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!