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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Keeping a Journal

Before I started writing seriously, before I even started writing fiction at all, I kept a journal.  I have journals dating back to when I was nine years old and my biggest concerns were dealing with the school bully or trying to figure out if The Boy liked me.  Of course, some notebooks have gotten lost over the years, and there are definitely some dry spells in there when I didn't write at all, but between then and now I have a pretty good written record of what was pressing on my mind through the past twenty-or-so years.

OK, so I kept a journal.  So what?  I've learned several things from all this journal-writing and I've discovered that not only has it made me a better writer, it's also made me a better thinker.  If you don't keep a journal, I highly recommend you start, but before you do, read on to find out more about what you'll gain from it.

What does keeping a journal entail?

1)  A journal can be whatever you want it to be.  There's no law that says you have to keep a daily diary or that a journal must record your deepest, secretest thoughts.   The truth is, you can write whatever you want in your journal.  I write a lot of lists: to-do lists, lists of post topics for my blog, lists of character names or story ideas.  You name it... there's probably a list like that in one of my notebooks.  I take my notebook with me when I go to talks or conferences and jot down notes or interesting quotes from the speakers.  I often find that seeing my notes on paper helps me better understand the concepts at hand.

Tip:  Make journal-writing fun.  Draw cartoons or doodles--iggi started out as a random doodle in one of my journals.  Clip funny pictures and paste them in your notebook.  Oh, and don't forget... Stickers!

2)  Verbal spillage is OK.  Sometimes you just need your journal to be a catch-all for the junk that's in your head.  Julia Cameron, of The Artist's Way, advocates writing 3 pages longhand every morning (she calls them Morning Pages) to get all those mundane ideas out of our heads and onto paper.  Then once we've cleared our brains of the clutter, we're ready to be creative.  I agree with her thinking, though I've loosened the requirements for myself.  I don't always write 3 pages and I rarely do it in the morning because I'm just not functional until I've had my coffee.  But I think it's a great idea to put your nagging thoughts and worries on paper to clear them from your mind.  Once I've written in my notebook, my thinking feels sharper, clearer, more focused.  I think that's why I write so many lists... to get all those pesky ideas out of my head so I can think straight.

Tip:  Try not to let your inner censor interfere with your journal writing.  Toss the words on the page, then shut the notebook and trap them in there so your inner censor can't judge.

3)  Longhand.  While some people might prefer keeping a journal on their computer or iPad or iPhone or what have you, I am a firm believer in writing longhand.  There are two reasons for this.  First, writing longhand allows your brain time to mull things over between when the thought leaves your mind and when it travels all the way down your arm to your pen.  Typing is more immediate and it's a lot easier to type without thinking.  If the purpose of keeping a journal is to improve one's thinking then it stands to reason that longhand would better serve the writer than typing would because longhand forces you to think things over.

Second, I find that handwriting is a great diagnostic tool.  My handwriting changes drastically depending on my mood and state of mind.  Even writers whose handwriting stays pretty stable will see subtle shifts in their print and script over time.  Looking through a notebook, I can quickly tell what mood I was in during a given time period based on how messy the writing is, how big the lettering is or how hard I pressed the pen.  These are all diagnostic clues that tell me what was going on between the lines when I was writing those words.

Tip:  If you use different colored pens, that's another great insight to what your mood was.  After all, you must've chosen that color pen for a reason.

4)  Write something every day.  One of the great things about Julia Cameron's Morning Pages concept is that by the time you're done, you've already written 3 whole pages and it's only the morning.  Granted, those pages may be nothing more than lists or gripes or worries but at least you've been writing.  I feel the same way about my notebook.  When I feel stressed out or intimidated by the computer, I pull out my notebook and start writing there.  I find it much easier to approach the computer if I already have something written.  If I'm just typing it up, it's a lot less scary than having to face that blank-screen-of-death.  Writing in a notebook where I can be messy and make mistakes makes writing "no big deal" and the less of a big deal I make my writing, the more of it actually gets done.

Tip:  I used to keep my notebook on the floor right next to my bed so that when I woke up, I would literally trip over it and remember to do some writing.

Today's Task:  If you don't keep a journal, go to a store and pick out a notebook that you love, one that will be inviting and fun to write in.  Make your journal writing festive so invest in a pretty-colored pen or some stickers.  If you have old magazines lying around, clip some pretty pictures and paste them on the cover or in your journal.

Tell me, do you keep a journal or notebook?  Have you found that it helps you think more clearly when you sort ideas out on paper?

10 comments:

KarenG said...

So glad verbal spillage is ok, because that pretty well describes how I write in my journal! And I love the process of longhand writing, letting my thoughts flow, while I spill my guts onto the pages.

Kerryn Angell said...

I've been working with The Artist's Way since April and am up to my 4th notebook full of Morning Pages. I do them in the morning and in longhand and find that they really ground me and give me a solid perspective to begin the day. How long that perspective lasts is another matter! I recently read through the first 3 notebooks and it was super inspiring to be encouraged by my own thoughts of wisdom and insight.

I also keep notebooks for writing ideas and scribbles but I keep them very seperate to real-life lists and reminders. I stifle myself by trying to be organised and tidy about what I keep in the notebook though. I guess that's my critic at work but I find it so hard to just be messy. What if I want to find something afterwards? Must try harder. :)

Najela said...

I do have a journal and I've reread all my journals from high school (I was a strange child I've noticed), but the journal I have now is mostly letters that I never send to people. It has helped me with dealing with some negative emotions towards people. I don't really have a set one for writing anymore. I do jot down ideas in a notebook, but I wouldn't call it a journal, of course a journal could be anything I want to be like you said.

Merrilee said...

I have never been able to keep a journal or a diary. It's just not for me. I scribble for a few days, then it peters out.

Wannabe Writer said...

I'm the same way. I can't stick with it. I think the longest I kept a journal was 2 months when I was 8. It didn't help that I had an overprotective mother, so anything I wrote down was potentially vulnerable to snoopage. It might be interesting to try again, now that I don't have to worry about that.

gabi said...

Karen G - Totally. I'm a big fan of verbal spillage, and I'm definitely a fan of writing long hand. Ah, if only I could blog in longhand... but then no one would be able to read it. :)

Kerryn - You are so diligent! Don't beat yourself up if your notebooks aren't "perfect" or "perfectly messy." If neat and orderly is your thing, then I say go with it. I used to be very orderly with my notebook and then I let myself go wild and it was very freeing, but it's certainly not for everyone. What's important is that you're writing.

Najela - Isn't it fascinating to go through old notebooks? I've discovered that I wrote most frequently in my journals when I had a crush on some boy. Apparently I was at my most prolific in college. :) This is why hubby is not allowed to see any of the college notebooks. I'm sure he would also question why I'm not quite as prolific now that I'm married to the man of my dreams.

Merrilee - Journaling is not for everyone, and I definitely know what you mean. I have many "dry spells" when I don't write in my notebooks at all. The great thing about DIY MFA is that you can take the techniques that work for you and use them and ignore the techniques that aren't your style. So if journaling isn't your thing, no biggie.

Wannabe Writer - I hear you about the snoopage. I was lucky because as a child I had a very snoop-proof method of storing my journal (under the mattress). To make sure Mom wasn't reading it, I'd occasionally sprinkle in some really outrageous stuff. She never asked me about it so I'm guessing she never snooped, or if she did, she sure wasn't letting on.

Kerryn Angell said...

Thanks Gabi. Just thinking about it so openly again has given me another idea of how I might be organised yet still throw everything in there.

Portia said...

I wish I had kept more journals in grade school! I have a gorgeous one that I keep by my bed for writing down dreams.

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