Creative Writing for All: A 10-Day Journaling Challenge | Emily Gould | Skillshare

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Creative Writing for All: A 10-Day Journaling Challenge

teacher avatar Emily Gould, Writer

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.

      Intro: Your 10-Day Challenge!


    • 2.

      Examples: Julavits and Wolfe


    • 3.

      Tips for Noticing


    • 4.

      Emily Writes


    • 5.



    • 6.



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About This Class

The Class: Internationally acclaimed author Emily Gould walks you through a 10-day creative writing challenge! Filled with inspiring examples, observation prompts, and clever revision tricks, it's perfect for writers and enthusiasts eager to rekindle creativity in a personal and artful way.

The Prompt: Commit to writing 10 minutes a day for 10 days (starting with "Today I noticed...") and, on the final day, revise one entry into a finished piece.

Why: Use this class to ban writer's block and get your good ideas down on paper! 


Be sure to check out Emily's first Skillshare class about writing personal essays.

Meet Your Teacher

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Emily Gould



Emily Gould is an American author, co-owner of the indie bookselling project Emily Books. 

Her essay collection And the Heart Says Whatever was published by Free Press in May 2010, and her novel Friendship was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2014. Her second novel, Perfect Tunes, was published in April 2020.

You can also follow her on Twitter at @EmilyGould and @emilybooks. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.

