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

 

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. 


Journal of Disasters

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

"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