Therapeutic Journaling Part 2: How and Why You Should Journal

For this week’s Meaningful Monday post, I shared a little bit of my own personal experience with therapy so far as a way to lead into today’s Workshop Wednesday where I’ll tie it to journaling. Therapy and journaling go hand in hand the same way going to school and doing homework go hand in hand with each other. Or if you have an aversion to homework for school like I do, let’s take a more fun example like learning how to play the guitar.

It is not enough to go to a guitar lesson and think that 30-60 minutes with your teacher will be enough to improve your playing. They are there to guide you toward that, but ultimately the rest is up to you in and out of the classroom. A good teacher demonstrates what it looks like for you to teach yourself the very thing you want to learn. They open your mind up to what’s possible and challenge you in a way that you need to start challenging yourself.

Therefore, going to therapy alone is not enough to heal past traumas, get hopeful for the future, and learn how to be content in the present moment. You can still get a lot of value from going to therapy and going to a guitar lesson, but ultimately you need to take home with you all that you’ve learned and apply it all on your own. A good therapist, much like a good teacher, makes it their job to make themselves obsolete to you because you want to eventually develop the skills to educate yourself long after your mentorship from them.

This in mind, consider journaling as the homework equivalent to therapy. To use what you’ve learned and ask yourself the kinds of questions your therapist has asked you, and more, so that you can get ever deeper into self inquiry.

Plus, you’ll even cut down on your need for therapy by helping yourself because you’ll learn to discern what issues you have that are actually worth talking to your therapist, let alone worth thinking and talking about in the first place.

Without further adieu I would like to introduce you to three different ways in which you can journal about your life, thoughts, and feelings all dealing with the top three tenses in life and narration: past, present, and future.


Dwelling in the Past

If there are things in your distant past that still haunt you to this day, then it’s worth writing about certain instances and eras in your life that often keep you up at night. You may have had a traumatic childhood in its entirety, or an otherwise okay childhood, but still remember a few traumatic moments or eras in your life that still have an effect on you now.

We all know we shouldn’t dwell on the past because it holds us back from enjoying the present moment, and some of you might be thinking then why write about it? My answer to that would be so that you can finally let that part of your past go. If something in the past still bothers you, it means you’ve yet to process it and learn what you can from it.

Whether you were the victim, or even perpetrator, of an injustice, it is important that you analyze your past to get a better understanding of how and why things turned out the way that they did. Life is mostly random, providing us with fortune and respite in one moment, and then torturing us with trauma in the next. However, as autonomous human beings, we are still responsible for how we may be complicit in some of the things that happen to us.

So long as you’re mired by the past, people and events that have hurt you remain as things that happened to you. Writing about them in great detail is how you make your past happen for you. The distinction being that one was out of your control and continues to control you, and the way out of it is to regain control of yourself by learning how to avoid similar mistakes moving forward.

This requires a really hard look at yourself and being honest with what happened. It is easy to write about the ways in which you’ve been wronged, and believe me I’ve done it, even here on this very website, but it’s not enough to write a detailed account of what has happened to you. You also need to take responsibility for how you may have been complicit in prolonging your own misfortune by dwelling on these events.

I’m not saying that if you’ve been abused in the past that it’s your fault, but what I am saying is holding onto that hurt is only going to hold you back from experiencing any joy or relief unless you learn something from this trauma. Perhaps it’s learning how to treat others better than you have been treated because if you know how much it hurts, and you want to be a good person, then you can make it your responsibility to never enact any similar atrocities onto anybody else.

Even on the inverse where you know you did something wrong and you’re crushed by the weight of your own guilt, then you take in account how it must have felt for the person you hurt and promise yourself to never act similarly again. And while you do have to be brutally honest about how horrible you must have been, you also need to sympathize with the past version of yourself who may have acted poorly due to a variety of reasons.

We all act out sometimes due to unbearable hurt within ourselves, maybe even out of intentionally malicious intent, but most of the time it’s really due to ignorance. Life and humanity are already so complex as they are, so there’s no straight answer for our behaviour. That’s why it’s worth processing and understanding what drives our behaviour and in turn become better people for it.

Living in the Moment

Technically, even if you journal about your current life as it is, your are writing about “the past,” but of course it’s a lot more local and current than dwelling on your childhood. While I personally like to journal about things many months after they have occurred—so that I can have a lot less emotional bias and more objectivity about certain events in my life—writing about the day you just had can have its advantages in keeping yourself emotionally up to speed in real time.

The drawback I’ve experienced in just writing about my past all the time is that it feels like my heart and mind are lagging between each other because my heart wants to live in the moment, but it gets bogged down by my mind’s incessant obsession with my past. Even as of this post I am journaling about things that happened to me in 2021 and finding ways to rethink them so that they happened for me.

But I digress.

Writing about your life as it unfolds day by day is a good way to keep your mental health chronologically in tact with life. This way, you’re always up to speed with yourself rather than playing catch up like some of the past driven journal entries you may doing. This way you even get a more linear experience of exploring your life, thoughts, and feelings, whereas the more distant your past is, the more scattered the events and your thoughts might be.

Daily journaling about each passing day is essential so that you can achieve much more immediate results from your self reflection. Whether you are going through a time or you’re living the life you’ve always wanted, it’s always worth taking the time to contemplate how you feel about your own fortune and misfortune.

