The Secret Life of a Writing Journal

Do you use a journal when you are writing? Do you find long-hand writing helpful? I have been using a writing journal for a long time, but my journal is a complex work space — and it can be a disaster. It is filled with the hundreds of issues, connections, successes and visions that go into my creative writing. My journal is a historical snapshot of my thinking and learning at any given moment. The more intense and focused I am, the more I write in my journal. This is my work world, this is where connections are made, research and quotes are entered. It is where I store new ideas and feed them along.

The Journal

First let’s just be clear about the journal. It is a place to write when you aren’t writing. That idea sounds silly, but I believe journals are private places to make mistakes, create an ideas, let them crash. It is a place to think and not worry about the world outside. For me, it is an electronic document. It is a running document with the date. I write what I am doing and thinking in terms of my creative writing and influences. It is aesthetically more pleasing to write in a nice leather bound journal and keep them as an artifact on your shelf. I have some of those (I wrote an entire novel that way), but they aren’t practical. You can’t copy and paste your ideas into your current work-in-progress, you can’t key word search five years of creative thinking. Some even use hashtags to organize and connect material together. 

I have termed my journals and my thinking in this space “journals of disasters.” These entries are all the things I’ve been thinking about, puzzling over, and eventually formulating into creative projects. They aren’t magical at all. Some are slightly concerning tirades over something I am working on. But in the end, they are part of the process. If I can’t write, I write about why I can’t write — and do it in my journal. Typically, after a few minutes of journal writing, I can shift. I have written whole chapters in my journal and then copied them into my work-in-progress because I went from thinking to creative writing. I also mark important passages from books I am reading, important articles, and quotes that I may need. Sometimes, I want to capture my initial reaction to a book before I lose touch with it. Sometimes, I just think of an idea and stick it in there to go back and find later. All my writing life can be connected back to this space. This is the place where accidents, failures, and vision of creativity are mine alone.

The Secret Chamber of Creativity

Isolation and privacy are stereotypes of being a writer. Some of the best project I’ve worked on have been among good writers and editors. But I think this creative journal is very personal and very private. Writers need private spaces to write. They need to say things for the first time on their own terms. If the journal is a place for your own thinking, then it should be your private vision of the worlds you are creating. We live in a social media driven life where posting pictures of your meals, capturing social currency with friends, and making a video in your car is a might go viral. If you follow the hash tag #writingcommunity on Twitter, you will find people talking about their writing, polling other writers, and prompting their books. That is marketing, that is socializing; that is not deep thinking and creative intimacy. What is in your journal is a private matter. You will eventually reveal your work to the world, but they don’t have to see what was left aside, they don’t have to see your rough drafts, your fledgling ideas. Hemingway was very private about his process. He thought the book in your hand was all you needed to know about his creativity. I need to create in a personal and private space. I need to open my creative visions in a place where I won’t be judged, where I feel safe, and where I feel like the creative person I imagined. That is not on social media, that is not in writing conferences, not in classrooms, it is not in public spaces (digital or physical), but in a journal, in a closed document, within my creative purview.

Social media is marketing tool to sell our creativity, but it isn’t a place to foster it, to begin the creative expression. Writers are born when they sit down and earnestly begin telling their stories. To be a storyteller, writer, creative thinker, you need the freedom to write in a space where deep thinking and your vision can flourish. Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” As writers and creative artists, I believe that the process and the history of that vision isn’t wasted. Journals are not for everyone, but it can be part of the complex act of writing a novel, a story collection, or connected project. And we need to alone. We need to define our story, then let other people influence it and suggest changes. But it starts alone, as a writer. 

Being alone for a writer shouldn’t be unsettling. But it can be isolating. That is what is required of anyone who needs to create. Creativity is a solitary, contemplative world. We are afraid of that word because we feel like that could become a permeant state. We are afraid of disappearing and being lost. But that is what is required. Alone, you must find all those stunning disasters and occasional epiphany we call stories. These are places where the artist and the words create emotion, vision, and redesign the world. It isn’t a public examination, but a private and constant reminder that art is worth creating. The emotional cost of creativity is that we can share that emotional purpose with other people. We can live different lives, and connect them with other people. It takes patterns, reading, disciple. It takes someone who is brave enough to write when it is the last thing they want to do. Some day, it might be the only thing you need to feel alive.

Check out more writing and ideas at www.RonSamul.org 

 


Other Articles About Writing Journals 

What is a Writing Journal?

Journal of Disasters

Journal of Disasters – Problem Solvers

 

Intimate Conspirators


It is hard to explain the process of writing a novel to people. There is so much brain power that goes into writing a novel. You have to be constantly planning and thinking. A novel takes over your head-space and it becomes an obsession. And once you write one, you know you can write more — better. It is frustrating and beautiful and it is the ultimate test to finding out if you can tell the story without looking away or giving up. With the creative power comes complicated spiritual, mental, imaginative, and ethical moving parts that move perpetual. These are just a few of those parts, but they are a good place to start. 