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1. Intro: Your 10-Day Challenge!: Hi, I'm Emily Gould. I'm a writer, and a publisher, and an editor. This class is a 10-day challenge that's designed to unlock your creativity by getting you to notice new details about your world. Part of the way that my idea for this exercise that we're all going to do together came about was that I really got stuck in the middle of a long project. I am in the middle, like really literally the middle, hopefully the middle. God, this is depressing. I'm probably more like a third of the way through another novel, and I had just completely run out of steam. I was really struggling to make myself freezes at it every day. Just opening up that Word document was so painful. I think we've all been there actually. It doesn't matter whether you're a writer or whether you participate in any other kind of creative discipline, you got to a point where you're just like, I have dumped out the entire contents of my skull, and now I have nothing left, and I needed to find a way to recharge. So, what I did was, I started keeping, and this sounds super cheesy, a daily journal where I just gave myself permission, time, and space to write not for publication, about whatever was on the top of my mind every day. I found that what was coming up for me, especially when I gave myself more specific instructions about what to write, was stuff that I could then use, little chunks that I could take out of their context in my ramblings and turn into something that was new and different, and that would inspire me to keep going with my longer project. So, starting now, literally now, while you're watching this video, get out a pen or pencil on a piece of paper or your laptop, wherever you feel most comfortable writing, and start writing with a sentence fragment today I noticed. You can go in any direction from there, but the only other requirement is that you keep writing for 5 to 10 minutes. At the end of the 10 days, I will offer another lesson about how to take what you've created and If you want, take it to the next level by revising it and I'll offer some tips for revision. But for right now, as soon as this little video snippet is over, you can close your laptop, and take out your piece of paper, and just start writing right now so that you can feel like you at least definitely started this challenge and committed to doing this every day for the next 10 day. Lately, there have been some published books that have taken the form of a diary. It's a trend that I can get behind. I love reading about people's everyday lives. I love reading about it online, and I love reading about it in a more constructive form in these books that sort of take the shape of a diary, but you use it to maybe get at something bigger just through that structure, through that forum. If you're watching this right now and thinking like, "Oh, she said to start that challenge right now as I'm watching this," but I think this is actually a great excuse to go in the cute stationery store and pick out a mole skin with the green cover and not the black ones. Don't do that. No field nodes. It's not necessary to have, for example, a utility bill that you could use the envelop of to write some stuff on the back of that is like sitting like 2 feet away from you right now. Great, go ahead, grab it, use that. The most important thing is just that you get started. 2. Examples: Julavits and Wolfe: I wanted to share work by two writers who used prompts, in order to inspire their own work. The first one is Heidi Julavits, who in her book, "The Folded Clock A Diary", used the prompts, today I. So, pretty close to what we're doing. This is their entry from July 16th, "Today I started reading a book called How to Navigate Today. How to Navigate Today is not a spiritual guide, but a book about actual nautical navigation written in the 40's by a woman named Marion Rice Hart. I am navigating today by drawing the tap handle I found in my dining room wall. What continues to confound me is why cannot simply own, as in possess in a manner that is satisfying, this tap handle. My inability to enjoyably accomplish this calls into question how I managed, in the past to own anything successfully. What does it mean to own this wooden table, this pottery bowl, this random ancestor painting (not my ancestor)? Owning is revealed as a doubly passive business. One just and it's around owning these things one already owns. My doubt and my overall owning abilities, however, remains focused on the tap handle. I frequently experience the urge to flailingly, like with my mind or my heart or my body, fuck the thing." Yeah, that's one of my favorites. That's not the whole thing by the way, she goes on about the tap handle, like the tap handle comes up more. I think it's important to read what someone else would consider to be a diary entry, not because you want to emulate someone else's work or try to think more the way someone else does, but just to kind of have a sense of what is possible in the context of personal writing. It's inspiring but also probably, maybe a little bit liberating to just see that other people's thoughts are just as strange or as, tangentially related to each other as your own might be and just feel sort of given permission to think about ordinary things, from a different perspective. To get out of the repetitive mind patterns that we all get into that are just about plans or logistics or money or daily anxieties, things that are going to happen in the future, what to make for dinner, just getting outside of the habitual, and into a space that could be more exalted. I guess, just the same way that drawing and everyday household object could, free Heidi's brain to think about ownership, deciding to notice something in your daily life, could free you to think about that daily life, just from a slightly different perspective. I basically stole the idea for this prompt like 50 percent from Heidi Julavits and 50 percent from this writer Justin Wolfe, who is a young writer best known probably for having an amazing tumblr called firmuhment, now-defunct. Recently, he released a free e-book called, "Thank You Notes", and in the wake of that project, he has been sending out daily thank you notes to an email list everyday, meaning that he's been doing a daily directory actresses for kind of a long time now, and sharing it I think as soon as it's written with I don't know how many people are on his email list. The catch, the constraint, that he has created for himself is that; he has to start every sentence, not just the first sentence, but every sentence with, "I'm thankful that, " so he has to find a way to be thankful, for all kinds of things A. And B, he has to find a way to describe whatever it is that he wants to describe through the lens of gratitude, which sometimes is easy and straightforward, sometimes as you will see a bit more complicated. So I'm going to read one of those entries, off my phone, because it's an e-book. "I'm thankful for the bike ride that we took yesterday through our newly wintry town. I'm thankful to have understood that D was right when she said I should buy heavier duty gloves than the thin knit $5 ones I got at target. I'm thankful