If you are going through something, journaling can help you gain a sense of clarity about the situation and provide yourself with more options as to how to approach your life moving forward. If your life is trouble free for the most part, it’s also good to take stock of what you have and be grateful for it because unfortunately, not all things are meant to last and there’s always…

The Uncertainty of the Future

We don’t know what the future holds and that can cause us a lot of anxiety. Especially considering that the future isn’t even guaranteed because today might very well be the last day you get the tremendous privilege of living. And no, I’m not saying as a threat, I’m just stating a fact of life.

It’s often said how life is short, but the Stoic philosopher Seneca argued that life is not short at all, but only feels that way because of how much of our time we squander one trivial manners. Life is actually pretty long, especially if you’re fortunate and healthy enough to live well into old age. We are given, on average, quite a lengthy amount of time to live and it’s up to us how we make the best use of it.

So journaling about the future and the kinds of things you want to accomplish can help prime you for finding ways to achieve all that. You can set goals and detailed plans about your future. It doesn’t even matter if it seems like wishy washy wish fulfillment at first. The point is to get hopeful about the future so that you have things to look forward to assuming you are even granted the benefit of a bonus day to live tomorrow.

Then on the flipside, if there are things you are worried about, it’s worth writing about these fears so you learn how to better defend yourself against them. Seneca also said that, “we suffer more in imagination than we do in reality.” If you have constant concerns about a future that may never come, it’s worth writing them out to explore as to why you think these painful events will occur in the first place.

Are you still stuck in the past and think the future will be more of the same?

Are you suffering now and think it will only be the same, if not worse, in the future?

Or are you just conjuring something to worry about for the sake of having something to worry about?

It’s easier said than done, but don’t fret. What you can do about this is create action plans that safeguard you from potential threats, or even more preferable, realize that you are causing yourself unnecessary suffering in the present about the unguaranteed future and just stop torturing yourself already.


Time Traveling and Other Hobbies

Which ever timeframe you choose to write about in a given journal entry, the point is to be as objective, honest, and vulnerable as possible so that you get the most of your writing session. Journaling, real journaling, is a lot of hard work. People get the misconception is that you just write about what you ate and did that day, or you draw a bunch of hearts around it with your crush’s name written inside of those cartoon hearts.

And while you’re free to do that if you want, especially if it makes you happy, that’s perfectly fine.

But for those seeking to understand and improve themselves, you must grit your teeth and do the hard work of having these conversations with yourself. Paper is more patient than people, and so just like I said in part one of this series, you will be doing yourself, your friends and family, and your therapist a huge favour by doing your own heavy lifting on your own time.

The more mental and emotional baggage you clear for yourself, the lighter your interactions will be with others, and in my mind, that’s probably the best we can all ever hope for in getting along with our fellow man.

Therapeutic Journaling Part 1: How I’ve Benefitted From Therapy So Far

Almost a decade ago now, I wrote about how you can Save $20,000 on Therapy by Buying a $20 Journal. To this day, I still hold the same position as I did back then in how journaling can help you reduce mental clutter, increase your self-knowledge, and potentially make you a whole lot happier with yourself. Especially if you’re upfront and honest in what you write in your journal.

Despite the tongue in cheek title of that blog post, though, I wasn’t actually arguing that you can replace therapy entirely solely by journaling. It was more so clickbait for a simpler lesson: that there are cost effective alternatives to therapy if you’re right on money like I was back then. Hence, buying a journal and doing the work all by yourself!

So after several jobs, a few entrepreneurial attempts, and many dollars later, I have given myself the honour and privilege of going to therapy—just like I’ve been wanting to since around the time of that original post (2014)—and I’ve got some insights I’d like to share with all of you.


There’s No Better Therapy Than Therapy

No amount of drugs, alcohol, or any other distractions will ever cure you from whatever pain and trauma you may hold within you. If you are wrought with grief, sadness, and despair, these are things you need to confront head on or they will persist in the background, pervading your very existence at every turn. You can mask the symptoms of these things, but like the nine headed hydra, you cut one head off, another will regrow in its place. Your pain needs to be confronted at the root, not the surface.

Even if you have good friends and family who ask you the right questions, and even give you all the unconditional empathy you need to feel validated, it will not rival the benefits that therapy can provide. I had the misconception that that’s all that therapy would be: I sit down and cry about my problems, then my therapist will pat me on the back and say “sorry to hear that,” ask me about my childhood to link a trauma from my past with a certain behaviour in the present, then it’s, “see you next week!”

On the contrary, a good therapist should also challenge your thoughts and beliefs about yourself, as well as your life circumstances so that you can cognitively reframe all these things in a healthy way. One that is as free as from your emotional bias as possible with some sense of objectivity that doesn’t weigh you down.

Sure, the empathetic moments are still there from time to time, but in my experience with therapy the past five months, I’ve found that the best sessions are the ones that challenged me to rethink my positions on love, life, and relationships so that I am better equipped at seeing how things actually are. Or at best, how things might actually be, since there’s no way to achieve true objectivity on a situation. This way, I can emotionally detach, healthily I must add, from certain situations that were causing me grief, and learn how not to get so attached to my own emotional bias.

A good therapist challenges you in a fair and helpful way. A way that is meant to guide you and question yourself without being judged or shamed for whatever dark deep secrets you may admit to in any of your sessions.