The Great Disappointment 
The novel not yet written is everything to a writer. Characters, plot, twists, language, the work, writing in coffee shops all seem so honest to the writer who has yet to write. There are endless possibilities to writing when you’ve committed nothing to paper. This is a visionary place of repose. The writer is all at once a visionary and a complete bull-shitter. The potential of what could be is limitless. And then the novelist begins to write. And you begin to make choices. 

In a book titled Why They Can’t Write by John Warner, he says, “A significant part of the writer’s practice – maybe the only part that matters when it comes to attitudes – is recognizing that writing is difficult, that it takes many drafts to realize a finished product, and that you’re never going to be as good as you wish.” Once you commit your ideas to real words, real chapters, real things, we see the talent collide with the dream. As far as the writing goes, you may do well for a few pages, but you are still making choices. You may even make a run to page fifteen or twenty until you hit your first problem. It’s a crucible, a test, a moment. And then it gets hard. This is where the writing begins. You may skip over this issue and write something else. But when you get to the next problem — you will begin to doubt your novel and wonder why it is all falling apart. You may even wonder if this is worth it. Janet Burroway in her book Writing Fiction also mentions “the idea, whatever it is, seems so luminous, whole, and fragile, that to begin to write will never exactly capture what we mean or intend, we must gingerly and gradually work ourselves into a state of accepting what words can do instead.” We must “work ourselves” into accepting this novel and that it will not be easy. 

I should mention that when the rough gets going in my writing, my craft journal gets a lot of new entries. The journal is made for solving and dealing with issues and problems. It really is a journal of disasters because all I do is work on what I am thinking and why it isn’t working. I highly recommend keeping one and showing it to no one. It is your personal space. More importantly, this is your running thought process as you write. In a few months, this journal becomes your archive to what you were thinking and feeling at the time. (More on journals here). 

As we write, we make choices, and I’ve used this word intentionally. Every time we make a choice in our novel, we are slowly moving the characters and the story to its completion (like a giant game of chess). Creativity is choice (what color, what effect, what do we want to say, is it enough, is it too much?). When we begin to choose we begin to resign ourselves to fastening our ideas into place. And like building a good foundation, from there we will hang more things on what we’ve already created. If your writing hold up through the great disappointment and survives, it is likely that you have a novel worth writing. Keep writing. And there’s good news. 

The Act of Writing 
In Why They Can’t Write, Warner explains that “a writer’s practice involves discovery, previously hidden things revealed by doing…. They will only reveal themselves to me as I write. This is not something mystical; it is merely a semi-organized, semi-systematic way of thinking.” And while I really like the clarity of this idea, I think it is semi-organized because in writing novels we can’t possibly know hundreds of details (choices) and concepts all at once, but pulled along a plot, built scene by scene – we can see an emerging design. Discovery in the act of writing is the lifeblood of my writing — it is why I write – to find things out. And it is completely undersold in writing books, courses, and articles on Medium


And to that point, writing produces more writing. And more importantly, the process of writing and making those “choices” into a powerful tool. I know there are a lot of writers and books that discuss knowing everything before they sit down to write. But that isn’t why I write. The greatest moments of creativity, vision, and emotion don’t come from some half baked outline on my computer. It comes from the very act of writing.  

Writing is a process of discovery and you have to be there, eyes wide open and really paying attention. You will come to see where a story takes on a life of its own, where it moves off script, where it blossoms out of words and into eloquence. You have to find it, write it, become intimate conspirators with the words. And then one day you will have an epiphany and realize, “that’s it, I found what I’ve been looking for.” You will know it because it will take your breath away, it will fire off neurons that have been waiting for a decade to fire off. It will create an emotional response. It is a feeling like falling in love, it is a feeling that you have tapped into something bigger than you, it is a feeling that you have created something new and emotionally important. And then you have walked into the light of artistic prose writing. 

Your Trophy
As a novelist there is no trophy. I would even go a step further and ask you a question that is raised in Why They Can’t Write — that writer’s seldom know or even have an clear process or effective gauge to measure their writing skills. “This is true for every writer regardless of experience and regardless of past success. There is no such thing as terminal proficiency.” Do you really know when you are done editing? Do you think if you rewrite the book again an agent might change their mind? Do you think — why isn’t this good enough? Maybe you are holding up your writing to something already written, a great novel, or something like a great novel – is that terminal proficiency? 

Look at the submission guidelines and ask yourself, am I all that? Should I jump through all those hoops to get someone to read my work? What if they don’t like it? What if they don’t answer? Is your work good enough? Are you at terminal proficiency? No one is going to tell you you are a writer. The hardest part of writing is the open ended, seemingly never-satisfied world that reads your book – I liked this but didn’t like that. It’s not right for me. Doesn’t fit. And there will be every reason to believe you are not ready. 

