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Keeping a Writer's Journal: 21 Ideas to Keep You Writing

by Sheila Bender

Keeping a journal is one of the best tools to practice trusting your writing and to make sure you keep writing. You can keep a journal in a cheap or an expensive notebook, on scraps of paper dropped into a box, in computer files or in letter form. Just as long as you write as much and as often as you can without editing yourself and you have access to the words you've written, you are keeping a journal.

If you haven't been journaling or doing it as often as you wish, think about where you write and when you are likely to have time to write. If this is away from home, be sure the notebook you choose is one you like carrying with you. Train yourself to keep your notebook with you. If you are most likely to write at home, keep your notebook in a place in your home where you like to sit. If your favorite way to keep a journal is using a computer, accommodate yourself by naming folders in ways that will amuse you and make you feel good about opening them. If you use different computers at home and at work, you might want to email entries to yourself and keep them on one computer in one file. There is also a wonderful software product out now called LifeJournal. If you like to use your computer to journal, this product provides prompts, inspirational quotes, a way to review your journaling each week to find out what you've been dealing with and a easy to use and thorough way to assign topics so you can always retrieve what you've written about in certain areas.

It may seem intimidating to develop the journal-keeping habit, and you may be thinking defeatist thoughts already, such as "I can't do this regularly forever. I don't know how many times a week I'll really remember," and so on. However, you can commit to keeping your journal if you shorten the time of your commitment and promise yourself you will not judge your efforts, but just write. If you are already keeping a journal, you might commit to using the ideas below sprinkled in among your regular entries.

Make a specific commitment for a month. For example, tell yourself that for this month you can make an entry every day or every other day or perhaps on weekends or on Mondays and Fridays. Write your commitment down in your journal, and then, whatever you decided, make sure you write at least that often. You might want to start the month off with an entry that describes why you created the system you did and why you bought the notebooks and pens or pencils or made the files or why you committed the particular amount of time that you did. At the end of the month, use your last entry to evaluate how your system worked for you. Decide in that entry whether you want to stick with your original system for another month, make some alterations in it, or move on to a different system. After you write that last entry for the month, reread your very first entry. How do your end-of-the-month thoughts about journal-keeping compare to those you wrote down at the beginning of your month? You might want to write about the comparison.

Next, make a commitment to the same system or to a new journal-keeping system for an additional month. Write this commitment down in your journal and then keep your entries going for another month. Do this month by month until keeping a journal is a habit.

Here are 21 ideas to help make keeping your commitment effortless:

Idea 1: A Travel Journal

When you travel, write about your surroundings. Describe the rooms, buildings, streets, landscapes, people, and activities in which you are involved. Jot down dialogues and conversation. Describe yourself in your new surroundings, being sure to show how you react to the people around you.

Idea 2: Journal Your Journaling

Choose an activity other than journal keeping and keep a journal for several consecutive days about that activity. Some examples might be: training a puppy, having a visitor, planting a garden, or searching for the perfect gift for someone. Or take the same walk on journal entry days and write about the walk each time you take it. Whatever you do, capture your thoughts and behavior as you do the activity you have chosen to journal about.

Idea 3: Word Meditations

Locate five words from anywhere around you: your bulletin board, a newspaper headline, a shopping bag, a warning label, or a card in your wallet. Write each of the five words on a scrap of paper and put the scraps in a bowl or hat. Choose one scrap and begin to write about that word. Write for ten to twenty minutes without stopping or editing yourself.

Idea 4: Tidbits, Odds and Ends

On some days you might just want to enter an apt phrase or description or an ironic question that comes to mind. Leave them as short paragraphs entered under dates. Someday you might collect them under one title, such as "Winter Thoughts" or "What My Mind Wandered to in Spring."

Idea 5: Your Writing Process

If you are engaged in writing anything -- a story, poem, essay, play, or paper for school or for work -- make some entries about your writing process. Be sure to say what your feelings are as you begin, revise, and finish what you are working on. What questions do you ask yourself? What are you learning that helps you write? What do you think you are working against?

Idea 6: Poems

Do entries in the form of poems, even if you don't think what you are writing about is poetic. Take what might seem prose-like and chop the paragraphs into lines like a poem. When you see the writing this way, you might find that images stand out, and with some editing (such taking out extra words), you could have a rich piece of writing.

Idea 7: Letters

Write letters you would never mail. Tell old boyfriends what you'd like them to know now that you are older or wiser or dumber. Tell family members or friends something you never told them before. Tell a toy from childhood or a teacher from long ago about something that makes you think of them now. Try writing their letter back to you. Make a list of people and pets and objects you remember from your childhood and make entries from time to time in the form of ten- to twenty-minute freewrites (where you keep writing without editing or stopping yourself) about a person, pet or object on this list.

