My first semester in grad school studying for a Master’s in Rhetoric and Writing, I’m taking a class on writing pedagogies. One philosophy of teaching writing is called Expressivism. In one of the first articles we read on the subject, Richard Fulkerson said this: “Expressivists value writing that is about personal subjects, and such journal-keeping is an absolute essential. Another keynote for expressivists is the desire to have writing contain an interesting, credible, honest, and personal voice” (“Four Philosophies of Composition, 1997, p. 344). Expressivist writing is about self-discovery, personal voice, and self-expression.
When I first read about these writing philosophies, Expressivism made me a little uncomfortable. I like this kind of writing, but it feels like something that belongs in a therapy setting more than in a composition classroom. The more I’ve read about this theory, worked in the campus writing center, and talked with professors who teach composition, the more I’ve started rethinking how useful writing for yourself can be when learning to write for others.
For today’s post, though, I want to lean in to the therapy-like aspects of expressivist writing. I’ve often talked about the importance of journaling for INFJs (and other personality types as well) and recommended that regular journaling is good for helping sort-out your feelings and support your mental health. But one thing I haven’t talked about is what to write in your journals. Journaling is such a personal thing that it seemed presumptuous to suggest journaling topics. I’ve used writing prompts myself, though (more often for fiction, but also sometimes for journaling) and find them helpful, so this seemed like a good idea for a blog post.
How to Start Journaling
You don’t need a huge amount of time to try out journaling. Even 5 to 15 minutes is enough to get started. Many people recommend journaling every day, but while that’s a fantastic goal I often find that journaling a couple times a week is more realistic for me. It might take a while to figure out a schedule that works best for you, so don’t give up if you miss a couple days or feel like you’re “falling behind.” There isn’t really a wrong way to do this.
I like journaling by hand in cute notebooks but digital journaling is an option as well. If you do like writing on a phone, laptop, or computer, I recommend 4TheWords as an great platform to gamify the process and keep you motivated. It’s only $4 a month, there’s a 30-day free trial, and we’ll both get free crystals if you use my referral code VDAFM17786. I’m currently on a 819-day writing streak (and it lets you reserve days so you can take a break if you need to).
One more thing to mention: expressivist writing is a great tool for supporting your mental health, but it’s not a substitute for actual therapy. If you’re struggling with something, my advice is go see a therapist, counselor, or other psychology/medical professional. I can assure you from experience that trying to deal with a mental health issue on your own is not a good idea. Please go get proper help. Click here to access Psychology Today’s directory of mental health professionals and find a therapist or psychiatrist near you
10 Expressivist Prompts
- What makes you feel alive?
- Remember a time when you felt at peace within yourself. Write about that feeling, what it meant to you, how you got there, etc.
- If you could be any type of animal, what would you choose and why?
- What was the last idea you had that you really wanted to share with someone else?
- If someone asked you for your favorite tips on coping with stress, what would you say?
- Which superpower would you like to have? Which one do you think you’d actually have based on your personality?
- If you could go on an adventure, what would it be and where? The sky isn’t the limit for this prompt–our world, the universe, and fiction are all fair game.
- What is one thing you wish other people knew about you?
- What childhood memories have stayed with you the strongest? How have they influenced who you are today?
- If you could meet any person–living or dead, real or fictional–who would it be and what would you talk about?
Some of these might seem more “creative” than “therapeutic” when you’re first reading through them. I think that it’s important, though, for helping ourselves relax and stay mentally healthy to take the time for creativity. We can’t do intense personal growth work all the time; we’d burn ourselves out. So I hope you’ll try out one of the silly ones like “Which animal would you be?” as well as the potentially more intense ones like “What do you wish other people knew about you?”
More Journaling Prompts
If my prompts don’t resonate with you, you’re looking for more prompts, or you’d like another perspective on expressive journaling, here are three more resource where you can find expressivist writing prompts.
The Pandemic Project from the University of Texas at Austin offers a list of prompts to help you deal with feeling overwhelmed by the Covid-19 pandemic. You can use them just for yourself, or anonymously share your writing with the research team. Here’s an example prompt:
For the next 5-10 minutes (or longer if you like), really let go and explore your deepest thoughts and feelings about the COVID-19 outbreak.
Expressive Wring Prompts
This collection of prompts from Duke University is organized by topic. Choose from categories like “Self-Love, “Introspection,” Creativity, “and “Uncertainty.” Here are a few examples of what you’ll find on this list:
Describe your famous alter ego. What would you be famous for? Where would you live? What would your style be? What would people know you as from a distance? How would you defy their expectations?
What is a mistake or failure you’ve had that you became thankful for?
Reflect on a time when you have overcome an obstacle, small or large.
105 Writing Prompts for Self-Reflection and Self-Discovery
This list comes from mental health advocate, writer and blogger Janine Ripper. Her extensive list of writing prompts could keep you busy writing for months if you fall in love with expressive writing. Here are a few examples:
In what ways have you grown as a person this year? What/who has influenced you? And what have you learned?
If you could relive an experience in your life, what would it be?
What are the 3 biggest distractions in your life at the moment, and how can you go about reducing them?
Have any prompts you’d like to share? Tips for starting and keeping up with a journal? Want to talk about your experience trying out some of these prompts? Let’s discuss in the comments!