You are.  

Eco-Fiction and the Emerging Writer


As an educator, I work with a lot of students emerging as writers. Most of these students are moving through undergraduate and graduate courses and finding their path through storytelling. In the last few years I’ve worked with more and more writers in the genre of speculative fiction, particularly in the genre of fantasy. Students are emerging in a culture of immersion into video games, graphic novels, video games, books, role playing games, cosplay, and other elements. It makes sense that the concept of world building is an important vision for fantasy writers. With these trends, we see writers take on these genres because of their experience, passion, and ability to write alternative experience. A few weeks ago I read an article about fiction around nature, the concept of eco-fiction. And while I wasn’t surprised by this genre distinction, it related back to the emerging writers I work with and thought, why aren’t they writing about this. 
Eco-fiction is a branch of literature that is nature oriented (non-human) or environment-oriented where the impact of humans are the central tenet of the story. Not surprising that it emerged in the 1970’s environmentalist vision of the world that hearld in Earth Day and other important values around conservation and natural preservation. It makes sense that a book like Overstory by Richard Powers is a high profile title with the vision of eco-fiction at its core. 
This makes sense as a crossover genre for writers who have worked in the realms of fantasy, to move into the concept of eco-fiction. Typically, fantasy writers are really good at creating hybrid characters or concepts for their stories. Fantasy writers are really skilled at showing irony and societal change through a slightly different lens. In our time of environmental concern and activism, the emergence of eco-fiction as a speculative tool, a social activist tool, and a near future vision makes sense. I don’t think all fantasy writers should be writing eco-fiction, but it is clear that so many of the skills honed in fantasy could transfer into the world of eco-fiction. In the preface to Where the Wild Books Are: a field guide to eco-fiction, Jim Dwyer mentions, “Dana Stabenow, for example, is an Alaskan Inuit ecofeminist author who has written both mysteries and science fiction.” It is clear nature and ecology as a mode to represent storytelling is diverse. When you think about the poetry of Mary Oliver and her natural vision of the world, Annie Dillard’s vision of nature brings poetry and essay creativity and vision into the view of literary and the general reading public. He defines in his preface that eco-fiction covers the focus of Lawrence Buell — that “non-human environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation. Some of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text” Some of the elements that we would think about in terms of an alternative universe is growing. Dystopian and natural cataclysm has been an emerging vision from a variety of writers, but because of the emerging prevalence in the studies of how we are affecting the environment, literature is moving along with those trends. While Overstory is a great example, the eco-muder mystery Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize in 2018. 
Being a storyteller or a novelist is about defining the world you write in. It is clear that the escape and visionary worlds of fantasy are important to emerging writers. Diversifying the skills of writers to work in a variety of themes, different modes (plays, poetry, novels), genres, and other professional writing opportunities. This gives writers a dynamic and visionary approach to their own work, their own ideas, and the possibility of having their work appear in a variety of different ways. That starts when we realize how valuable and skilled writers can be and make small adjustments and changes to the way they see the world.  
As we consider what we read and what we are interested in writing, it is important to trace the emergence of genres that are moving to the forefront of our bookstores, our bestseller lists, and into our conscious reading habits. In the end, it may not be what we thought we would write, but it is what is important now. Check out reading lists of eco-fiction and read a few. And then think about how those ideas fit into your vision of writing, thinking, and creating. 
 
Further Reading

Journal of Disasters – Problem Solvers (Journal Series II)

In a Paris Review interview with James Cain (1978), among his conversation, he mentions two points that help us examine the journal of disasters. He says, “But novel writing is something else. It has to be learned, but it can’t be taught.” The focus being on the experience of going through the process and writing them. The hope is that you write one and think: that was really complicated, hard, confusing — but I can make the next one better. That is a hard pill to swallow for writers who finish their first novel and expect to send it off to the agents and begin their book tour. What it suggests is that you may have to write more books to get to that moment of acceptance. I know when I was younger that would have been the last thing I wanted to hear when I completed my first book. Yet, many of the craft books that you read discuss the idea of pipe-lining novels, working on a book and getting feedback and editing — but then work on the next one. 

The next bit that James Cain mentions is closer to the idea that your journal is meant to be a place for all your mistakes and ruminations. He says, “Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational.” I appreciate his tempered vision of the novel here. There is the inspiration that moves a writer to research, think about form, and finally get motivated to write. But after some page accumulation and some decision making, the shine wears off and you have to sit down and work. This is where your journal moves from a series of ideas, to a series of problems that need to be solved. Your journal now becomes your map of poor decisions. That is not to say that you will use these poor decisions, but you pose them and you build ideas around them. 