that after a time it felt like my fingertips, then my fingers, then my hands were on fire from the sub-freezing cold and wind as we bike north of town to Denny's. I'm thankful that when I crashed my bike turning into the parking lot of a gas station with a slightly too high concrete lift that it's edge, I fell into the parking lot rather than into traffic. I'm thankful that I didn't tear my clothes are cut myself or do any serious damage, and thankful for the man standing outside his car drinking gas station coffee who checked to make sure I was okay. I'm thankful to D's parents for giving us a gift card to Denny's for Christmas. I'm thankful for pancake syrup, which I know is not the same as maple syrup and which I may be like more. I'm thankful for tiny gray-brown sausages which are probably packed with my RDA of sodium. I'm thankful for soften pats of butter in small ceramic crocks." One of the things that having an enforced prompt at the beginning of every sentence, can do is to really shape your thoughts, like really remold thoughts that you might have had that didn't fit into that constraint, into a new shape. I think just starting a five minute writing exercise with today I noticed, like that's good for now. What Justin is doing is like pretty next level in terms of difficulty. He had to find a way to describe, falling off his bike, through the lens of gratitude. So he found some aspect of falling off his bike that he could be grateful for, and almost made me believe that he was grateful for the experience in some way, and it's true, it could have been much worse, he could have torn his clothes. I'd love how clear those images are of the guy with his gas station coffee, the slightly too high concrete lip that caused him to fall off his bike, and I love ending that paragraph with, just this answery stuff that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been a patron of Denny's. The little gross, but delicious pats of butter melting on top of your gross but delicious pancakes that you've covered with something that is definitely not maple syrup. The last thing that I want is for you to get psyched out thinking my voice doesn't sound like either of those people's voices, am I supposed to be more like Justin or Heidi? What am I doing here? I think if you can find a way into anyone else's writing doesn't have to be these writers, and then really think hard about what it is that you like about it, then you can start to isolate qualities that you want to capture in your own writing or in your own creative work. Like I just said "Oh! I appreciate a sharp contrast, " as like a swift turn from something that's more serious, to something that's a little funny, a little bit off kilter. If I can figure out how to do that in my own work, then I am very happy. So, that's that's where I get from reading other people's work. 3. Tips for Noticing: Here's a roadblock you might hit. Emily, what if I feel like I'm just not that good at observing? What if I'm just not seeing what's around me, and instead as I walk around every day my usual litany of complaints and figuring out what I'm going to eat for lunch is all that's playing in my head? I have a couple of strategies to share with you and they're corny a little bit, but they work, so pay attention. The first one is just to take a different route than your usual. So, if you have a commute, switch it up. Don't just do what Google Map says. Take a path that you don't usually take. The second tip is to do whatever it is that you usually do, but just dial it down to half speed. So, if you usually rush through making yourself scrambled eggs in the morning, do it mindfully, take a moment, feel that weight of the egg in your hand, hear the crack as it hits the bowl. Feel the muscle tension as you whisk the egg. You get where I'm going with this, just slow it down. When you're starting with a prompt today I noticed, you don't necessarily have to be noticing something visual. You don't even necessarily have to be noticing something outside yourself. Those are the most obvious things to notice, of course, but you can also notice a feeling. One of the easiest ways to get in touch with what's going on internally in either of those ways is just to sit still. So, pick somewhere decently comfortable, close your eyes, and notice what's going on in your body and in your mind. So, you don't have to go all method acting with this one and actually go out and buy a guidebook, but what you could do is get into the mindset of being a tourist wherever it is that you live. That might actually change what you plan to do with your day. On your lunch break, go to a museum because it's something that a tourist would do, or you could even just notice a plaque that you pass every day, but never read, that means that something in your town is a historical monument. The fifth tip is to consciously decide that you're going to pick something to notice that is not something that you see. So, you should choose in advance one of your other senses to focus on. You can pick smell, taste, touch, hearing. Number six. You don't have to have some hermetic experience of noticing, that's just you wandering around, smelling the air and meditating. You can also notice something that's going on in your relationships. You can notice how someone else is feeling. That's probably a good idea actually to see if you can get a little bit below the surface of how you customarily interact with anyone else in your life. Remember something that they said or something that they did, or a way that they looked and how it made you feel, and how you imagined that they felt. That is a totally legitimate thing to notice. So, these tips are things that I do, they are things that I aspire to do that I struggle to do, that I try to do. But, there are also things that I have to believe that the writers who I admire are doing a lot because in the writing, especially the first person writing that I admire, there's a lot of detail. The thing that makes someone an artist, the thing that can make anyone an artist is consciously deciding to take a moment and record the thoughts and feelings that stem from any ordinary moment or encounter or endeavor. 4. Emily Writes: Hi, this is my laptop and I have it here with me because in this lesson I'm going to talk about how I have been doing this exercise, this challenge. I'm even going to read you one of the totally unedited diary entries that I wrote while during this exercise. This is a good opportunity for me to just make you feel totally comfortable with whatever you have written because it really can't be that much worse than this. This is just me saying today I noticed and then doing a brain dump. So, "Today, I noticed how I felt when I did yoga. It felt good and bad to become aware of my body, good because the awareness was so different from the grinding gears-feeling I'd had in my brain all day, but bad because what I found when I paid attention to how my body felt was, of course, pain. I had worn Raffi, 'that's my baby', for about an hour and walked around and I got a Raffi-weight sack of groceries. Of course, the whole left side of my back was dully aching. Like most people, probably, I'm in the habit of blocking out of conscious awareness any pain that's mild enough to be safely ignored. It's weird that I used to teach yoga because most of the time I feel like I'm so bad at yoga, much worse than your average person in the yoga class. Of course, when people tell me that they're 'bad at' yoga, I admonish them; there's no such thing, by definition, it's not a game of skill. So when I say I'm 'bad at' it, I don't mean that I'm incapable of difficult poses that require a lot of strength and practice and flexibility, though of course, I am incapable, I haven't done an unsupported headstand for years and my crooked spine and weird body proportions make arm balances and deep backbends almost impossible for me. Even simpler things, like the standing twists that are taught in a lot of trashy vinyasa classes, are really hard for me to do with anything like integrity (meaning that I'm not cheating by doing them in an aligned way). I don't care about that stuff now, though I used to; when I was younger, I wanted to push my body to its limits. Instead, I mean that I'm bad at yoga in a way that's only obvious, in a class, to someone with the ability to spy on my thoughts." So, wow, reading that aloud was very embarrassing and I'm probably blushing right now. I'm immediately noticing a lot of things that if I just wanted to lie and edit this little paragraph and make it publishable, I would fix it right away. But this is just a ramblings, so it's okay that I did this. I started with a physical sensation, and then that brought up for me some other ideas about conscious awareness, pain, what people are thinking about any yoga class, my own experience of teaching yoga, which is something that I've never written about and I don't know if I want to write about it, but it could be maybe interesting. I don't know. Then, I also talk about all the things that are wrong with my body. Then, I also say something really judgmental about trashy vinyasa classes. I end by saying that when I was younger, I wanted to push my body to its limits, which is an interesting thought. I don't know if I've ever been conscious of having felt that way before, so maybe that would be something to think about. Anyway, so this is bad like off the cuff writing with a lot of annoying little ticks in it, like putting a lot of things in quotation marks, weird run on sentences, starting sentences with so putting things in parentheses in ways that are just distracting. But the ideas here are kind of interesting, and it's definitely not something that I would have sat down and chosen to write about if I hadn't been forced to by this exercise, which I guess is the point. Something that I hope is clear from my writing here and from this exercise in general is that you shouldn't back up while you're doing this exercise and try to figure out a better way to put something. Instead, just keep going, trust that you will get there eventually during the time that you're doing the exercise. I didn't edit this as I was writing it, that can come in the later revision. 5. Revision: Revision is the most important part of any writing practice. This lesson is for you if you want to take the raw material that you've generated, and you've generated a lot of it, and enlarge it in a way that makes it into a finished piece. If you don't immediately know how to go about it, it can also be really helpful to have just a few guiding tricks or strategies that you continually revisit up your sleeve. So, I'm just going to run down a quick list. So, here's a fun strategy, go through what you've written and pick out your favorite sentence or even your favorite paragraph. If you are editing on paper, even underline it and draw little hearts around it, just take a moment and feel really proud of yourself for having written that sentence or that paragraph. Then, think what is it about that sentence or that paragraph that makes it so special. What made it stand out to you? What is it about that sentence that works, and how can you bring that energy to the entire rest of what you've written. This one's really hardcore, take what you've written and read it again very slowly and very carefully, and then throw it away. Then, open a new word document or take out a new piece of paper and write it again from memory. This is your new draft. Think of a title for your piece. How does having this title change it? The purpose of having a title is that it makes you have to frame the way people will encounter readers, potential readers will encounter your piece. It makes there be one single entry point to the piece, so it makes you have to think like, "Okay, what is this about? What is the one word or phrase that encapsulates this entire experience that I want someone to have." That's why titles are so hard. I mean, that's why people often default to things like a title that already exists, like a song title because they want to carry over all of the resonances of some piece of art that already exist and tack them onto what they've created. By the way, if that's legit, you can use a song title, but I'm just saying the point of a title is defining what your piece is about. Something to think about with titles is that the best titles, I think totally subjective, are sometimes the most straightforward. So, if you have written something,for instance, that is about going to get a croissant at a different pastry shop than usual in the morning, your title could be croissant. Maybe new croissant. I don't know, just spitballing here, but you don't have to get to a high concept or spend too much time thinking about the title. The title is useful in terms of how you're going to frame things for yourself first and foremost. Let's talk about drafts and how you're going to work with editing. So, for some people it works best to handwrite on paper first, and then to type up the draft so that there is a layer of thinking that exists between those two experiences. For other people, it works best to type the first draft because your thoughts flow more fluidly when you're typing than when your handwriting, and then to print it out and edit on paper. So, let's talk about ways that you can radically shift your perspective on your own work. The quickest and dirtiest and easiest is to change the point of view that your writing is written in. So, this exercise is about something that you've noticed. I'm sure you've written it in the first-person. Why don't you go in and change all of the pronouns so that the exercise is about something happening to someone else? Now, it's in a third-person. If you're finding that it's more comfortable for you to go from there, use that as a jumping off point to start making stuff up. Then, congratulations, you're working on fiction. 6. Closing: If there's one thing that I hope you have taken away from doing this work with me and from during this challenge, I hope you've been able to get a new lens on your own thoughts, in your own writing, in your own brain. I know that when you do this kind of work, any kind of creative work, it can be easy to get trapped in the same patterns and to have your own thoughts become kind of stagnant and even a little bit boring to you. So, if this has shaken you up and snapped you out of a spell of boringness, I will be really happy to know that. So, thanks.