Not in that toxic way I have experienced from people who I thought were my friends, who I later realized were just be a bunch of concern trolls. You know the kind. They put on the air of “helping” you by challenging your perceptions, using your past history as a way to explain away why you’re so deficient now, but really they’re just finding a roundabout way to blame you for all your problems.

Even if it’s true, that you are the root of your own problems, that should never be thrown in your face to humiliate you. If you haven’t experienced this before, then count your lucky stars.

Offloading the Emotional Weight Off Your Shoulders

I started going to therapy at a time in my life where I felt drained from sacrificing myself for other people’s benefit. So many of my conversations would start with people crying to me about whatever problems they were facing and I would lend an empathetic ear, ask a few open ended questions, and just be there for these people. On the inverse, there were others who I also occasionally came to for emotional comfort on the offbeat chance I remembered to take care of myself and needed a helping hand with that.

In fact, for a lot of my adult life, I have spent in trying to form deep connections through this practice of shared pain and giving and getting as much unconditional empathy as I could. While this approach is still admirable even in hindsight, I’ve been woken up to the harsh reality that unloading your darkest deepest secrets with people, and expecting them to do the same, can lead to a lot of unhealthy relationships if not monitored correctly.

This doesn’t mean keep to yourself completely or never care about anyone else again, but learn to respect other people’s boundaries and set your own while you’re at it because not everyone should be an open book like this. There’s a time to share dark and deep secrets, but it sure as hell isn’t all day everyday because at some point, these kinds of friendships become unstable and too dependent on whether or not someone is troubled enough to help, let alone keep around.

Yep. That can happen sometimes. Friendships can definitely be formed in shared pain, as can romantic relationships, but that should not be the entire basis for any of these relationships since the whole point of unloading your pain is to eventually live a happy and fulfilling life. You can’t do that if there’s no measure for improvement and all you’re doing is using each other for free therapy that only ends up being a parody of the real thing.

So now that I’ve invested in an objective party to listen to me talk about my problems for an allotted amount of time every couple weeks, I no longer feel the need to burden other people with my problems unless it directly involved them or I know they have some experience in something similar and can actually help me. It’s very rare, but I will occasionally seek help from others outside of my therapist and myself when I really need it, which thankfully is not too often anymore.

Likewise, when it comes to people coming to me with their problems, as per my therapist’s suggestion, I should only do it if I’m happy enough to listen, which means I have to have had ample time to nurture myself properly before I can help anybody else.

Think of an airplane during extreme turbulence: you need to put on your own oxygen mask on first before you try and save anybody else. It’s like this in life because you cannot give what you do not have. So if you do not have self love, you’ll have no love to give to others, only a cheap imitation of it because you’re too drained to be authentic.

Such was my life last year in 2021.

So go to therapy, folks, as to help reduce the emotional baggage in which you might be coming into social interactions with, as well as become better able to handle the emotional baggage of others if you happen to be in the crossfire of it. But for the most part, try your best to seek healthy relationships based on fun, encouragement, and inspiration rather than the endless sharing of pain. There are groups for that.

Shedding Emotional Crutches

On top of over sharing my problems with people, and them doing the same for me, there were other things I used to use to distract myself from my problems. So while I did use other people to distract me from myself, I’ve also used alcohol and marijuana to cope with my emotions. Hell, I’ve even used work as an emotional crutch, both conventional work and my own business.

And while it’s not bad to partake in any substances in moderation, engaged empathetic relationships cautiously, or work hard at your job, using any of these things to cope with your emotions can have disastrous results. These can all be wonderful things to experience if engaged with when you’re free of emotional turbulence, because otherwise you can grow dependent on them to make you feel better in the short term rather than solving your problems for the long term benefit.

In fact, my dependence on marijuana is something my therapist challenged me on. Even if it is legal here in Ontario, it doesn’t make it not dangerous. I’m not trying to make a case about whether it should be legal or illegal, or even why you should or shouldn’t partake in marijuana. Just speaking from my own experience, I did grow dependent on it whenever I felt stressed in life, especially when I had a very under-stimulating office job between 2019 and 2020 before the pandemic hit, but that’s a story for another time.

Another story within a story I’d like to share is that there was a day where my dad had severe back pain and wanted me to go buy some back pain medicine for him. The problem was that I was high as hell, and as much of a rebel as I am, I’m not going to drive under the influence of marijuana, especially in the blistering cold and rain. All the while I was trying to get my dad to just do yoga, it’s natural after all, rather than hopping himself up with drugs. See where I’m going with this yet?

I shared this story with my therapist saying that I eventually got tired of my dad’s complaining and need for a quick fix, and walked to a pharmacy in the blistering cold with harsh winds nearly shoving me ever which way. I got up in arms about how my dad always just wants the quick fix, but then my therapist called me out on using marijuana as a quick fix for my problems. She asked me why I even go to therapy if I have this thing to cope with my emotions.

As I’ve always done, I made my excuses about how it helps me stop stressing quicker and makes media consumption, as well as therapy, a lot more fun and easier to engage in. And then she pointed out that I can definitely be doing both like I was saying I wanted to. You know, having my cake and eating it too. But then said that toking up would only solve things for me in the short term whereas therapy is more about long term healing.

Sixty minutes in therapy is a whole lot more work and requires a whole lot more time than packing my vape and toking up for about three minutes, but that only speaks to its superiority to a habit I had grown comfortable with in my adult life.