“There are problems to be solved,” is something that should probably be on my tombstone. If being a writer is about seeing your work on the page, discussing books, and sharing the literary culture — I am on the wrong floor. My life has been about solving problems. Not just solving problems in my novel – i.e. what happens next, but also solving my own problems of dyslexia, lack of focus, grit, and just not seeing what is right in front of me.  In the end we are all problem solvers, from the first decision you make in your novel to the last, you are constantly solving the problems. That is your job. Your journal, your place in the world that no one sees, is not only a place to write these solutions and connections, but they are also a place to try them and see where they take you. Sometimes, it feels like I write three novels to get one good one, meaning, that I write in my journal, write the novel, and then write more in my journal. Between cut pages, silly sidelines, writing in my journal, and everything else, I probably take on 700 pages of writing. But it is also a way to refine the pages that people will see. It is a way to think and be creative. It is also a way to generate things that won’t make it into the novel, but will come back to your writing life. Nothing is wasted. No good idea will go away, it will just be set aside. That is what the journal is for. 

I realize that I am being hyperbolic when I say it is a journal of disasters, but it makes the point that we are problem solvers. My journal isn’t for rumination, it is to solve things and figure out how I got here. It makes the point that when the inspiration wears off, the work is hard. What can you live with? When is it right? What solution to your characters can you live with? What’s the right answer to a question that only you know about? How can you live this way? When you come to these questions, you are emerging as an artist. You are emerging as a thinker and a problem solver. We don’t get a chance to watch a Youtube video on how to solve the problems in our novels. We don’t always have someone to immediately ask. We have to read other novels, we have research, study, think – deeply. And this is deep and meaningful work. And when you get there (if you are not there yet), it will feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. But isn’t this where you always wanted to be? You are a writer. And as long as you have a problem to solve, you will constantly move back to the process that has crafted you. 


Poetry Review: Before the Big Bang Makes A Sound

by Carolynn Kingyens

Publisher: Kelsay Books
ISBN: 978-1-950462-69-8

In a stunning debut Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound, Carolynn Kingyens unravels a modern day dialogue between those things we savor and those things we despise in ourselves. The collection of poetry is all at once a still life to understanding the complexity of the past and present woven in lyrical phrases, vivid moments of tactile emotion. This collection feels like snapshots across a postmodern canvas capturing a woven vision of the world that shapes a new paradigm and then builds around new ideas and visions. From lost memories to moments on the train – the poetry shifts and moves across texture, thought, and social construct like a serenade begging the world to slow down. There is something sweet, something new, and something truthful in places not expected. 



In the poem The Abyss, it demonstrates the dynamics of her language to that of leaving the reader in the desire of the moment. The poem starts with a woman who sparks Nietzsche’s warning: And when you gaze long / into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. The poem then takes its time meandering away from this vision of warning and foreboding and into moments of stunning clarity and interconnectedness. 

In New York, 
we have salves, oils, 
candles and trinkets – 
a cure-all for bad vibes, 
the evil eye, 
generational curses. 

And then develops into instances that are pulling back from the abyss and into the web of interconnections. Kingyens has mastered the balance between imposing a vision of the world and seeing it acted out unexpected ways. 

Today, I will meditate 
on Muhammad – 
the kind bodega owner 
who calls Lucy, 
his sweet tabby, 
up from the dark cellar, 
where she’s been sleeping
or killing, 
so my daughters
can pet her;
so my daughters 
can smile. 

Kingyens builds tension with thoughtful and tactile visions of a world that is constantly in flux, dancing on the edge of kind bodega owner, a cat, those happy daughters. The passage of time is measured in the opening of this poem with the “Once on the A-train,” marking the past. “Today, I will meditate” marks the present moment in time. And then towards the end of the poem, we have time pushing out in a hopeful vision, away from the void with “Tomorrow I will open my eyes …” This arc of time across this verses are a striking compass of time and methodology that moves the reader away from the void into a new hope – a “new morning.” 

I will turn and marvel 
at your eclipsed soul-body
still sleeping”

This collection is rich with thought provoking ideas that pry into the complex modern way of life, while bearing credence to the unseen shifting of time, memories, passion, and uncertainty. This kind of poetry makes it possible to live in a complicated and harried life, and still believe in the metaphysical vision of the world. Kingyens has created a poetic serenade that pulls us away from what seems random and apathetic, and draws us into poetic compassion and understanding. Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound is a stunning vision of our haphazard lives, pulled back from the abyss by lyrical vision, irony, faith, and the desire to connect.   — December 2019


Available through the publisher and Amazon.com

Fact and Philosophy in Novels

When Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina, he begins with “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It is a classic opening for this epic book. The next line is “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky’s house.” What is the difference between these two sentences? One feels like a fact or a truth from the author, while the next sentence sounds like story. It is clear, Tolstoy is opening with this for a reason and it will be clear in a few more sentences. But he opens with an authorial fact, and then begins his story. There is a debate that Tolstoy was a master of omniscient point of view and did in fact weave his own visions of the world into the narrative. That being said, when we discuss the concept of truth and literary cognitivism, are we learning something attached to a story here or from the author. And does the opening line hold more weight if it isn’t woven into the story yet?