Idea 8: Worries

Sometimes unloading professional worries and goals into a journal clears space for the writing self. You can allow one day a week or a month for this kind of entry.

Idea 9: Revision for the Fun of It

Choose something you have already written in your journal. Begin to revise it, imagining an editor has asked you for a specific kind of piece -- a memory piece, a poem, an essay on bus riding -- and you have gone to your journal (inventory) to find something and develop it. Don't worry about perfection. Instead, try to make the revision into something that will interest the editor.

Idea 10: Fellow Enthusiasts

Meet with someone who shares your interest in something -- gardening, fishing, knitting, reading, baking -- and then write about your meeting with the person and the person's knowledge of the topic.

Idea 11: Weather Center

Become sensitive to the weather and try describing the weather in your journal entries. Put your eyes and ears to work on how the weather affects the landscape, sky, people, animals, buildings, and vehicles. Write it so that when you reread that entry, you feel as if you are in the weather.

Idea 12: Writing From Where You Are

Write entries that describe where you are as you write. Even if you write from the same place every day, describe it as it seems to you at the moment. Things change -- what is on the desk, out the window, under your feet -- and you will become a keen observer.

Idea 13: Prompts

Challenge yourself to write using a prompt. For example:

  • The last thing I ate before I sat down to write this entry was _______ and the next thing I might eat is______. This is because _______.

  • When I look up from the page, the first thing I see is_____. I like/don't like this because_________.

  • If I could describe the place I am sitting to a set designer for a movie or play, here is what I would say: ___________.

  • Here are five things I should not have put in the trash and why.

  • Here are five things I ought to put in the trash and why.

  • When I go to the White House for dinner, I always wear my __________ and take along my _________. That way _________.

  • When the nightly news director put words under the shot of me to identify me to the people, the words were ________. This is what had happened: _________.

Write a list of five to ten prompts of your own that you can use from time to time. Or ask a friend to invent some for you to use.

Idea 14: The Alphabet

Make the alphabet your friend. Challenge yourself to put down your thoughts entry by entry with titles that start, with each letter of the alphabet for 26 continuous entries. Or challenge yourself to start each entry itself for 26 days with words that begin with the alphabet's letters in order. Or write 26 meditations, one each on each letter of the alphabet.

Idea 15: Reading Lists

After you read books, write reviews of them in your journal.

Idea 16: Library Searches

Go to library online catalogs and investigate a subject and writer. Search for some of the books. Write about your search.

Idea 17: Responses to Writers' Groups and Writers

Write about your creative writing class, your writers' group, your reaction to a writer you are reading.

Idea 18: Radio or TV

Turn on the radio or TV for twenty seconds. Write about what you heard.

Idea 19: Other People's Entries

Invent journal entries your friends or relatives or bosses might write. If you are a fiction writer, invent journal entries your characters might write.

Idea 20: Your Journal-Writing Employee

Invent a persona for your journal -- a character who is employed as a journal writer for you, whose job it is to make entries on a schedule you propose, someone whose creativity in dreaming up new ways to approach the genre will be rewarded. Write the job description in your journal. Write the interview with the job applicant. Assign this persona a wardrobe, a history, a reason why he or she wants this job. Write your new employee's entries. Let him or her react to the world and the people around him or her.

Idea 21: You Are of Age

Use the journal to write whatever it is you want to write! There is no wrong way to keep a journal; it is for your eyes only or for the eyes of exactly who you want to see it.

However you do it, you will probably come to an understanding as the poet does in Lydia Davis' novel, The End of the Story. She considers a title for her collection of material and thinks:

"The best possibility may be material -- to be used, which does not go as far as to say that it is ready but only that in some way it will be used, though it does not have to be used, even if it is good enough to use."

If you learn to look at journal material the way Davis' character does, keeping a journal becomes the best kind of inventory -- always there and never taxed. It might need some dusting off, but that is part of the pleasure for a writer who reaches into old material and begins to use it for essays, poems, articles and stories.

Copyright © 2006 Sheila Bender
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Sheila Bender is a poet, essayist, author, and publisher of http://www.WritingItReal.com. Her poems appear in many North American literary journals and anthologies such as Poetry Northwest, The Seattle Review, Writers' Forum, Northern Lights, and We Used to Be Wives, among others. Her many books on writing include Keeping a Journal You Love, A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self-Discovery, Writing Personal Poetry: Creating Poems from Life Experience, Writing Personal Essays: How to Shape Your Life Experiences for the Page, and Writing in a New Convertible with the Top Down. She is a past contributing poetry editor to Writer's Digest Magazine and is on the faculties of the Colorado Mountain Writer's Conference and the La Jolla Writer's Conference. She holds a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Washington and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Keane College in New Jersey.

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