While I’m not perfect at it just yet, I can already feel my need for emotional crutches get left by the wayside thanks to the coping mechanisms and cognitive reframing strategies I’ve learned from therapy.

As of earlier this year of 2022, I have quit consuming marijuana and I’ve also stopped seeking out co-dependent relationships to ease any of my suffering, and that of others. There are still some individuals I keep in touch with and care for genuinely, but shared pain is no longer the central focus of our relationships. I’m also beginning to work on my business for its own sake rather than using it as a an angry response to an unfulfilling day job, a distraction from unhealthy relationships, or even just outright boredom and loneliness.


“And that’s how the cookie crumbles…”

Which cookie, you ask?

My mental health, of course.

Nah, I’m just kidding.

It has been a while since I’ve shared about my personal life here at Your Write to Live, so if you’ve made it this far into the post, I want to sincerely thank you for reading and possibly relating to what I’ve written. I hope you’ve also gleaned some value out of it as is my mission here in seeking to help other writers develop a better relationship with themselves in order to express themselves more freely in their creative endeavours.

That’s it for today’s Meaningful Monday, stick around for Therapeutic Journaling Part 2 for this week’s Workshop Wednesday where I will delve even deeper as to how to journal effectively.

5 Easy Steps Toward a Writing Routine

There is no shortage of articles out there that detail the routines of famous and successful writers. These masters of their craft do not wait for inspiration to strike them, rather they approach writing like a habit by having a solid routine that primes them for the moment of truth: the moment where pen needs to touch paper and the thoughts need to flow.

You, too, can also reach a level of mastery with your craft with the Five Easy Steps Toward a Writing Routine I will share with you today. Each of these steps are basic frameworks that anybody can do, but the details are completely up to you. There is no one size fits all routine since everybody works differently, so take the following tips as a template rather than a step by step manual.

By the end of this blog post, you have had gathered ideas as to what things you can do to prime yourself for every writing session so that you can write daily or to whatever level of consistency you desire. The bottom line here is to no longer rely on those random flashes of inspiration in order to write, and instead develop the discipline to transform your writing into a consistently conscious decision.

1. Exercise

As I’ve mentioned in Productive Procrastination, not writing can actually help your unconscious mind conjure up some ideas for you in the background while you focus your consciousness something else entirely. Which is why writers often report coming up with their best ideas in the shower, during a car ride, or even right before they are about to fall asleep.

To take that a whole step further, you should also find and develop an exercise routine to incorporate into your daily life. Not only will it help you live a healthier life, but to tie it into writing, exercise is important for us writers because it gets us out of our heads and into our bodies.

A lot of us spend a tremendous amount of time thinking and a lot of that can actually constrain us from expressing ourselves to the best of our ability because our brains can get overworked, and end up needing some time to rest and recharge. And what better way to recharge than to increase the blood flow back into your brain?

On top of that, being a writer requires you do a whole lot of sitting around, so it’s not a bad idea to get your limbs stretched out a bit as to not feel all cramped and cooped up in your chair after long sessions of writing.

I personally like to do yoga first thing in the morning because if I’m gonna be spending a lot of time sitting down, I wouldn’t want to develop a hunch back and crushed hips, so I opt for hip opening poses and other stretches that allow my spine a wide range of motion beyond being hunched over my desk. I also like to go out for walks while listening to music and do a mish mash of thinking about the next thing to write, and then focusing on the music to let my unconscious figure out the rest as I continue my walk.

But whatever you choose to do is completely up to you. Maybe you prefer to do some running, jump rope, or weight lifting etc. Whatever it is, make sure it’s manageable for your physique and that you give yourself a reasonable amount of reps or amount of time to exercise that you can do on a daily basis. You want to challenge yourself physically enough to get your heart rate up, but not so much that it also tires you out, thus rendering your unable to write at all.

Bottom line is that you don’t want your blood vessels and and muscles to stiffen, so get some exercise in order to increase the blood flow through your body and not develop any cramps from sitting too long.

2. Physical and Mental Nourishment

Now that you’ve got your body moving and blood flowing back to your brain, it’s time to nourish your body and mind with some good food and drink to replenish some of the energy you spent exercising. And since your organs will be more active, the food and drink you eat will digest faster and provide you with much needed energy to write. Take care of the body, you’ll take care of the mind.

I’m not a dietician so I can’t really suggest anything specifically healthy for writers in particular, though we all have some rough idea of what constitutes as “healthy food,” so use your best judgement. You know, your fruits and vegetables, your whole grains, and so on.

I personally like to eat buttered peanut butter toast after yoga and have a hot steaming mug of black coffee to wash it down with. Coffee is a writer’s bestfriend, after all!

I’ve loved peanut butter since I was a kid and it also just so happens to help with improving memory, cognitive function and concentration; brain functions that writers benefit greatly from. You want to remember intricate details about your work, choose the right words and passages to incorporate them, and be able to do so with the focus required to weave it all together in a compelling and comprehensible way.

And, of course, who can deny the wonderful jolt of energy coffee can bring when you most need it? Not to mention it’s quite quite to take sips every few paragraphs of writing, or whenever you need a moment to pause and think about what to write next.

