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Lucia Capacchione

Creative Journaling: When Words Are Not Enough

by Lucia Capacchione, Ph.D., A.T.R.

When most people think of keeping a journal or diary, in their mind’s eye they see page after page of written words. It’s true that a vast majority of diarists and journal-keepers over the centuries have recorded their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and dreams in words. Most famous diaries were verbal, but there is more to journaling than talking to yourself on paper.

When I began journaling almost forty years ago, it became clear from the start that words were not enough to say what my soul needed to say. Written language was far too small a container for my inner life, which is what journals and diaries are all about. When it came to exploring feelings, thoughts, nocturnal dreams, wishes and visions of the future, drawing gave voice to a much deeper part of myself. Later, I included magazine photo collage in my journal process, choosing images that acted as symbols for what was going on inside or for what I wanted to manifest in my life.

I was already a trained professional artist, so it was natural for me to pick up colored felt pens and express my feelings through colors, shapes, lines and textures. However, the art I did in my journals bore no resemblance whatsoever to the art I had done as a designer of posters, cards and magazines or as a fine artist working in water color and acrylics. My first journal drawings looked more like the art of young children or the paintings of mentally disturbed patients I’d seen in a psychiatric clinic on an art department outing in college.

Frankly, my first journal drawings startled me. They seemed so strange and foreign. I couldn’t believe my hand had actually drawn them. I thought if anyone saw them I’d be committed to an institution. Many of them were very primitive, others were quite surreal. What happened to my art training? Where was all my experience as a designer? Am I regressing? I wondered. Am I losing my mind?

In a sense, both were true. I was starting my life all over again (after a divorce) so I had fallen into zen mind–beginner’s mind. This was definitely a child-like state of being in many ways. I was gravely ill at the time with a condition that defied medical science regarding diagnosis and treatment. I felt very afraid, vulnerable and confused. To sum it up, I felt as if I was having a nervous breakdown. A friend later termed it a “nervous breakthrough.”

Yes, I had lost my mind in a way. Or more aptly, I was losing the grip my left brain had over my thoughts. Doing spontaneous drawings with no subject or theme in mind was like having a dream on paper. ,I was truly tapping into the unconscious. The idea of “dreaming on paper” was actually the basis for a new field of psychotherapy a t the time called Art Therapy. However, I didn’t know about Art Therapy when my hand started pouring out my innermost feelings and thoughts onto the journal pages. I had no knowledge that art had been used for healing. When images from my dreams at night began appearing on paper in front of my waking eyes, I hadn’t a clue that C.G.Jung’s clients painted their dreams and also did mandala making and kept journals. It would be another 37 years until Jung’s own monumental creative journal, The Red Book, would be published (2009).

My later discovery of Jung’s work and the field of Art Therapy changed my life forever and brought about a career change resulting in my own pioneering work in expressive arts therapies. My life’s work (revealed in my own personal journal journeying) has revolved around the Creative Journal Method. Inspired by Jung, I developed the method in my practice as an Art Therapist and teacher of journal-keeping. What resulted were my Creative Journal techniques which are distinguished by spontaneous drawing and collage for accessing the right brain (emotions, nocturnal dreams, wishes and more) followed by writing. It is an Art Therapy and Writing Therapy approach to journaling.

The Creative Journal is not to be confused with art journaling, which has become popular as part of the huge journal movement of the last fifteen years. Along with the scrap booking movement, art journaling has emphasized the esthetic aspect of journaling. Granted there is emotional expression and release going on and many insights come from that alone. However, the psychological value of journaling has taken a back seat in the art journal movement. Esthetics and exploring art media and techniques are front and center. In art journaling words are definitely less important.

In Creative Journaling art is used as a vehicle for emotional and spiritual expression and a means to gain insight into one’s life. The emphasis is on the process and the inner journey, not on the visual and esthetic result or effect. And Creative Journaling definitely uses words, usually as a follow-up to the art expression. Right brain process (visual) first, then left brain expression (words).

What is Creative Journaling?

So what is Creative Journaling? Creative Journaling uses BOTH images and words. It activates both sides of the brain: the verbal, linear, logical left brain and the visual, emotional, spiritual non-verbal right brain.

The method, as presented in my fourteen books, provides journal prompts for exploring specific issues, feelings, attitudes, beliefs and wishes. It includes tools for working with nocturnal dreams, with spirituality, relationships, health, career and more. The prompts usually begin with a suggestion to scribble, doodle or draw about a specific topic or issue. After that, the journal-keeper writes about the visual images, whether they be abstract or representational. In dream work we draw the dream images out and then write about them.

JOURNAL PROMPT: ,Draw how you feel right now. After the drawing is completed, write about what is in the picture.

