When my friend and creativity guru, Stense, offered me some unequivocal advice about my writing a few years back, I knew I’d have to give it a shot — even though it made no sense to me at the time. Stense told me, in no uncertain terms, that I needed to start keeping a journal: a writing journal.
The format of the journal didn’t matter. What mattered was that I kept one; that I used it to describe the thought processes behind my current piece of writing; and that I recorded and analysed any problems I was experiencing. Writing about my writing, Stense assured me, would allow me to see the bigger picture.
A few days later, I began my first tentative journal entry in a DropBox Markdown file:
Sat, 20-Aug-2011: Stense tells me I should keep a writing journal. I’m not at all sure what I’m supposed to write in it — nor even what I’m actually going to write in it, which is likely to be a different thing entirely — but I guess I’m about to find out.
To be honest, it took me a while to find my feet with my journal. I hadn’t yet worked out that I was going to write a book about the local moor, so my early journal entries were mainly notes about stuff I’d been reading recently: selected snippets, comments on style, and so on. I completely missed the point that not having decided what I was going to write about was exactly the sort of thing I should have been writing about in my journal.
Once I found my stride, however, writing journal entries became second-nature. Nobody but me was ever going to read them, so I just banged them out, recording progress with my book, describing where I was hoping to go next, analysing the blockages. Stense was right: keeping a writing journal did help me to see the bigger picture. It also made me feel more like the serious writer I was trying to be.
My journal-writing lapsed a couple of times over the next few years. With hindsight, I realise these lapses coincided with lapses in my writing. But which lapsed first, my writing or my journal? Had I kept up with the journal, would my writing have lapsed at all? I suspect not. Keeping a writing journal is, it turns out, a major incentive to keep writing. It can also help you write yourself back into writing:
A few months ago, during an insomnia-inducing crisis of confidence about where the hell I should be going next with my writing, I suddenly remembered my journal. I hadn’t written in it for a while. Although it was 1:30 in the morning, I got out of bed, went into my study, opened up my journal, and simply began to write. I wrote about being unable to write, the things I thought were preventing me from writing, and what I thought I should do about it. The simple act of writing these thoughts down meant that I no longer felt the need to rehearse them over and over in my head, so I could return to bed and sleep the sleep of the effortlessly talented. When I woke next morning, my crisis of confidence had reduced to a mild concern. My late-night journal session had put things in perspective. It had shown me a way forward.
According to my text editor software, my writing journal is now 75,000 words long. That’s a book in its own right. But I’ve never gone back to read through my old journal entries — and I probably never shall. Stense once told me that she destroys her old journals, once she’s finished with them. This seemed odd, bordering on reckless at the time, but it makes total sense to me now. The purpose of a writing journal isn’t to maintain some historical record; a writing journal is about the here and now. It’s about where you’re trying to get to, not where you’ve come from. It’s about making time to think about what you’re doing. It’s about treating the process of writing with the seriousness it deserves. It’s about being a writer.
Keeping a writing journal is the best writing advice I ever received.
Thank you, Stense.
I've just discovered your website and FB page. I, too, have recently started keeping a writing journal and still have to adjust to the idea. Mine was inspired by an article I read: "How Steinbeck used the diary as a tool of discipline, a hedge against self-doubt, and a pacemaker for the heartbeat of creative work." (http://www.brainpickings.org/2015/03/02/john-steinbeck-working-days/). I wonder if Steinbeck would have been quite so successful in his creation of The Grapes of Wrath if he hadn't kept his journal? What's more, he published his entries as Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath. So maybe you shouldn't destroy yours? 🙂
Thanks for the link, I've bookmarked it for reading later. I'm a compulsive archivist of my writing and photography: I could never seriously consider deleting my journals—although I can see why it makes total sense.
A lot of this reminds me of bits I've read about "morning pages". Henry David Thoreau also had a major journaling
problempractice. Copies of his dozens of journals have been published in addition to his commonplace books, which provide interesting historical examples.