On top of the physical nourishment you can provide for yourself, there’s also the mental nourishment beyond the benefits of peanut butter and coffee. This can come in the form of reading other books or watching a TV show, or consuming any other art form that inspires or even informs your writing.

Once again, choose your own adventure. As of this blog post, my pre-writing mental nourishment is reading about Stoicism for an hour so that I can steel my mind and feel inspired by these ancient intellectual greats, who I’m learning bestowed a ton of wisdom on us that the world now views as commonplace, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Feed your body and mind with good food and good art, you’ll need the energy and inspiration.

3. Warm Up Writing

After taking good care of yourself, it is finally time to do some warm up writing. Whether you consider it “actual” writing or not, it’s a very useful practice that can help ease you into focus. It can also help combat your inner editor and possible perfectionism.

Just like how a singer will do silly sounding warm up exercises before a performance, a writer, too, must do silly writing exercises to be okay with making mistakes and imperfect prose. You get that out of your system, then you’re more likely to feel comfortable with the “actual” writing you want to do, whether it’s a novel, a screenplay, or anything else in between.

I’ve written several blog posts in the past about different forms of free writing you can do, often suggesting that depending on how “stuck” you feel, the longer you will want to free write. On a good day, I give myself only five minutes to free write before I sit down to work on a project, otherwise when I’m feeling a ton of resistance, my free writing can go from 10-20 minutes depending on how stuck I feel.

Here are the three types of journals I’ve written about before that you can potentially use for your warm up writing exercise:

  1. The Personal Journal – I cannot stress enough how important it is for people to start journaling because it helps you understand yourself tremendously when you pour your heart out onto the page about your true thoughts and feelings about your life. As of this blog post, journaling for an hour is my personal writing warm up exercise because 2021 was an eventful year for me and I’m still processing some of the things that happened in it for me.
  2. The Free Fall Journal – One of the first things I learned in Creative Writing class was to free write for about 10-20 minutes about anything. And when I say anything, I mean anything. You can write lyrics, a loose outline of your novel’s next chapter, or you can even write a whole ton of gibberish, it doesn’t matter. As long as you’re warming up your mind to get any sort of thoughts out onto the page.
  3. The Shadow Journal – For the really resistant writers, this kind of journal could help you contend with your own dark side. You know the one. Your ego. The thing that constantly tells you that you’re not good enough and that you shouldn’t even bother writing today, it’s a waste of time. Or it’s too hard, so why bother? Writing a Shadow Journal is a deep and intense discussion with your own dark side, arguing as to why you are capable of writing. Not just today, but in general. You give your inner critic a voice and listen to what it has to say, but then you squash it with counter arguments that restore your belief in yourself. If you so dare, of course. This type of journal is risky, so proceed with caution!

There’s also a variety of writing prompts you can do that are out there if you are looking to do something a little lighter than full out journal entries like I’ve suggested. Looking at this list now, I’m surprised how I haven’t even written about The Progress Journal, so make to follow the blog in order to get notified when that post gets published!

The bottom line is: warm up writing is like a singer doing vocal warm ups, and you can think of writing your actual project as showtime!

Speaking of which…

4. The Actual Writing

Now it’s time to do some actual writing!

Hoping that you’ve nourished your body and mind properly, and warmed up your writer’s mind, it is time to finally write what you’ve probably been thinking about writing for a long time.

If it’s a big project like a full length novel or movie script, which require a huge time and energy commitment, it is that much more important to have these pre-writing routines set in place so your body and mind can associate this sequence of actions to serve your ultimate purpose: creative self expression.

This purpose can often get stifled when we do not build healthy habits that help support us toward integrating writing into the rest of our daily lives. Since writing a huge project can take so much time and energy, it’ll only be natural to not feel like it on certain days, but if you develop and stick to your routine, you can make it a lot easier for yourself to sit down and write when you know need to.

This part is self explanatory so we won’t linger on it for too long.

You know what to do, just do it!

And then of course…

5. Reward Yourself

Last, but certainly not least, you should have a reward in place for all your writing troubles. I personally like to play some video games and produce music after a long and hard writing session.

Once again, whatever you choose is entirely up to you!

The idea is to have something to look forward to after each writing session, especially on the days in which the writing itself isn’t the thing you’re looking forward to doing. And understandably so because not only is writing difficult, so is the simple act of getting your self started is arguably even more difficult.

Otherwise posts like this wouldn’t even exist to help people with a very common problem. I will write more in the future about how you can reignite the flame that initially inspired you if it happens to be flickering out later in the project’s lifespan. But for now, give these tips a try and let me know how it goes!

How to Objectively Measure the Value of Art

You can’t.

It’s all subjective.

See you in the next Meaningful Monday post!

Just kidding, but also not really because although this is how most conversations about art end up, I think it’s worth exploring the conversation killing statement that “art is subjective.” There is a cold hard truth to it that is way more objective than anybody’s subjective opinion could ever be on any piece of art.

Be it a painting, a film, a novel—hell, even video games—anything put out into the world for our consumption and entertainment is subject to being criticized by the masses, assuming it’s lucky enough to reach that wide of an audience. Otherwise, there will always be that dedicated minority who stumbles upon, and actively seeks out, the more obscure art out there to be subject to their criticism.

In today’s post we will explore what it means to criticize art, to converse about it, and to wrap it all up, what art means to all of us at the end of the day. With Your Write to Live being a proponent for fostering creative expression, I thought it would be a good idea to tackle the potentially darker side of creativity where you put your work out there for all to criticize.