At the beginning of a novel we are playing with the edge of immersion and there, often, we don’t hear from the characters or the plot, but we hear something that holds us above all else. A fact, a concept, a philosophical idea hangs there, and then we are dropped into the novel. When you look at American Book Review 100 Best First Lines from Novels (other than Tolstoy) most writers drop you into something that looks like story or conflict. But what happens when we are told something that sounds like a fact or truth? Are we to assume that this is the voice of the author? Or someone else? Tolstoy, like all writers who start with a statement of fact or truth, quickly move into the stories to contextualize the fact that they are giving us. Do we see them as truth or do we see them as a set up for the next few pages (or the entire book). 

An authorial insertion is something that plays on the idea that we are definitively hearing from the author. It is an idea that sits outside of the story. Victor Hugo was famous for philosophically meandering between history and the stories he created. It gave context to history and his story. It requires a trust that the reader is willing to understand that philosophical element and continue to learn facts, and resolve the story that we are reading.  

In James Harold’s paper titled Literary Cognitivism, he suggests authoritative truth can be difficult. “When I read William Styron’s historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, I might come to know a handful of specific facts about the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion; more importantly, I might learn how even acts of kindness can be cruel in context to slavery; and perhaps I can even come to know something about what the life of a slave might have been like in that era. Styron’s book is carefully researched and gets a great deal of history right, but he employs inventions and speculation as well. Without consulting historical sources, I cannot be sure what is invented and what is not. Or consider the claim that I have acquired knowledge about kindness in context to cruelty; this is not a historical claim, but perhaps an ethical one. And we might wonder whether, if we read literature in order to acquire knowledge, we are reading it as a work of literature. More worrisome still is the possibility that rather than increasing my stock of knowledge, this novel, written by a white author trying to imagine the mind of a black slave, may reduce or corrupt my understanding of American race slavery”(2). This article brings deep thinking into what we want to know in terms of facts and what we want to understand in the terms of art. And there is some significant questions if you are thinking in terms of reading literature as a finder of factual things. Tolstoy’s opening line in Anna Karenina is a philosophical statement that most agree with. It isn’t a fact to be proven — but to be thought about. 

It is through the novel that we acquire experiences and come to understand the world. But in the end, we can say that a novel gives us undisputed facts. But I still believe that we come closer to human truth as a philosophical reckoning in the novel than we do in other forms of art. We play the game of “imagine” so well, and play along the idea that this could happen to someone; and in turn we can imagine that it has happened to us all, every time we open the cover of a new book and begin a new story. 



Harold, James. Literary Cognitivism. Noël Carroll and John Gibson (eds.), Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Literature (forthcoming).

What Is A Writing Journal?

New Writing for the Hollihock Writer’s Conference 
“Your writing journal is a record of your thought process through time. It will evolve as the months and years pass, and it will become a powerful tool. Not only can you think and process your ability on the page, you can also see the history and the arc of ideas as they develop. It can be very powerful to see where you’ve been and realize where you are all at once.” – Read More Click Here 

https://www.hollihock.org/single-post/2019/07/19/What-is-a-Writers-Journal

A Privilege

In my previous post about creating Misfit Manifestos in class, it occurred to me that over the course of the semester, I give a lot of writing assignments. Not all of them are a lengthy research paper, but they are intentionally designed for the continuous practice of writing. It is important in my class to understand that writing is a practiced skill and they should be writing often. 

Yet, as I was writing about their experience with the Misfit Manifestos, it occurred to me that sometimes, students connect with assignments in a way that opens their ideas, and changes the way they see their own lives. The point being is that through a variety of writing opportunities, it is very hard to tell which assignments are going to connect with the students in the classroom. But what comes with experience: is knowing that something will connect with the students.  



It is clear that the writing assignment was a needed break away from writing about Virginia Woolf and modernism. And it was clear from their writing that they wanted to say something important about who they are. It reminds me of the letter writing assignment I work on with my creative writing students. They write letters to people that they can’t send them too because of death, or distance, or something else. Every time I do that creative writing exercise, it is clear that they have something that they need to say immediately. It is almost like writers are just waiting for the right idea, the right acceptance and permission to say those things that have been waiting there for the right moment. That is what it felt like with my students, particularly with a student who said, “This will be the easiest assignment so far, I’ve been screwed up my entire life.” And that was the release he needed to explain it all to me. 


Are we looking for permission to write these stories about ourselves? Are these stories just waiting, just under the waves of our everyday life, waiting for the right prompt or the right group to share it with? This type of writing is where your story can be a superpower. This is where you sit in class and awe at the struggles, the humanity that comes from writers, and you see something so brave – the act of writing down something that has always been kept from the world. And there it is on a desk, so common place, like a pen, a notebook. Among those things, you know what a privilege it is. 

