When Mary Karr was eleven years old, she wrote in a notebook about her desire to grow up and write poetry and autobiography. She didn’t find that notebook until many years later, as an adult. By that time, she was already a best-selling memoirist and poet. “I got shivers up the back of my spine,” the author told Publishers Weekly in 2000. “I was astonished, because I don't think I'd ever read an autobiography.”
Maintaining a personal writing practice can be difficult, as any memoirist can confirm, but recording our experiences can also deepen our sense of self, change the way we see our pasts, and add color and texture to our days. Some studies suggest that expressive writing (i.e. writing about ourselves) can even improve mood disorders and memory.
In one such experiment, psychologist James Pennebaker from the University of Texas worked with two groups of college students. The first group was instructed to write for fifteen minutes each day about an important personal issue; the other was tasked with writing about a superficial topic for the same amount of time. The results? The students who’d written about personal issues reported fewer illnesses and made fewer visits to the health center.
For artists, who spend solitary hours inside the studio, introspection takes on a new significance. We asked dozens of visual artists if they keep up a regular writing practice, and we were struck by the number who said yes. From writing reviews of other artists’ work to writing screenplays, these artists covered all genres and styles, but the majority of them write firsthand accounts of their own daily experiences. Here are some of the reasons they do.
It encourages you to slow down.
“A friend once told me she writes 750 words every morning,” painter Adele Renault tells us. While she doesn’t follow the “every day” rule herself, the story inspired her, and she ultimately published a book about her work.
For Renault, writing proved to be an unexpected exercise in taking her time and thinking deeply. “When you write something down, you tend to slow down,” she explains. “You reread and rewrite much more than you do with a caption on social media--which you can always go back to edit or delete.” To get the most out of the experience, she recommends writing by hand rather than typing. It takes much longer, but that’s the point.
It allows you to be raw and honest.
“Writing about your work--for yourself--is immensely helpful and allows you to be brutally honest,” Brooklyn-based artist Matthew Hansel admits. “Artists are usually their own greatest critics and spend most of their mental energy beating back the flames of doubt. Writing should allow you to exorcise those demons--like exposure therapy.”
The idea is to write something like an artist statement without the pressure of ever having to show it to anyone. You can be as candid and unfiltered as you need to be. Although you won’t share them publicly, remember to hold onto these pages for the future. “Even one or two poignant sentences can prove to be consequential a week or two later,” Hansel adds.
It combats anxiety.
Painter and illustrator Kelly Bjork also writes for herself, though for different reasons. “As an anxious person, I find this practice helpful in getting the circling, spinning thoughts out of my head,” she explains. “Writing these thoughts down on paper definitely helps exorcise negative thoughts. It’s also very helpful to look back on when I find myself feeling a similar way down the road.”
It can spark new ideas.
“Each sketch, painting, or sculpture I’ve created has a little story behind it--a starting point or meandering thoughts,” street artist Hayley Welsh explains. “Often, these are scribbles next to initial sketches, and the words sometimes can end up featuring within the final artworks themselves--or sometimes I’ll write them all into a book to share. My writings are always wandering and full of spelling and grammar mistakes, like a thought doodle. But it’s raw and unpolished, and that’s kind of how I like it to be. Mistakes and all.”
It reminds you of what’s important.
“I write all the time,” video and 3D artists Anthony Samaniego tells us. “Over the past few years, it’s just been countless notes on my phone. My notes app is ridiculous. I used to use a notebook, but technology has changed that.” Writing everything down helps him develop fresh concepts, but more than that, his ongoing “diary” serves as a personal touchstone--and it’s something he can refer to again and again.
“Writing helps the evolution of an idea,” he says. “It’s a fundamental building block, which can later grow into something special.”
It inspires future projects.
Thomas Dambo, who creates large-scale sculptures using trash, has an unconventional approach to writing. He’s worked on songs and short stories, but he also compiles long lists on a regular basis--kind of like a grocery list for creative ideas. “It’s nice to get my thoughts out of my head and down in words,” he explains. “My lists are like a little vault filled with good stuff. I love to open the vault and look at the ideas. Sometimes I put them back in the vault, and sometimes I put them out in the world, where others can enjoy them.”
It’s another form of expression.
A number of the artists we interviewed published their work, but for the majority of them, their writing was private. A common theme was the belief that while they excelled in the visual arts, they “weren’t very good” at writing, but self-doubt can be deceptive.
As a young woman, American painter Blanche Lazzell wrote in her journal, “This book is not intended for other eyes than the writer’s.” But today, that same book is a treasure; it’s part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art and has been exhibited alongside the journals of other visual artists like Cecilia Beaux, Joseph Cornell, and Katharine Lane Weems.
So before you set your journal in a drawer and lock it tight, think of all those artists whose private, autobiographical experiences resonated with people centuries after they were gone--usually in ways they could have never anticipated. As Mary Karr once put it, “The reader is the spark that makes your work explode into being.”
To learn more from Mary Karr and to start a writing practice of your own, check out her new Skillshare Original, Writing the Truth: How to Start Writing Your Memoir.
Cover image by Skillshare student Shivali D. for Top Teacher Tom Froese’s class, Odd Bodies: Illustrating Expressive, Stylized People
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