing myself while doing a page because I’m worried someone will see it. I just don’t have to show those pages.

Everyone has to find a “norm” and approach for themselves.

I have one friend who writes about everything in his journal, in amongst all the sketches he makes. If you look in his journal, which he shows to everyone, you’ll read about the politics and events he goes to but you’ll also read about serious incidents in his family life. These are not greatly detailed. He’s not that sort of writer. But they are mentioned. I personally wouldn’t make such pages public. This is a discussion you need to have with your family so you come up with an approach that respects everyone’s privacy.

I find that when people use complaining words like “struggle”—all those words are loaded.

The journal itself becomes difficult to continue if your language is about struggle. But you do need to at least have some passing note to what is going on in your life or you end up at the end of your life with a bunch of pages which don’t represent who you are.

How you arrange that balance is a function of you who are as a person and how you want to use your journal.

As you look for balance think about how you can keep a journal that moves you forward out of the negative, into productivity.

I have a mentor who long ago told me to focus on what I’m grateful for and that usually snaps me back.

But again, I think ignoring or not including in your journal what’s happening in your life is not helpful.

Remember to use humor, show up to do your work, and keep gently reminding yourself of all the things you’re grateful for. Those are the best ways I’ve found to find a balance in my journal and in my life. 

Project Friday—How Do You Find Balance in Your Journal?

If this is something that you’ve been wondering or thinking about, why not spend some time today or this weekend thinking hard about the issue?

Sit down with your journal and ask yourself some hard questions.

Who is the audience for your journal? Does having that audience (if it isn’t just you) hinder the honesty with which you work? Enhance it?

Does your stated audience limit what you can do with your journal? For example—it can’t be a workbook because you don’t want to work out raw ideas in full view of that stated audience; it can only be written so you don’t have a way to meld your visual thoughts with your verbal thoughts.

How much time do you spend complaining in your journal? How much time do you spend thinking up actions to make change in your life? How do you use your journal to help you be a more productive person or artist? How do you use your journal to learn? 

What is the balance in your life now and how do you want to change it? 

Think about all that and any related issues that come up.

Then draw a dog.

You’ll feel better!







    • Cathy
    • May 11, 2018

    I love your blog! Great thoughts not just on art, but on life too, though I guess you can’t really separate them. I am, at 66, letting go (when I can) of what I think I “should” be doing in my journals, and letting happen how I do it, no matter whether it’s judged good or not. Thanks for your writing about issues not always tackled.

    1. Reply

      Thanks so much Cathy. I’m glad you think so. I’m also really glad to hear that you are letting go of “should” in your journal. YAY. The only thing the journal “should be” is useful to you for your creative work!!!! Keep filling those pages!

    • Tina Koyama
    • May 11, 2018

    Excellent post with your usual heartfelt wisdom, Roz. I have a very mechanical way that I keep my written journal balanced (so that it doesn’t get overwhelmed with whininess or other unproductive writing). It has 2 sections. The front section is dated with only about an inch of space for each day. This is a “log” where I use brief bullet points to summarize key thoughts or events (good, bad, neutral). Most of the time, this is all I need to just note something and move on. But if I need more space to really work it through or it’s important to me to get the details, then I use the back section, which are all open-ended, freeform pages. But the longer I do this, the less I need to go into the back section.

    A few years ago I struggled with the privacy issue and how/whether to write on the same pages that I sketch on (because I want to share the sketches but not the writing). As much as I loved the idea of the writing and images of my daily life being integrated, I decided that I needed to keep them separate so that I would never have to pause and consider whether to hand over my sketchbook if someone asked to see it. I wanted to be able to share the sketches freely and easily. We all have to decide for ourselves how to deal with this. Reading your blog posts on this subject helped me through this process.

    1. Reply

      The day I posted this a student wrote to me and I suggested this very thing. I typically use the back of my journal (upside down, starting from the last page working in) as a place for notes on process that I don’t want on the painted page, or don’t have room for on the painted page, but I suggested to this student that it was also useful for writing about her day.

      The idea of writing and visuals integrated is going to very much depend on what the journal keeper wants to do with the final pages. I am glad that you are protecting yourself. Thanks so much for stopping by and for always leaving such thoughtful comments!

      In other matters—any chance you’re going to come to the Fair this year? I’m already planning!

        • Tina Koyama
        • May 14, 2018

        OHH, I very much want to come to the Fair. . . but probably not this year. 🙁 I think the family reunion is a week too early. (Although as a consolation, there’s a good chance I’ll be able to go to the new Bell!) Will look forward to seeing your chicken sketches!

        1. Reply

          Marty just announced August 25 and 27 (the Saturday and Monday) Sorry you won’t be there but I hope you have a fantastic time at your family reunion. And that you get to enjoy seeing the new Bell. (It’s been open for a couple things already but it hasn’t been on my radar because of family and work, so I haven’t even been able to drive by and see it. Friends who have been inside for various pre-opening reasons say it’s fabulous of course!)

    • Tina Koyama
    • May 11, 2018

    P.S. Sketching birds at our feeders always cheers me up immediately! I miss them so much in the late spring through early fall when we take the feeders down.

    1. Reply


    • KarenVC
    • May 13, 2018

    This is my first visit to your blog, but a well time one for me. I’ve returned to art making after being away from it for nearly 20 years. This was certainly in some way prompted by the unexpected death of my mother, but also a general need for something to keep more more rooted in the here and now – mindfulness, if you will. I kept a written journal from my late 20s into my early 40s. I’ve looked back at them a couple of time since setting them aside about 10 years ago and found them filled with angst, sorrow, anger, and complaints. I originally started them as a way to document and reflect on my life but they quickly became purposeless, other than to reinforce my negative view of my life and the world. Though my original intent was to have a written document of my life that could one day be shared, I would never want anyone to see them. I see no productive use for them for me or others and will likely destroy them.

    I very much appreciate your schooled approach to journaling and the suggestions you’ve shared on making them useful for the creator. Yes, venting is helpful but to what end if no action or resolution follows.

    1. Reply

      Karen, thanks for stopping by the blog! I hope you have fun poking around. (Heads up. I moved the blog in January 2017 and the entries from before February 2017 have images which do not enlarge. It’s a huge tech headache that has been unsolvable so far—and I don’t think it will, but you’ll still get the idea.)

      I think your journey with your journals is very normal and usual from what I hear from my students. I’m always glad when people get back to journaling and do it without the angst. I’ve very excited for you and this new adventure that you’ll be on!

      I’m glad you find these musings helpful! Stop by again soon.

    • Lin Powell
    • August 27, 2018

    I just found and just read this very interesting entry about journaling. Perfect timing, perfect content. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Reply

      So glad that you enjoyed reading that post. Thanks for letting me know it was helpful.

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