In the Oven / Fictional Story via Technology

I teach a Digital Ethics and Citizenship course and some of the things we talk about is the automation of apps and the story they tell us even is it is merely to keep us busy. Tracking pizza is one of the apps we discuss. This came about as a writing piece but then with a little thought and time, I was able to move it into a visual format. While I like that I wrote it out first — the visuals add something to the story. The timer, the tracking bar, they all move the story along. The images and the collective look was fun to make and think about. Typically, I use words, but it was nice to enhance the story by way of graphics and design. It is fun to watch the tracker move to the green, when the whole thing goes sideways.

"Suppose We See It Like This…."

One of the most useful tools in writing is constantly writing to the muse. I’ve always been one to write a journal — strictly on the concepts of the writing and what is moving around in my head. And while that sometimes distracts the writing process, it is important to map out some of the flow to capture it and make it useful later. Snapshots of the mind can help shape and form longer projects and ideas. 

From my writing journal, I’ve been able to ask questions (existential and practical)  about writing, thoughts, and visions of long-term projects (typically novels).  This ability to speak on the page is a meandering that I find indispensable. It is a conversation with the writing, and it is there that I’ve established my personal ethics and values in writing and thinking. My journal isn’t a treaty on thought – but a vault of my own creation. I use it to remember books, write reviews, try out poetry, and even explore my own dreams. But it is always with the value that it connects to another part of my thinking. That is why my journal exists and that is how I prefer to use it. I can always write in my journal. There is no writer’s block because it is merely snapshots not meant for anything more than building ideas. 

When I was reading I Heard Voices in my Head by Helen Vender in the New York Review Of Books (2/23/17), I was slapped in the face with a reminder of why process thinking is important to me. She explains, 

“In truth, what a meditative poem contributes to the history of consciousness is a reenactment in real time of the volatile inner life of a human being. Such a poem [refering to The Preludes by Wordsworth] does not present itself as plot or character portrayal or argument, but rather (in I. A. Richard’s theory) as a hypothesis: “Suppose we see it like this.” The poet’s proposed hypothesis change “minute by minute,” and include waverings, self-contradictions, repudiations, aspirations, and doubts; they are not offered as a philosophical system.” 

This awoke something in me. As I mentioned above, I don’t write in my journal to create a treaty of thought – it really isn’t that formal, but to record the visions I see now, to compare them to the visions in the future. Keeping this record is both validating and useful as it grows outside of your mind, freeing this space for other connections. It helps that I can also keyword search it on the computer if I need to find something from the past.   

The complexity of self-rumination is a gift unto itself and that journal has been fascinating to me in that I can release these ideas. If I come back to specific ideas – then perhaps they need to find a place in a story or become part of a character. That being said, Wordsworth’s relationship with Coleridge was also something that has always been connective. Coleridge was one of the masters of documenting his creative vitality in his journal, letting small fragments and parts eventually turn into his famous poetry. It is this awesome creative power that inspires me to see the worth in this idea that Wordsworth (in The Preludes). Seeing Wordsworth as someone who is considering the very nature of who he is through query and poetry, it is very connective to the ideas that Coleridge put fourth. In fact, one of the most influential quotes that changed my understanding of literature was the inscription at the beginning of The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner by a philosopher named Thomas Burnet. It reads: 

“I readily believe that there are more invisible than visible Natures in the universe. But who will explain for us the family of all those beings, and the ranks and the relations and distinguishing features and functions of each? What do they do? What places do they inhabit? The human mind has always sought the knowledge of these things, but never attained it. Meanwhile I do not deny that it is helpful sometimes to contemplate in the mind, as on a tablet, the image of a greater and better world, lest the intellect, habituated to the pretty things of daily life, narrow itself and sinly wholly into trivial thoughts. But at the same time we must be watchful for the truth and keep a sense of proportion, so that we may distinguish the certain from the uncertain, day from night.” Adapted from Coleridge from Thomas Burnet, Archaelogiae Philosohicae (1692).*

This becomes the vision of the writer, thinker, and the creative mind. Your job is to see the unseeable. And then admit that to paper at all costs. While that may seem heroic – perhaps that is exactly what it should be, a call to define truth as something more than just what you know as fact – but something we desire, something we hope for, something that only fiction and prose can create. We don’t need fact to create truth. We need a vision of “a greater and better world” even at the cost of losing some of our current world. It is sacrifice, it is purposeful, and it is the life of a creative thinker. Poets, prose writers and even visual artists should understand this important connection, even if it is unattainable — it is still vastly and completely worth the writing down the ideas and words that will change you. It will shine light on the darkness. And we can ask that question, “suppose we see it like this” with thrilling and beautiful hope that someone will be willing to “see it like this,” and will carry it forward.  


*Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York, NY: Norton, 1993

Creative Visual Reference 2.0

Sitting through a workshop this winter, I was amazed that writers struggle to find information important to characters and other visual ideas. A student in the workshop mentioned that they were struggling to see their character specifically. I immediately thought of Robert Olen Butler and his book From Where You Dream. And in his book he mentioned that we shouldn’t be stifled by the things we don’t know – the small intangible things that we can’t name. He suggests using a visual dictionary to help with some of these issues. These reference books help us name things that can help us be specific and clear in the writing. While I have one, I don’t use it all that much. However, I had recently noticed a writer who was using Pinterest for references to her writing. And I was fascinated how this social media tool might reboot the idea that visual references can inspire us and make connections. 

Pinterest is a collection of images and other media organized through headings known as “boards” that help categorize how and why they are relevant to the collector. In terms of a writing tool, we have a wide range of purpose and focus. For example, writers might need to know “Civil War Uniforms” and collect pins to support the look and feel of both sides of the battle. The more specific a writer can be, the better suited they can make their finds on Pinterest. If you need shoreline cottages in Ireland, you can probably create a collection.  But there is more than just collecting things. Pins and boards can become relatable. 

When you see things (from different pins) that begin to relate to one another, you being to make connections. That can bring ideas together. From hairstyles, fabrics, wood joining, to dishes, Pinterest can help. And while we know excessive detail can be grueling, finding the right significant detail can carry a lot of weight in prose. This social media can help. 

If your purpose is to know the names of things, this won’t be a good focus for you. But if you need to build visual relationships, to connect ideas, this might be the right space for you. What may be confusing is creating a visual for something you haven’t actually touched or seen. For example, if you needed to know what an Egyptian bug swatter looked like, you will probably find it. Then you will have a sense of what these things looked like. It may also inspire you to look at why Egyptians had so many bugs around them to begin with. Hence, a new line of inquiry and perhaps focus could enter into your writing (dying of malaria is a significant plot point). 

Social media is typically a writer’s worst distraction, but in this place, we should be considering different application, creations, and, connections to our craft. Sometimes, we find connection in the most unlikely things and places, and with a powerful search engine, this digital tool could change a phrase, a sentence, a page, or a story. It can also change the way we find inspirations and interconnections. 

What this social media platform creates is some foundational visuals that are important for writers, but not realized by the reader. This is a writers tool that is folded into the craft and transmitted through the story and words. You shouldn’t notice specific pins or websites on the page, but the story is more informed, concrete, and subtle because of access to these ideas and visuals. 


Middle of the Night

The lines are breaking down and that means I’m going crazy or I’m humming with energy. Edges are like the sea to the shore. Rachel Carson said this boundary of sea and shore was where change was abundant and significant, where elements of land meet with the volatility of the sea.

But I’m up late not because of the sea, but because in the last few days – all the edges are interchangeable –  things falling away. Every page I read brings a significant idea or revelation, real moments stand apart like dreams – and like tonight, dreams so real that I woke up disappointed and broken… so I write. I’m hopelessly in love and have moments of overwhelming heartbreak, happiness, choking on an expression, laughing hard because I need it.

I slip between books like I’m searching for my words in between the covers of others – moving between philosophy, into nonfiction, to articles, to ideas. I can’t settle my reading. Today, I stole Sula by Toni Morrison from the library and I feel like I’ve slipped across another edge, swept away to something more. Why did I wait so long to read this? There is a clarity to life when it is free from boundaries – because you have to feel and drawn in your intuition as to where you might be and why.   

Music speaks clearly – dreams make sense, and I am so tired that I fall asleep in my own dreams – only to wake up in another dream so simple and intimate that when I am drawn from it, I wish life would disappear so I can go back. Who cares where it is and what it’s called.

Maybe this is the realm Coleridge described when he woke up from a troubled dream to write down  a stunning poem, only to have it dissolve in his mind as he was writing it down on his bed side.

Is this all just creativity held back – waiting to explode? Is this a break from reality? Or a refinement of my life? This life of being a chimera of creative thinking does feel crazy and thrilling, like I could sleep walk or speak fluent Russian off the cuff. But it also feels like power, like I’ve been waiting to feel like this and now it has arrived. I’ve been thinking about my last post and the idea of a young writer – writing because I had stories to tell – stories that weren’t being told. A step further is that this is not some creative spurt or moment – this is a refined skill, a refined moment where creativity is fostered through blurred edges and connections. And here I am a skilled and seasoned writer ready to accept all the wildlife that I’ve been looking for.

I sit here in the early morning and listen to the distant fog horn. I’m not amazed by all this and I don’t feel like this is a fleeting burst noticed because of a silly dream. This is a life that I’ve created – the life I deserve, and have worked desperately for. I’m owning it and I don’t want to go back. I want my dreams to surprise me and even scare me all the time – I want the world to be as shifty and crazy as my stories. This isn’t a call for recklessness – it is a moment of refinement, understanding that this is not only a good life, but imagine the great things not yet born by the words that are waiting at the end of my pencil. Imagine.

May 2014 / Ron Samul

Unquestioning Writing – When Good Is Good Enough

by Ron Samul 

As writers, we are constantly thinking about the audience and the impact of our writing. It is a fundamental element of teaching, thinking, and writing. It made me think, when I saw this tweet by Maha Bali, when she mentioned this moment. 


This is a complex idea, and from a writing standpoint, it is also a brave idea. Writers as communicators and creative generators always seem to humble and diminish their craft. In this case, Maha is confident and sees that sometimes – no one comments because of the “powerful”. I really admire the confidence and the realization that sometimes – that the power of writing can overwhelm. Why? 

Social Media 

The concept of finding something meaningful and important on social media is relevant to me. Online courses, MOOCs, connected learning, creative spaces — all interact through social media. For me, learning, thinking, and listening to very smart and creative people comes from my interaction with social media. However, not everyone comes to social media to find that kind of connection. 

Some people are connecting with family and friends, some are just passing by while they watch their favorite TV show, some are broadcasting on Periscope as they walk to work. Why people use social media is tailored to each person. The depth of reading and interaction really comes down to the user. And it isn’t happening in real time, it is happening along a timeline that could be shifting through time zones and cultures. Sometimes, the most important statements or blog posts don’t get the attention I think they deserve, merely because I posted them on a Friday afternoon before a holiday (fail). 


But more importantly, people are looking for an interaction that is quick and reactive on social media. Things that make them stop, think, and experience deeper level thinking, (which relates to selective solitude, pausing, and deep reflection), may not fit into the “Like” or “+1” world of immediate reaction. This has spurred the age of important, meaningful quotes on stunning images. 


In this scan and click age, deep thinking and impactful ideas sometimes need a difference venue. It sometimes needs a blogpost, or some area where things can be expanded and slowly unpacked. And sometimes, the “Like” or the “Share” simply doesn’t relate the importance of meaning at that moment. Sometimes, I see an image or a concept and I want to keep it. I want to hold on to it. But where would I keep it? Social media lets you keep it on social media terms. But when something is meaningful, we want to do more than just throw it on our timeline. Perhaps it is merely my personal need to embody ideas, art, and writing in tangible ways. Social media isn’t going away and perhaps a thirty-year archive of my Facebook posts will allow me to go back and find that poem I recall so sweetly. But I want to make moments my own – outside of the screen. I want to print them out and save them. I want to fold them up and leave them in a book to discover them in a few years. 

Student Writing 

Being a writing teacher is a complex beast. Following syllabus standards, rubrics, college standards, your own vision, and the student’s vision – we create a position where we are looking for the right answer to the assignment. Writing is subjective and I am looking at process, not the right order of words in a sentence. I am looking at critical thinking, how you cite sources, how you can create a document that convinces me. There is some excellent writing that comes by in terms of student writing, but I find that those elements are the product of good thinking, critical research, and planning. It comes from students who engage the learning process. And sometimes, compared to the whole class or the entire writing section, you have to acknowledge excellence as it comes to you. And sometimes, after two or three rewrites and a clear process of thinking and learning – there comes a moment when you don’t need it better. They have learned – they have more than met your requirements, and they deserve to stand in that moment and feel the significance of their work. 

Creative Writing 

Creative acts are a different beast. When you apply rubrics and grading schemes to a poem or a short story, it gets awkward and complex. The “powerful” concept that Maha tweets about can be emotional, formative, and change the way we see the world. That is what art does. And sometimes, from a creative writing mentor point-of-view, you have to judge something that isn’t vetted through a rubric or a course guide. It comes from emotion, it comes from form and content magically aligning to make a moment (perhaps in time if read or spoken) that matches our time and space with the ideas of someone else. 

I always question my role in interfering with the creative process. It isn’t my story to tell, it is my job to make the writer think about making the story better. That is complex. And my suggestions are never – “throw this out and start over,” because I would be devastated if someone told me that. But this “powerful” part of writing and speaking is fascinating to me. And there has to be a moment when we realize that expression and time meet you when you need it. There are so many poems, books, and important things written all the time. When I need them (personally), they will be there. I don’t always see them now because I am looking at different things that I need now. We are all on different paths and moving in different ways. We find those moments that are “powerful” because we are looking. We need to stop counting “likes” and stats, and imagine that if one person moved forward because of the power of our words, it is always… always worth it. 


I don’t think I am done defining Maha’s “powerful” because I think there is a lot to the creative elements here. There is an important conversation here in defining the “powerful” in our writing, in our expression, and in our ideas. We need to value them – make an earnest and important effort to value those words and ideas that can change lives. It may not make you famous or popular, but it is a rich and deeply thoughtful life, one without regrets. 


by Ron Samul — want to know more about me… go here. 


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