Why Good Writers Keep Journals
By Ruth Folit
Journals have been the secret weapon for writers from Allen Ginsburg to Virginia Woolf to Victor Hugo. Make it your secret weapon, too.
Skilled writers have developed their own voices -- unique ways to express themselves. They have learned to open the windows to their inner workings for insightful perspectives into themselves and the rest of their worlds. How do writers record these everyday flashes of insight and noteworthy musings that might otherwise evaporate into oblivion? A Chinese proverb states, 'The palest ink is stronger than the most miraculous memory.' Or rewritten to reflect our computer era: The palest pixels are stronger than the most miraculous memory.
Where do comedians, novelists and playwrights get the raw material for their writings? From life, of course! Writers know that the anecdotes of the day, conversations overheard, and experiences, feelings and subtleties of a moment may be the seeds of a short story, the building blocks of a script or the spark for a magazine article. Keeping a journal keeps all these important morsels handy and ready to use when the appropriate time appears.
How to get started and keep journal writing going? There are no hard-set rules for keeping a journal. How often you write, how much time you spend and how rigorously you maintain a regular journaling schedule are matters of personal choice and circumstance. While an individual living alone may have hours of solitude and enormous flexibility in terms of time, a parent with small children may have very little of either. So it is of primary importance to find what works for you. The following general guidelines, however, may help you to establish journal writing as a regular and enduring habit.
1. Allow yourself regular writing times. Find a time of day that works well for you and use this time every day. As much as possible, control interruptions during this time.
2. Provide yourself a peaceful place to work. If you need an uncluttered space, try to clear your work area before sitting down to write.
3. Develop a centering ritual. Associating journaling with another pleasurable habit can help to strengthen the routine and create an atmosphere of self-nurturing. When you are ready to write in your journal, consider pouring yourself a cup of tea or coffee. Play relaxing music. Take a moment for meditation, deep breathing or simply relax and sit quietly for a few minutes. Read a quotation or a passage of poetry. Listen to a guided meditation tape.
Prompt yourself with a routine self-reflection question: If you tend to have trouble starting, prompt yourself with a routine question, such as 'What are you feeling right now?' or 'What's on your mind?'
Author and diarist, Anais Nin, suggests asking 'what feels vivid, warm or near to you at the moment?' Another way: 'I feel...', 'I need...' and 'I want...'
5. Write because you want to write, not because you have to. Don't allow journaling to become an obligation or chore. Remember not to demand more of yourself than you can give. If you have missed a day, or several days, accept that journaling, like life, is imperfect and go on. Write the next time you have a chance.
6. Create a positive feedback loop. As you continue to use the journal as an opportunity to be with and learn about yourself, you will find that the practice gains a momentum of its own. Discovering your own hidden depths piques your curiosity and stimulates you to continue, setting up a positive feedback loop between your conscious and unconscious mind.
7. Emphasize process rather than product. An important purpose of journal writing is simply expressing and recording your thoughts and feelings. Concentrate on the process of writing -- keeping the flow of words rather than worrying about the end result. If your goal is to have a specific audience read your piece, go back to it later and edit it. Use your journal as the raw material for more polished writing.
8. Use well crafted journal writing tools. People who stick with journal writing find pleasure in the process. Some look for beautiful journal books or comfortable pens. Consider using your computer; many routinely spend time at a computer already and feel comfortable at the keyboard. And now there is journal writing software available that heightens the journal writing experience with specific journal writing tools -- to help inspire self-reflection and spark new avenues of thinking, to organize and manage your writing and to set the stage for uncensored, secure self-expression.
9. Learn from your own experiences and incorporate them into your publishable writing.
After just a few weeks or months of keeping a journal, go back to earlier journal entries. You may be surprised how fresh your writing is and how you can mine your journal entries by extracting rich detailed descriptions, authentic conversations and ideas for plots that you already have written within your journal.
10. Have fun!! Journal writing is its own reward. Once you get started, your journal will become another one of your good friends -- one who is always available, has the time to listen attentively and remember what you said.