In Creative Journaling, we can do one of many types of writing: free association, dialogue with elements in the dream (letting the element talk to us in writing), translating the images in terms of our current life situation,. We can write observations and insights and more.

Photo collage work is also highly effective for exploring feelings and nocturnal dreams. It is amazing to see how often images from our dreams show up in magazines. Photo collage has an inherently dream-like quality, as “realistic” images are superimposed to create a surrealistic landscape. For that reason, photo collage can be used to access the unconscious without reference to dreams. Making spontaneous collages of feelings or issues in our lives enables us to express conflicts, challenges or crises. We are thinking in symbols. One woman expressed her rage with a photo of a volcano erupting. A man portrayed his grief with images of rain on windows and photos of gray clouds looming heavily over a dark landscape. Writing or dialoguing with the collage images leads to powerful insights and problem resolution.

JOURNAL PROMPT: Try creating a drawing or collage of “where you’re at in your life right now.” Let your Critical mind take a break and allow yourself to create a visual image, no matter how primitive or strange it may appear to you. Then write about what you created. Let the images in the art speak to you as if they were another person.

You can find this and over fifty other journal prompts in my first book, The Creative Journal: The Art of Finding Yourself.

Letting Your Left Brain Know What Your Right Brain is Doing

The other unique feature of Creative Journaling is the technique of writing and drawing with the non-dominant hand and dialoguing with both hands alternately. I discovered this approach during a therapy session in which my therapist asked me to print with my non-dominant (non-writing) hand. Her intent was to regress me so I could experience my Inner Child. It worked. I felt like a five year old learning to write. My emotions came bubbling to the surface and I experienced a huge release of energy.

Later, while drawing and writing in my journal at home. I spontaneously started dialoguing with both hands. My inner child and my Critical Parent had a battle. The Inner Child printed with my left (non-dominant) hand and my Critical Parent write in long hand with my right (dominant) hand. No one had taught me to do this. My therapist had only used the non-dominant hand to allow expression for the Inner Child. The result of my first right hand/left hand conversation was nothing less than transformational. At the end of this dialogue, I realized that the root of all creative blocks is the Critical Parent Within who trashes the Creative Child Within. The topic of that first dialogue was an idea for doing art that my Creative Inner Child wanted to do. I’ve written an entire book about this two-handed dialogue technique: The Power of Your Other Hand.

Non-dominant hand-writing is the most powerful journal tool for gaining insights (in conjunction with spontaneous art expression) that I have found. I have received thousands of letters about how this technique has changed lives. I don’t doubt it. If it hadn’t been for this single journal prompt, I never would have written my first two books. Confronting my Inner Critic in this way actually blasted me through paralyzing writer’s block while authoring those books. Many therapists have used my written dialogue method and, over the years, their clients have told me how valuable it was.

JOURNAL PROMPT: Try writing with your non-dominant hand. This is the hand you don’t normally write with. Write or print your name and then write about how it feels to be writing with this hand. Do all of this writing with your non-dominant hand.

The two-handed dialogue approach can be applied to any questions in your life. You can ask questions or interview images you’ve come up with in drawings or collages. Or you can simply ask a question about something that is troubling you. The answers are always given with the non-dominant hand.

JOURNAL PROMPT: Think of something in your life that is a challenge or problem at this time. With your non-dominant hand, write down a word or phrase for the challenge or problem. With your dominant hand, interview the challenge. What is it? How does it feel? Why does it feel that way? What does it want from you? What can it teach you?

Creative Journal Guidelines

Keeping a journal. It isn’t necessary to make entries in your Creative Journal every day. If you make it into “homework” a rebellious part of you might cause you to stop journaling altogether. However, the more you journal the more you will get out of it. So if you want to start a personal practice of Creative Journaling, set aside a special time every day. Pick a time that works for you. And find a setting that is conducive to inner work. It needs to be quiet and you need to be free from interruptions. Give yourself the gift of this very private time. Some journal-keepers have told me that this one act – carving out time for themselves – was the best therapy in the world. Date the first page of your day’s entry. It is fun to go back and track your explorations later.

Privacy. It is essential that your Creative Journal be kept confidential so that you are not worrying about the judgment or criticism, of others. Find a safe place to keep your journal. If others can read or see your journal, then you will not be completely honest with yourself and it will lose its effectiveness as a personal growth tool.

Selective sharing. Sharing our Creative Journals with others can be done, but only with great caution. If you are moved to share a specific entry with someone, be sure that person is safe (non-judgmental) and trustworthy (will keep it confidential). You must make that a condition for sharing your journal. You do not want any criticism, analysis or judgment form others. Nor do you want others carrying tales of your journal work to third parties.

Enjoy the journey! Draw and write as if your life depended on it. Your inner life does.