Do you keep a journal? If you’re a writer, perhaps you ought to consider it. There is hardly a teacher of writing craft around who doesn’t encourage students to keep journals. It is said that, “Journals have been the secret weapon for writers from Allen Ginsburg to Virginia Woolf to Victor Hugo.” So, there are aspects of a writer’s journal that might bear discussion.
First, let me edit my original question to make it more specific to me and my own backstory. Do you keep journals? That “s” at the end of the word is key for me since I keep multiple journals. In fact, I’m a tad addicted to the notion of journals – and I have journals that are pen and paper ones, as well as journals that reside on my computer. As you can see, I’m not a purist either way.
Virginia Woolf is quoted as having said, “The habit of writing for my eye only is good practice,” and that sums up the first reason for keeping a journal: it gives you a chance to work on your writing without the self-consciousness of knowing it will be read by others. Although this might, at first glance, seem like that cathartic kind of journaling that has become the ubiquitous habit of the navel-gazers among us, it’s really more than that. This kind of journaling is really an exercise that lets you try out different turns of phrase, that lets your mind wander to ideas deeply buried in your sub-conscious (see the comments on last week’s discussion), and that is a safe place for writing that you have no intention of showing anyone else. And this kind of journaling can be semi-structured.
Writer and teacher Natalie Goldberg’s approach to journaling is one that I’ve come back to year after year. In her first writing book (which I highly recommend) Writing Down the Bones (originally published in 1986 and re-released in 2010), she suggests that you take pen to paper – something that she’s adamant about – and place your pen on the paper, never lifting it for your ten-minute writing practice each day. Her rule is this: keep your hand moving. Begin with the words “I remember…” or even “I don’t remember…” (She has other suggestions but you’ll have to read her book to get those ones); and never stop or lift the pen as it moves across the page. Every time you get stuck, write down “I remember…” again and keep going for the full ten minutes. It’s a very liberating process.
There are other reasons other than practice, though, for keeping journals. One of my primary reasons is so that I have places to keep ideas that come to me. These ideas can be thoughts, clippings, photos etc. But I also have general idea journals and a special journal for every project I’m working on. Okay, I do have lots of journals, but I’d wager a guess that I’m not the only one!
One of the journals I kept for many years was a bit like a diary – but it focused
on only one of the general kinds of experiences in my life. It chronicled my experience as a ballet mom. That journal became the basis for my memoir Another Pointe of View: The Life and Times of a Ballet Mom. I was able to capture detailed memories that would have faded into themists of my mind, and that would have been altered by subsequent experiences. That journal was critical to my ability to write a story that might resonate with other mothers of gifted children.
Right now, I have so many journals on the go. I have two that hold notes on two separate book projects. I have one that is a kind of general catch-all for ideas. I have a travel journal (this is a new idea – it’s time to capture details of our travels). I have one that keeps notes about a book that my husband and I will write in our retirement to add to the four that we wrote some years ago. I have two new ones that have not found their purpose yet, but they will. And I have one for this blog. I also have two computer-based journals and one on my iPad.
The very best part of my journals, though, is when I look into one of them and what I read becomes part of something larger – something that I’ll write that
someone else might read and enjoy – or at least learn from.