Sense Journaling: A Powerful Creative Writing Technique

Fiction and non-fiction are both writing, but mastery in one does not equal mastery in the other. Non-fiction tends to be analytical and rational. Fiction, though, goes much closer to our core.

Fiction is about senses.

This is one reason why creative writing is so hard to learn. We spend most of the time in our analytical minds. To write good fiction, we need to unlearn. We need to train ourselves to see the world past memes and cliches and surface patterns.

That’s where creative writing exercises can be useful.

What follows is an exercise I found in From Where You Dream, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler.

Most journaling is counterproductive. Most journals are repositories of great swatches of abstraction and generalization and self-analysis and interpretation and all that bad stuff. Don’t do that. But here’s a certain kind of journal that might be useful to you:

At the end of the day or the beginning of the next day, return to some event of the day that evoked an emotion in you. Record that event in the journal. But do this only—only—moment to moment through the senses. Absolutely never name an emotion; never start explaining or analyzing or interpreting an emotion. Record only through these five ways I mentioned that we feel emotions—signals inside the body, signals outside the body, flashes of the past, flashes of the future, sensual selectivity—which are therefore the best ways to express emotions. Such a journal entry will read like a passage in a novel, like the most intense moment-to-moment scene in a novel.

Here it is again:

  • Record some emotional event using only moment to moment senses
  • Do NOT name emotions (“I was scared”)
  • Do NOT analyze or interpret (“It was a strange feeling”)

Use only the five ways we feel emotions to do the writing.

The five ways are:

  • Signals in the body. Temperature, heartbeat, lungs, muscles, nerves, etc.
  • Signals outside the body. Gestures, posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.
  • Flashes of the past. Not analyses but what Butler calls “bursts of waking dream.”
  • Flashes of the future. More dream bursts, but as premonitions of what might happen. Again, not analytical.
  • Sensual selectivity. What we sense from the world around us, filtered by the emotions. (The same thing can look very different to two people.)

Try doing this consecutively for a few weeks. Butler says you should start slipping into a meditative “dreamspace” where you can write directly from experience and not from your analytical mind.

For more excellent writing advice from a real, working writer, check out Butler’s entire book here.

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