Criticizing Creation

First off, I should note that when I say “art,” it is an all encompassing term that refers to not only paintings, but also films, novels, video games, music, and everything in between. Simply put, art is the creative expression of human skill and imagination.

The function of art is to draw attention to certain aspects of the world and the human condition to its audience. Artists do this by being attentive to nuanced details that we may or may not be aware of in our day to day lives. In turn, they highlight these details in their artwork, thus making us hyperaware of these aspects of life that we may not have otherwise noticed, at least not consciously.

A painting can capture how beautifully the sunlight reflects off the surface of a lake, music can capture the sonic expression of human emotion, and a well told story can demonstrate the complexities of human relationships, as well as our unending drive to strive for what we want to achieve in life.

So then to criticize a piece of art is to criticize the world, the artist, and potentially ourselves because of all the thoughts and feelings it may evoke in us. Some pieces of art speak to us while others may not, and there is an endless amount of factors that can affect our experience with every piece out there.

Maybe the piece doesn’t offer anything new or exciting. Maybe it reveals to us that which we do not want to see. Or better yet, a piece itself has been put together so haphazardly that it is hard to tell what it is trying to convey in the first place.

Whatever the reasons are, every piece of art isn’t for everybody. And how can it be? Even when you try to appeal to a mass audience, there will always be those who prefer the more obscure stuff. And on the flipside, there are some pieces of art that—for better or for worse—are so esoteric that only a minority of people will appreciate, let alone understand it.

Depending on what kind of art appreciator you are, you can be veering off to one extreme to another or finding some kind of healthy balance between the both, but at the end of the day, the popularity of a piece does not reflect as a measure for its quality. And even if a small minority of people love a more obscure piece of art with way more passion combined than the masses simple acceptance of what’s in the mainstream, even that becomes a hard thing to measure.

Because how can you measure the value of art?

Criticizing Criticisms

We’ve all had this happen before. We bring up a piece of art that we love and someone else agrees, and together you just go off stating all the reasons as to why that piece of art is “so good.” But then comes along some other person who disagrees and says that that piece of art is actually “bad.” Then maybe you all get a little heated and start arguing over the reasons as to why that piece is “good” or “bad.”

Depending on your debate style and skills, these kinds of conversations usually go in one or three possible ways:

  1. You and the other person endlessly defend your respective opinions and nobody learns anything from anybody.
  2. You and the other person defend your respective opinions and actually start to see the validity of each other’s opinions, while still maintaining your original stances.
  3. One of you actually changes the viewpoints of the other and the opposing party concedes to agree with some, if not all, counterarguments.

If you can achieve outcome number three, I definitely applaud you for your passion and logic because if it is so sound that someone else can finally open their eyes to the light, then hot damn is that a gratifying feeling to have.

And while that’s all well and good, you shouldn’t get too ahead of yourself because at the end of the day, these are nothing but subjective opinions that are barely, if at all, grounded in some kind of objective metric that can measure the value of art.

To beat the dead horse, art is still subjective and it I think I figured out the problem to how you can measure the value of art. It’s something you really can’t do, so the better question we should be asking ourselves is, “why does this person like or not like this piece of art?”

It took me a while to realize this, but basically when someone ever says anything is “good,” or “bad,” it’s just shorthand for “I like it,” and “I don’t like it.” Or to go even further if someone isn’t fully enamoured by a piece of art and they like some aspects, while not liking others, then that’s when you begin to develop a more nuanced understanding of art, and by extension life.

Because art and life are a beautiful cacophony of chaos and order, and a strange balancing act between the two. Not everything can be loved or hated to the most extreme level, or at least for not very long, because nothing is so perfect or so imperfect that there is absolutely no bad or good residing within it.

Art is Who We Are

We are perfectly imperfect beings with so many idiosyncrasies about ourselves that only we may ever truly understand within ourselves. Close friends, family members, or even extremely good therapists can definitely try to understand you as much as they can, but at the end of the day, only you know the true meaning of what any piece of art does for you because of your own unique lived experience.

Anyone who tells you that they know you more than you know yourself is really just getting too in love with their own genius in seeing some of your blind spots for you, but they don’t know the whole story or see the whole picture that is you. If anyone ever makes this claim about you, I would suggest you develop some skepticism and learn to know yourself better so you can learn how egregious that claim can be whenever anybody makes it.

You and only you can truly know yourself. It’s not up to anyone else, but you, and the way in which you relate to art is one of the best ways to get a better understanding of yourself. Begin to ask why you are drawn to certain genres, styles, and themes in art, and you’ll quickly learn what you truly value in life.

If you love horror, perhaps you enjoy confronting your fears head on.

If you love romance, perhaps you’re a romantic person in love with the concept of love itself.

If you love fantasy, perhaps you value the courage it takes to embark on an epic adventure.

Whatever your personal preferences are in art, they speak to you because in a way, they also speak for you, expressing all the inner workings of your being in visual, auditory, and conceptual fashion. You can tell a lot about somebody’s psychological make up based on what kind of art they consume, but again only they truly know themselves enough while you on the outside can only speculate so much about them.

