Monday, April 3, 2017

Journaling: B is for Brainstorming

The greatest hindrance I hear to starting a journaling habit is not knowing what to write.

Flannery O’Conner once penned: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” 

I don’t think the problem is as much we don’t what to write, but we don’t know how to access it.

Brainstorming is a great way to access those hidden topics. 

Brainstorming allows the ideas to flow without the inner critic’s interference. Forget about writing complete sentences with perfect grammar and flawless handwriting. All that matters is putting words on a page.
One caveat to mention when it comes to brainstorming: never judge your thoughts before penning  them. The purpose of brainstorming is to write down all ideas, no matter how off topic or silly they may appear. Often those seemingly random thoughts are the ones that lead to deep insights.

Before ending a brainstorm session, ask yourself: what else do I have to say about this subject? Somehow this one question can help you dig deeper.

Listed below are several different brainstorming methods. Perhaps you already use some of them. Stick with what works, but if you find yourself blocked, try a new technique. Sometimes using our brain in a different way provides new perspectives and unlocks stubborn barriers.


This is by far the most popular brainstorming method, and probably the easiest to utilize. In fact, when I sat down to brainstorm this blog post, I used a list: how many ways are there to brainstorm?

Try to challenge yourself (can you come up with five items? ten? twenty?!) Sifting through surface ideas often leads to something that truly resonates. 


While making lists is the most popular brainstorming method, freewriting is usually considered the least popular.

A typical freewriting session involves setting the timer for ten minutes (less time is not long enough to plow through the surface thoughts; more time can lead to hand cramps and possible frustration). The only non-negotiable rule, however, is the pen (or pencil) cannot stop. It must continuously write for the full ten minutes.

Invariably what happens is the mind goes blank. However… Don’t stop! Keep writing. Even if you have to write, “I don’t know what else to write” … keep writing. I guarantee, after writing that phrase three times, the brain eventually thinks of something else to say.

While this brainstorming method is certainly not for everyone, I do encourage you to give it a try at least once. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Write a Letter to Yourself from Yourself:

Some may argue that all journaling is a letter to oneself since the intended audience is in fact us.

But somehow journaling in letter form is helpful. Perhaps it is in the formal greeting: Dear _______. The formality provides a certain distance from the subject at hand, and with distance comes objectivity. 

But the greeting also indicates a sense of kindness and compassion - endearment. How often do we treat ourselves with this kind of love?

Journaling in letter form will allow us to temper our thoughts and feelings, especially if they are of a self-deprecating nature. Writing a letter helps us see ourselves the way loved ones see us.

Write a Letter to Someone Else:

Sometimes discursive thought is not directed toward ourselves but someone else. Perhaps this involves others who have hurt us in the past. We want them to ask for forgiveness. We want them to apologize. But their words never come.

Here’s the thing about harboring anger, resentment, and hatred. It has no affect on the intended party, but continues to rob us of a joy-filled life and emotional well-being.

Isn’t it time to release that toxic build-up and move on?

The value of this exercise comes in the writing - not the sending. This is not necessarily a letter that will find its recipient. In fact, burning the letter once it is written is often a fitting conclusion. The purpose is to write what you need to release. 

Again, begin the letter with Dear _________ to allow your mind to temper the emotional words.

Before writing the salutation, ask yourself, do I need to say something else before I close this chapter of my life and move on? Once you have nothing else to add, you are done. And you are free.

Write a Letter to Yourself from Someone Else:

This is a slight variation on the previous two methods.

Sometimes it is beneficial to write a letter we desperately want to receive. Perhaps a letter from a deceased loved one whom we need to have final closure. We need to hear one last time how much they loved us - or how sorry they are for hurting us.

Write a letter to yourself filled with the words you need to hear. 

Interestingly, writing from this point of view can give us an understanding of the other person’s point of view. We may not agree with that view; we may not like that view; but we can gain an appreciation for what they might have experienced in life.

Write a Dialogue Script:

Writing a dialogue script is similar to the brainstorm method above, except you write the voice of both characters.

This is useful when in the midst of an argument, disagreement or misunderstanding with another person. By writing from both points of view, we are forced to consider the situation from their vantage point. We learn both sides to the story and discover we are no longer 100% right, and they are 100% wrong. Often we begin to visualize a compromise, extend forgiveness  and repair the hurt.

Word Association:

I stumbled upon this method of brainstorming quite by accident, but now I  use it on a regular basis.

Since the explanation works best by personal illustration, I will reveal how I found my 2016 word of the year using word association:

I struggle with an unhealthy desire to be productive; I measure the value of each by how much I accomplish. I knew I wanted a word to help me combat this issue, so I set out to find an appropriate antidote. The use of an online dictionary and thesaurus was paramount. 

First, I researched the definition for productive: having the power to create.

Create?! I thought productivity hindered creativity because it took all my time and left me exhausted. Apparently I did not need an antidote for productivity, but for something else. Perhaps busy?

Busy: actively and attentively engaged in work or past time; not leisure. Synonyms included: engrossed - overloaded - slaving - swamped. 

Yes! I suffer from too much busyness.

From the words listed above, leisure stood out, so I researched its definition: freedom from the means of work or duty.

