Over the years, I have been an active proponent of keeping a writing journal. This is typically a writing journal based on the writing in the moment. It is an on-going dialogue with the story or novel that I am working on. Not only do I think this resolves the concept of writer’s block, it also gives you space to type and put words down beyond the image of the writer. Some people feel like free writing or writing on the page is a place where perfection is the goal. But in the journal, things can be messy and incomplete. I often have my journal open while I am working on a novel so I can take notes, add something to write about and resolve.
My rules, if you’ve read “What is a Writing Journal,” creates some guidelines. 1) Only write about what you are writing. 2) Only write about what you are reading. And of course, they should intermingle. It is a place to write about books you like and dislike, it is a place to think. It is your mental workshop.
That is what I’ve always thought about my journal. It is a place to document where I am, what I am thinking, and how I feel about my writing at any given moment. It is part of the process. But in the last year, I thought about it with a different light. What if my journal is a workshop of problems that need to be solved?
When I went back into my journal and looked at some of the entries from places where I was writing, I was thinking out loud. What happens if this happens? Why does this happen now? Why this and not that? Does it matter?
That is when I realized that my journal is an accumulation of my failures. And I don’t mean that to sound hyperbolic or depressive. No, this is the process. Novels need to have a path and there are so many places to get stuck and draw out into something that doesn’t work. And it takes bravery to realize that you may have failed somewhere and it needs to be fixed. I see it all the time. So, why not map out some of those things and think about them in the journal? Why not run that vision through a test, not on the pages of your manuscript but in your journal. In that linear thinking tool that doesn’t judge because it is never seen by anyone.
There is also a sense that the pages we wrote, that came from the “muse” or at one brilliant moment – that those pages become sacred. I’ve heard people say, “I wrote those pages while my mother was dying.” And honestly, those are special and sacred pages. I wouldn’t want a writer to change them. But they also may not be the best element for your novel — a novel that will change and shift around you for months or years. Some people are often star struck by the words they create in a specific moment. And that can be a problem if you can’t or won’t change to innovate. That is the concept behind killing your darlings, pushing yourself and writing something new. Those sacred pages can be in your journal. You don’t have a word limit. You don’t have an idea limit. Annie Dillard said “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. The impluse to save something good for a better place later is a signal to spend it now.” Just get it all in there and use it all. It also suggests and confirms the idea that we may have to stuff pages into a drawer and forget them for awhile. Sometimes, that is six months. For me, it has been years. And when I came back to the pages, I saw things clearly and was ready to make it something that I couldn’t tame before.
Your journal should be a disaster. It should be places to think and move, and try. It should be your muse, your tool, your guide. It can be a fucked up mess. And it can be everything you want your writing to be.
I would really enjoy teaching a class or having a discussion around this concept. If anyone is interested, reach out to the email in the contact section.
Quoted: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.