On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing

On Keeping a Writer’s Journal

In my creative writing classes, we talk a lot about writer’s journals and notebooks.

I usually reference my own habits in this regard — I’ve been keeping a journal every morning since I graduated from college. When I started, I would fill notebooks — college ruled, spiral notebooks, fast, bold tip pens.  Then, 84 months ago, I shifted onto the computer. (I know this with precision because I start and number a new file each month. )

I liked writing by hand, but I write an awful lot in these journals — usually 30,000 to 50,000 words a month.  On paper, the pages literally mount. And then mound — by the time I switched to digital,  my notebooks had already filled many, many boxes. Also, in our Google-accustomed world, paper journals are incredibly annoying to search by keyword.

The search function is important because I want to  understand how I felt about certain events or people over time, but also because I use this journal as a tool for my writing. (And with the kind of a time I’m investing in this activity, it damned well better be!)  Although it’s true that I don’t write in my journal with the conscious intent of it being useful as anything but venting, the reality is that I often use my morning journal as a stealthy source of first draft material.

In addition to my morning journal, Evernote has become my working notebook — I write drafts in there, store  lines that pop into my mind, stray facts, images, inspiration.

When I travel, I also like to take notes by hand, usually, and I know, insufferably, in a Moleskine. (Not easily searchable, but I’ve written the destinations I’ve visited on each cover — I find these more useful for browsing, the nitty gritty facts I need for travel writing go into Evernote.)

And, finally, I keep an art journal. That’s not usually something I talk about in my writing classes, but I did write a little bit about that on Perceptive Travel. I guess I can confess here that I have a sort of secret life as a book artist. I recently exhibited a small handmade book at 110 Church Gallery in Philadelphia.

Anyway, as with all subjects of interest, I also very much enjoy reading about how writers and creative people keep their own notebooks and journals.  And because I am often asked for resources, here are a few I like:

Writers and Their Notebooks, edited by Diana Raab. A collection on essays by writers of all kinds — novelists, travel writers, memoirists, on the notebooks and journals they keep.  Ilan Stavans: “To others my notebooks might appear to be a messy affair…to me the accretion of material (In Talmudic fashion) distills truth. Truth is what literature is about: the conviction that through words, not just any words but the right words, and whatever else accompanies them, I might reach the essence of things.”

Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal by Alexandra Johnson, really gets at the heart of the matter. The subtitle: The Art of Transforming Life into Stories, with exercises and journal prompts. A few years earlier, Johnson wrote The Hidden Writer, about the function of diaries on the creative life of women, including Sonya Tolstoy, Alice James, Katherine Mansfield, and of course Anais Nin, the patron goddess of the diary.

“Diaries also chart the underside of a writer’s life, — the slow drain or premature killing of talent,” writes Johnson.  “It was Yeats’ uneasy bargain: writers are “forced to choose perfection of life, or of the work.” Wasn’t this the cautionary lesson of many early diaries — the choice had always been the perfection of life. Sonya Tolstoy birthing the ninth of her children while trying to write stories; Anais Nin, unsolicited, giving Henry Miller her only typewriter when his broke.”

The next book is somewhat harder to find, but worth it:  Breathing In, Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer’s Notebook by Ralph Fletcher is a slim volume on the various ways a writer uses a notebook. For recording slang, colorful expressions, dialogue, and of course, particular experience. “Too often I have only vague feelings and sort of ideas when I begin to write. I sit at my desk with a sinking feeling…this is where my notebook comes in handy,” he writes. “Rereading it is like rolling up my sleeves and immersing my arms up to the elbows in hot particulars. In all the possibilities that exist in words. More often than not, this gets me back on track.”

For some reason — I hate to admit this, but I  think it’s because the books of are of similar size and length  — I always think of Breathing In, Breathing Out in combination with Kim Stafford’s exceptionally lovely The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft. This book isn’t explicitly about journal nor notebook keeping, although of course the subject comes up. “All coherence in my writing begins in the ready hospitality of the little notebook I carry in my shirt pocket,” writes Stafford. “Because the book and pen are always there, and because my memory is weak, I take dozens of moments each day to jot down phrases from the flow of life. I take down conversation overheard, notes on a sweep of fragrance, an idea that brims up…the palm-sized book folded open is where every piece of my writing has its beginning. Some twinkle in the language around me makes me raise my head, listen close, and jot.”


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