The title of this post is a question I often receive. Whether it’s in a writing workshop, a traditional classroom, or simply in casual conversation, people regularly inquire about the origin of creative ideas. Second only to this question is, “What do I write about if I’m not inspired?” Today’s post is an effort to answer both of these common quandaries with a single practice: Socratic Journaling.
Anyone who has spent a moment or two in school knows about the Socratic Method — that time-honored practice of invoking thought through questioning. First mastered by its namesake, Socrates, the method has served educators well over the years. And even today, we can use it to generate great ideas and to “get unstuck” in creative writing using a technique I pioneered over the course of 15 years.
Socratic Journaling works like this: A writer begins with a “big” question (ideally, this should be one that is fairly philosophical or abstract) and answers it swiftly, almost without thinking. That fast answer then leads to another question, which leads to another answer that also then gets questioned. This process repeats until the writer finds within their questions and answers a subject to write about. See the example of Socratic Journaling below to get a better idea of what this process looks like:
In the sample above, I examined the nature of a simple phrase I heard growing up: “Laying Claim.” I thought the expression was odd, and so I gave it a thorough analysis through the wringer of Socratic Journaling. The result was a poem that integrated many of these initial wonderings and supplemented them with strong imagery. Occasionally, the act of asking and answering and asking repeatedly yields something different:
Drawings, scraps of curious artifacts, and other non-text items can often wind up in the pages of a good Socratic Journal. Historical notes, scientific questions, and even the logging of sensory impressions can serve as good kindling for the fire of creativity. By asking and answering sequentially, we break the often self-imposed limitations on our inspiration. This practice represents a kind of liberation, an unmooring from the safe harbor of pragmatism, and a break from mundane normalcy.
The great American poet Theodore Roethke once advised young poets to “…live in a state of constant astonishment.” Socratic Journaling aids in this quest for seeing wonder in everyday life. As the holidays arrive, what better gift could someone give than inspiration? I have collected and published some of the biggest “starter questions” for creatives of all sorts in the workbook pictured above. To give the thinker in your life a real present, spend $10 and watch their inspiration thrive as they encounter The Socratic Journal. Not only will you be providing the recipient hours of creative engagement, you’ll also be helping out a poet and educator who has some holiday bills of his own to pay.
Obviously, I’m a big believer in Socratic Journaling, not just because it has worked for me as a creative over the years, but because it has served so many of my students so well. When young writers especially feel mental drought, this practice stimulates them back into productivity. And if it works for the young, it can work for the…shall we say, mature? Give this a try. You won’t regret it. Thinking more deeply and more creatively is an incredibly rewarding experience, and The Socratic Journal can get you there. Click the link below to get your copy: