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Keeping a Writer's Journal

By Sheila Bender

Writers write. A journal is way to do that, without knowing where you are going with the writing, to unload thoughts, obsessions, insights and observations, and sometimes to imitate other writers, seeing how your perceptions might come across in the voice and sentence structures of those you admire. Sometimes you can imagine your writing addressed to others with whom you feel a resonance or are angry. Sometimes you are in gathering mode, storing images and ideas, facts and details, sometimes remembering dreams or merely playing with words. Whatever the reasons for taking to the pages or computer files of a journal, between projects or during, taking some time to spruce up on journaling ideas will prove a boon to your writing. It is always more rewarding to feel interesting rather than boring while making the notes and entries that ultimately provide a gold mine.

Here are three of the best ideas I've come across from contemporary writers' approaches to journaling:

Letters

There is something about a particular audience that helps writers feel more comfortable about where to start, what to include, and how to shape experience. Letters help writers write about topics that they might have trouble exploring otherwise. Pam Houston has said that letters in her journals "contain most of the significant incidents, real and imagined, that make up the fabric of my life."

One way to force yourself to write a letter to someone is to tell that person about things you learned today or this week or this month. The late poet William Stafford wrote a poem called, "Things I Learned This Week." He included things he observed by paying attention to what others generally don't take the time to see, such as on which side ants pass each other. He learned things from the newspaper such as what topics famous people were speaking about. He learned things from doing, such as how to unstick a door. And he learned things about himself by noticing personal preferences. Consult yourself for insights that have occurred to you and address a letter to someone you know about them.

Remember to include information that has come to you in dreams. Your list will be most interesting if the items vary from really important to small and seemingly insignificant pieces of information. The differing levels of importance, the variety of methods of learning the information and the detail with which you write about what you learned will help you create an interesting journal entry as well as discover why what you learned matters to you.

Logs

Keeping logs is another journaling strategy that writers benefit from using. You've seen the published journals of prisoners, exiles, servants, captains, soldiers, pioneers, and motorcycle riders, among many others. Although these journals may be famous now for the information they include, the authors' main motivation in keeping them was to keep track of themselves and the events they were encountering to stay connected to their own lives and remain motivated to go on despite harsh circumstances.

When you travel or work away from home for extended amounts of time or go away to relax on a beach or in the woods, you may be moved to keep a trip diary as a way of making sure you will never forget where you were and what it meant to you. Most likely, there are weeks and months between the trips you deem important enough to journal about. You can bring the attitude and experiences of the traveler to your journal keeping every day.

One way to do this is to commit to writing about the weather:

Reginald Gibbons has a passage about weather in his novel Sweetbitter that stirs me:

The weather was gathering, threatening rain. A thunderstorm had been building, far off to the west, and now it was going to fill the quiet night with its threats. A sizzling bolt of lightning burst out sideways above them, searing its thick, knotted length on the dark sky for a long instant like an engorged vein on the very arm of God. She was blinking up where the flash had been. The immense darkness of the woods around them had turned in the moment of the bolt into a frightening innumrableness of detail and in that lit instant every leaf and twig, every thread of their clothes and hair on their heads, was counted and recorded. Then came the blasting thunder, pushing through their bodies as if they were nothing, and beyond them echoing away over half the world.

Gibbons has written about jotting notes in his journal about the rainstorm that later turned up in his novel. He calls this kind of entry a kind of "marker buoy" thrown into the waters to remind him to go back and search the depths.

Describing weather can yield strong writing in your journal as well as provide "marker buoys" of the emotional weather in your life over a period of time. When you write a log, take the time to describe the weather you can observe at the moment of your writing. Is it day or night? What is gathering or dispersed? Notice the quality of the air - is it stirred up, clear, still, foggy? Notice the moisture in the air - is it humid or dry? Notice clouds and their shapes, the absence or presence of stars, the moon and the sun. Notice the sounds the wind is causing or the way birds react in this weather.

Are sounds muffled or sharpened in this weather you are describing? What is the temperature and how do you respond to it? How do trees look in the weather you are observing? Now, name an element or force that enters this scene similar to the lightning that makes Gibbons' characters concentrate on an infinity of detail. After you select and name the element or force, make a metaphor to describe it in the way Gibbons does when he says the lightning is the engorged vein of God. Let the metaphor you come up with spin your writing in a new direction just as the metaphor Gibbons uses lets the very presence of infinity into the moment. If you say the blast of a fog horn in the night is like a dying animal's last moans, it will affect the writing one way and if you say the blast of a fog horn in the night is like the notes your younger brother pushed out when he was first learning to play the tuba, the writing will probably go another way. See what happens when you do this!

Tidbits

Journaling is a tool for storing tidbits of description and thought you find intriguing or mystifying, for writing meditations, and for noting personal musings from your reading and attendance at lectures and exhibits. You may want to express fanciful sides of your imagination triggered by seeing people and events or you might want to entertain quick what-ifs or record dramas that go by in a flash. You might like to meditate with pen to the page, allowing yourself to make leaps of association between what you hear and see, taste, touch and smell and what you are currently reacting to in your life.

A pithy description may linger. Short exchanges of conversation make an impact. Sometimes a song lyric or a line for a poem arises in your mind, but you don't yet know the rest of the song or poem.

Here are two ideas for motivating yourself to get tidbits down: 1) Even in the stillest moment, there is movement around us: a tiny circulation of air, a bird darting onto a branch, a fly buzzing. Notice what is moving. Describe the movements you observe so that they are distinct (associating different verbs with each movement helps here). 2) Put a quote you come across at the top of a journal entry. Then write your own quote "back" to the one quoted.

Whatever exercises you try out, be copious. Novelist Robert Hellenga wrote in The Writer's Journal: 40 Contemporary Writers and their Journals:

I began keeping a journal on Ash Wednesday 1979 with the following portentous announcement to myself: "Time for amendment of life." The only requirement, I set myself was that I enter something every single day. Well, I have neither amended my life, nor have I entered something in my journal every single day. I have written a lot of stuff, however, and am presently on notebook no. 71. That' s a lot of notebooks to keep track of, so when I finish one, I make an index that will help me locate sketches, scenes, descriptions, accounts of what I've eaten, etc.

In keeping a journal I've been very much influenced by Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer, and have tried to follow her advice, which I shall now pass on: write regularly (so you don't have to waste time and energy reinventing your schedule every day); write a lot (to develop writing muscles); write without stopping (so your inner critic doesn't have a chance to intervene).

Adopting good "entry strategies" for keeping a writer's journal, you won't find yourself writing passages that bore you. You'll find yourself achieving insight and making fresh observations, without self-consciously digging for them. And you'll be way less tempted to write what you think you are supposed to write, rather than what you have inside to get down on the page. You will want to write and write and write!

Meet the Author: Sheila Bender