Duty - now we’re getting somewhere. I always thought duty meant dependable, reliable, responsible, or accountable. All characteristics I hold in high regard. But I now realized duty has a negative connotation as well.

My word trail continued. Duty led to obligation. Obligation led to bound

By this point I felt as though I was suffocating. I needed to breathe. What word would help release me from this constraint?

Sometime ago a close family member expressed concern that I rarely played; in fact, she wondered if I even played as a child. Perhaps the antidote I needed was found in this word search. I looked up the definition for play: exercise or activity for amusement or recreation.

Recreation - literally means to create again. The need to nurture my creativity is what began this word search.

Synonyms for recreation included: enjoyment - fun - hobby - pleasure - relaxation - frolic. 

It was apparent to me at this point that my word for the year needed to be simple to understand and easy to implement: FUN

* * * 
Hopefully these suggestions will encourage you to give journaling a try. I will have a few others to share with you as the month progresses.

Up next in this series: C is for Compass (Spiritual Compass, that is...)


  1. I really love your word association brainstorming! I'm going to give that a try, for sure!

    1. I'm so glad you like it ... I wasn't sure I explained it well :)
      I'd love to hear how this method works for you!

  2. I often find myself staring at a blank piece of paper or computer screen not knowing what to write. Have used "freewrite" but will definitely try some of your other suggestions. Thank you for the great post! - Marie

    1. I'd love to hear which methods work well for you.
      I know free writing is not for everyone... but it is a unique way to uncover hidden thoughts or anxieties.

      Happy Journaling :)

  3. Lists help me, for sure.
    It's hassle-free, and I don't feel like I need to "commit" to any of the items I note, so that I can pick what works for me without feeling guilt of having wasted time or something.

    Like the post, Molly! I'll be back to check on your progress throughout April. Hang in there!

    1. Lists make me feel productive :)

      Thanks for stopping by - and the encouraging words!

  4. I was recently introduced to word association as a brainstorming method. The idea of writing a letter to myself from someone else is new. I will have to try it. I like the list, the freewrite and the word association from those I have tried.

    1. Sounds like you are a prolific journaler! That's wonderful :)

  5. Great tips. these are the type of things used in the classroom to kick strat children's activities. They should not stop at the end of childhood. We are all learning all the time

    1. I wholeheartedly believe in life-long learning!

      Thanks so much for stopping by :)

  6. I tend to just start in - something will eventually develop.

    1. Me too, Debby! I'm never short on words :)

      But I know there are some out there that need a little help when facing that blank page, and hopefully these ideas will help them get started.

  7. I haven't tried journaling but freewriting has definitely helped me figure things out with my writing before. It's great to just run with an idea and see where it takes you.

    1. I can see where freewriting would benefit character development, Sarah. I need to try it in my fiction writing endeavors :)

  8. For a few years I did a memory keeping project called One Little Word by Ali Edwards. The premise is that you pick a word that you focus on throughout the year. It is a great self-reflective kind of project. Ali would give assignments for each month and one of them was a letter to yourself. I loved it! It was creative and let me come at things in a different way which I enjoyed. Great tips on brainstorming. WeekendsInMaine

    1. I love Ali Edwards! And while I have not officially taken part in her monthly assignments, I do credit her with my passion for documenting family stories for future generations.

  9. I had never thought about the letter writing FROM someone to me. I have chosen a word of the year for the last three years. This year is Believe. Nice tips!
    B is for Bon Jovi

    1. Believe is a GREAT word!

      I've participated for five years now... starting with the word Balance, then choosing Peace, Delight, Fun and now Nourish :)

  10. So many great brainstorming ideas. Your advice also applies to writing the first draft of a story: don't edit until all your thoughts are on paper. In journaling as in storytelling, fear of criticism should be ignored.

    1. GREAT advice, Gail... and I need to constantly remind myself to ignore the inner critic until the draft is complete!!

  11. Here, here. I am not often at a loss for words, but when I feel myself struggling I normally start out with something like:

    "I have no idea what to write about widget production. I mean who really cares about widgets anyway? They seem like totally useless tools, theoretically speaking..."

    That is normally enough to get the ball rolling. The next thing I know I am looking for words to cut. :)

    Great post.

    1. I LOVE this, JO! Put all internal conversation on the page and go from there :)

  12. Nicely done--and I love the Connery quote. True, innit.

  13. Love your example of word association brainstorming. Guaranteed to send me down a rabbit hole or two.

    1. Oh yes... rabbit holes are inevitable :) (I discuss those in a later post...)

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  14. love the word association! will be using that for sure

  15. I really enjoy stream-of-consciousness writing which is a good way to 'pick ones brain' and come up with content.
    Writer In Transit

    1. Stream of consciousness - GREAT one (and I think I might include that in a future post)!

      My brain tends to be a little more left-dominant, so even my stream of consciousness writing has some kind of order to it... but I'm always surprised by an "aha" moment or a bit of insight after journaling in this way.

  16. I love to brainstorm. I like the idea of addressing it "Dear _____" reminds me of Anne Frank's diary. I'd never thought of using dialog script in a journal. I write plays and scripts for the stage, but as a journal...that would be fun.

  17. The word association type of brainstorming you describe sounds very powerful. I believe it would be a useful tool in my life coaching - so my thanks.

    Bunny and the Bloke


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