And this is why a lot of conversations about art can devolve into petty debates about what’s good and bad, especially your taste in it. I was like this for a long time too where I mistook criticisms of my favourite art as a criticism of myself, just as much as it would be to have my own creative work criticized as well.

Art is Who We Are and it’s no wonder why we take our preferences seriously at times. I’m not in the business of telling you whether or not you should be offended if someone takes a jab at your favourite stuff, in fact there are some people out there who make it a point to make fun of their own favourite stuff, possibly because being full out positive about it might be seen as too fanboy-ish or fangirly.

But honestly, if you’re in love with a piece of art, paint the town with your love for it because art is what makes life more meaningful and definitely way more worth bearing with. It beautifies our lives with its attention to details we otherwise would not notice had artist not take the time to express themselves and embellish those details.

How Fan Fiction Can Improve Your Writing

For the uninitiated, fan fiction is when a writer takes characters, plots, and locations from already existing stories and writes their own spin on it. From Harry Potter to Twilight, writers across the world have repurposed these stories to their own liking, often reinterpreting the stories in a way that either expands on the lore, or changing up some concepts and plot threads to what they would have loved to see happen in the original story.

Writing fan fiction is a pretty common practice among writers and is often a springboard for writing their own original stories. After all, Fifty Shades of Grey actually started off as a Twilight fan fiction and later became its own original story, which could explain the similarities between the dysfunctional relationships of each story’s respective starring couples.

Now despite fan fiction being a common practice, there are other writers out there who look down upon it because writing fan fiction lacks originality and is considered “cheating.” If you’re one of those writers, you’re not alone, because I was one of them. If you’re a fan fiction writer, maybe this will be a nice refresher or an eye opener as to why what you’re doing is pretty valuable.

The Originality Trap

For a long period in my life, I was overly concerned with being original. I often thought to myself and explained away to others, “why do what everyone else is already doing? I want to stand out, otherwise how else would I ever get noticed?! I want to be original!”

Time and time again, I see a lot of writers and creators get too hung up on wanting to be original because they want to stand out, only to stifle their own creativity because they’re afraid of being a carbon copy of someone else. Having been in that state of mind myself, I can confidently say that this mindset is a surefire way to kill not only your own creativity, but your own confidence as a writer.

This goes for all creators, actually.

Being too concerned with originality could lead to trying too hard to be eccentric and weird to stand out, but then miss out on possibly adding any depth to your work. The harder you try to be original, the more difficult you might make it for others to even comprehend what you’re trying to convey.

This is not to knock on genuinely eccentric work that for whatever reason is difficult to comprehend, and trust me, complexity can be part of the fun in consuming an art piece. It satiates that part of our creative minds that like to think really hard and extrapolate meaning through concerted effort like a puzzle, then feel rewarded once you figured it out, or at the very least created your own interpretation of the piece.

However, I would argue that less is more when it comes to art. This is why a lot of the “simpler” things like pop music and popular fiction can easily be seen as reductive and good for the “uneducated masses.” There’s this huge contention with music where artists tend to start simplifying their music to appeal to wider audiences, and that is often seen as “selling out,” thus leading to people begroaning that “they’re not as good as they used to be.” And, “oh, they just want to make more money so they make whatever the radio stations will eat up like candy.”

In my opinion, this elitist way of thinking of art does a huge disservice not only to ones self, but also the artist themselves that these critics are trying to disparage. Because what if this simplification of their work is actually a byproduct of their genuine desire to change up their style and communicate their message in a clearer way without all the intellectual fluff? Whether consciously or unconsciously.

Again, not knocking genuinely complex and intellectual work. I’m not saying everything should be simplified so everyone can enjoy your work. What I am saying is if you aim to be original you might end up alienating an audience that may have otherwise loved your work regardless of its originality factor.

As consumers, most people don’t really care much for originality no matter how much they claim to. In actuality, people want to connect to a piece of music, a movie, or a book in a way that is personal and intimate for them. No matter how consciously one may claim to seek to be original and only want to consume original work, sometimes the simplest pieces of art become their go to loves for life when they can let go of all expectations and just surrender to what the piece has to offer.

The last thing I’ll say about the Originality Trap is to focus more on what you want to convey—even if it’s been done a thousand times before—in whatever way you feel natural to you. If you have something worthwhile to say, how you convey it won’t matter as much as you simply putting the effort to convey it at all. Any sense of originality and profundity will naturally emerge if you are earnest and honest in your expression, without trying too hard to impress your audience with attempts to seem original and unexpected.

Originality should be the natural byproduct of genuine expression, not a concerted effort.

Learning From the Masters

Originality Trap rant aside, now it’s time to talk about the beauty of fan fiction because it is something I learned how to embrace again recently.

From a consumer’s standpoint, fan fiction can help fans get a little more mileage out of their favourite stories when a fan fiction writer can fill some gaps and provide more closure for a story that may have officially ended long time ago by the original author. We grow so attached to certain characters, locations, and plot threads that maybe we’re not ready to let go just yet, and so fan fiction is usually a good way to extend that story a little more, kind of like how video games now feature mods and downloadable content that extend the lifetime of them.

From a writer’s standpoint, you could be doing yourself a ton of favours by Learning From the Masters. If you are so inspired by another writer’s work that you want to repurpose and re-contextualize your favourite characters in either familiar or new settings, then it’s an opportunity to not only understand their work better, but your own.

Here’s how:

By taking existing characters and writing about them with the conscious, or even unconscious, decision to respect their way of being, you are understanding the nuances of character. If you can accurately write a character in a new situation where readers can say, “that is exactly what they would do/say!” Then you’ve done your job at truly understanding the character’s behaviours and growth from the original series, thus giving you a good insight on how to write your own characters down the line, which we’ll get to a little later.

Then of course, if you choose to build upon an existing plot thread from the story that either left you wanting more because of unresolved issues and unanswered questions, or you see the potential for more storytelling—then once again, doing so can teach you how to understand the importance of stakes in stories and the impact they have on audiences. Not to mention the characters themselves, of course.

Let’s take Cobra Kai, for instance, since I gushed about it in last week’s post about The Paragon of Potential. While this series is an official continuation of the Karate Kid series, the writers of Cobra Kai can easily be seen as fan fiction super fans of the series. Out of all the reboots and sequels in existence right now, in my opinion, Cobra Kai does it just right. There’s a few sprinkles of nostalgia here and there, but fundamentally, the writers have a deep understanding of all the characters and lore the original movie series contained, and so they are well equipped with expanding the universe with a huge new slew of karate students from all the different dojos.

Thirty years later, how would the rivalry between Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso manifest? This is probably the question the writers asked their selves upon the story’s conception. And to think it might have been sparked by a joke video on YouTube about who the “real” villain of Karate Kid was.

It posits that while we were lead to believe that Daniel, the protagonist for the original Karate Kid Trilogy, was the hero of the series, the true hero of the first movie was Johnny Lawrence. He was an ex-degenerate who just wanted to do better for himself upon his senior year of high school, but Daniel’s presence threw a wrench in his plans by moving in on Johnny’s ex-girlfriend and beating him at a karate tournament he held dear to his heart, thus leading to his downfall in life that robbed him of all confidence and self esteem.

This video was made as a joke, but the points made were so valid that they were probably the catalyst for expanding on the Karate Kid series to the extent that Cobra Kai has done.

Now, likewise with whatever fan fiction you write, if you take in account all these important details about the behaviour of certain characters, the issues they have with each other, and the overall effect their relationships have on the people around them, you can end up writing fan fiction that can make readers feel as though your take is a God honest continuation as if the original creators wrote it themselves.

Or at the very least, you’ve had a ton of fun playing puppet master to your favourite characters and laid down the foundation for characterization which can later inform your own original work down the line.

Taking Creative Liberties

On the inverse, writing fan fiction can also mean Taking Creative Liberties with the property. Maybe certain characters who were never originally meant to be romantically involved can be, if you make it so! Actually, this is the most common thing fan fiction writers do. It’s calling “shipping” because you’re pairing two characters into a relationship that audiences may not have expected. The meme ship has long since sailed with shipping being the sole reason for fan fiction existing in the first place.

But memery aside, of course, you can take creative liberties in other ways such as putting familiar characters in fresh new situations they might not have otherwise been in in the original work they featured in. What would it be like for Harry Potter to get shackled to a boring office job in his adult life, long after his adventures in Hogwarts? What would it be like for the Ninja Turtles to upgrade their weaponry to include guns? What would it be like for—

You get the idea.

These are the kinds of open ended questions you can ask yourself when wanting to re-contextualize existing characters in unexpected settings and situations. By doing this, not only do you expand on your favourite story, but you also expand your own capacity for creativity and originality.

As mentioned before, Fifty Shades of Grey started off as a Twilight fan fiction, but obviously characters and concepts were changed drastically to remove the supernatural elements and replace them with more contemporary concepts, but still maintaining that dysfunctional relationship dynamic Edward and Bella had.

Fan fiction can start of as a blueprint for your own original work when you realize the characters you are writing are no longer the ones you’ve borrowed from an existing piece of work. Maybe then you can change their names, their roles, and traits and make them your own. Likewise with the new plots and locations you come up with in your fan fiction writing. If fan fiction isn’t an expansion of existing work, then they can definitely be used as springboards for original work.

In the best case scenario, they’re both!

And don’t worry…

It’s Not Stealing, It’s Borrowing

Almost all creativity starts with as an imitation of other existing works. That’s what they exist for: inspiration, not competition. Being too fixated on originality gives you the mindset that everybody else’s work out there is your competition, rather than your inspiration. It disgraces what you were originally inspired by because there’s a part of you that aspires to do something just as great as they did to create the impact on others in a way you were impacted by it.

And that’s what the real focus should be when it comes to creativity: impact.

Fan fiction can help you understand its importance whether you consume it or write it yourself. When a story affects you so much that you want to expand on it or write something similar, it’s a beautiful thing. It did its job. And as creators, this is something we must all embrace if we want to stand any chance at ever standing out above the crowd. Because it’s not about how original you can be with your ideas.

The originality will come from how you take existing ideas and repurpose them in the way that shows your own individual style and perception of them. The purpose of an artist is to open the eyes of their audience by hyper-focusing on certain details of life and the world that the audience may otherwise miss. It’s through art that you inspire others to expand on their perception, just as much as fan fiction can help you expand on your own perception of not only the work you’re borrowing from, but expanding on the perception of what you think makes for a good story.

Which in turn allows you to create that original story burning inside of you.

Do you read or write fan fiction?

How has fan fiction benefited you as an audience/creator?

Let me know in the comments below!