Over mugs of herb tea at our favorite café, my friend Anna, a travel writer, slumped in her chair. "What am I going to do?" A few months ago, Anna got her first substantial assignment from a prestigious inflight magazine. She immediately tore into the assignment, and two weeks later I got an excited card from the islands she was covering. When she returned, my answering machine announced regular progress bulletins. Then she called. "Emergency! Must see you!"
So here we were in the café, Anna twisting her cup and staring at me. "Everything was going great. And then it hit -- the Block. The deadline's only two weeks away, and I've got to make it!"
I asked Anna why she thought the block had descended now. She slapped her hand on the table. "If I knew, would I be sitting here? I'd be home writing!"
"Anna," I asked, "Do you keep a journal?"
She waved her hand, dismissing the thought, "Used to. No time now."
"Try it," I said. "It might be just what you need to break this thing."
"What's the point? If I'm gonna write, I should be doing the article."
"That's exactly the point," I said. "You need to start writing. Like how you feel about not writing, how you feel about the article, the laundry still piled up from your trip, your unopened mail --anything."
Anna said nothing but, to my surprise, pulled out the notebook that always lived in her handbag. She took another swig of tea, started scribbling, and kept writing for about fifteen minutes. Two weeks later, I played back an ecstatic message on my machine. She'd turned in her article -- on time.
Many writing teachers advise journal writing, and many veteran writers have kept faithful journals for years. I've kept journals most of my life, daily and for special occasions. My journals have been the receptacle for catharses, complaints, reminiscences, rages, and not a few dazzling writing concepts that have later flowered and even been published.
After Anna sent off her article, we talked about how the journal had helped her, and what writers can do to keep their journals flowing. Then we asked several other writers the same questions, and the following list evolved. Hopefully it will help you too, especially if you've wanted to start a journal, have recently begun, or need a gentle prod to stick to it.
1. Write by hand. I know, I know, you always use the computer. But God built into us a mysterious link from arm-to-wrist-to-fingers-holding-pen. Writing mentor Natalie Goldberg describes it in her classic "Writing Down the Bones:"
2. Choose the type of paper that pleases you most. This is a way of honoring yourself, which, after all, is an essential part of your journal. You may love a crisp, yellow-lined pad. Or loose sheets of copy paper, or an old-fashioned school notebook. Or treat yourself to one of those beautifully covered books with blank pages.
3. Write in pen rather than pencil. With pen, you'll take yourself more seriously. (Don't worry if you have to cross out something. Better still, don't cross out anything.) If you like, try different colored pens. I've often used an assortment of felt-tipped Flairs and still swear that green and purple help the words flow easier. Few of us realize how color affects us and how we can choose to use it to inspire and elevate our writing.
4. Be consistent in format. Decide where you want to put the date -- upper right, upper left, in the center. If the time of entry is important to you, determine where to record it. Just be consistent. From this small decision, you'll gain a sense of order and control.
5. Number your pages. Does it come naturally to number them consecutively throughout, say, a month, or instead by individual entry? I always number by the day only, seeing the entry as a little unit. Such details may seem annoyingly mundane, but when you establish additional consistency, you'll feel and stay more organized and professional. And you gain a bigger benefit: you're treating your journal, and yourself, with respect.
6. Promise yourself a minimum number of entries a week. Schedule them. Tell yourself that this is your time. Announce it to your family, instruct the kids to lower the stereo, shut the door, ignore the phone, the iPhone, and the texts.
7. Choose a place to write that you love, where you feel nurtured and safe. This is particularly important in the beginning. Anna curls up in her den, her small dog nestled on her knees. I like the terrace outside, where I can glance up from my clipboard and absorb the trees and sky. Later, you may be able to "carry" this space with you anywhere. Dedicated journal writers have told me they write at the dentist's office, on the supermarket line, and (not recommended) during television commercials.
8. Before you start, become quiet or meditate for a few minutes. Take a few deep breaths and look outside, preferably at some greenery or the horizon. Say with conviction:
9. Remind yourself that here in your journal you can write anything. You can scrawl shamelessly whatever's at the tip of your brain or pen. No one will censure you, laugh at you, pronounce your writing revolting, or reprimand you for using X-rated words. And you can always cross out everything or tear up the page. You've nothing to lose. Risk.
10. Ask yourself questions on paper. If, like Anna, you feel "stuck," ask on the page, "Why?" If you can identify your paralysis with a specific project, write the question: "What do I need to enliven this scene?" "How do I get Thatcher out of this mess?" "What do I need to say in Chapter 2 that prepares for this outcome?"
11. Recognize that you may sometimes need a boost to begin. One way is to start by reading your previous entry and then commenting on it. Another is to review your day, or the last hour, and write about it.
12. If you're stuck, write about your feelings. If you can't seem to write because, like Anna, strong emotions of anger, frustration, despair, or any other feeling are stopping you, write about them. At the least, you'll have gotten something down and will likely feel relief. Or just describe how you're feeling at that instant. You'll soon get caught up in this description and will probably, with no effort, start writing about what's underneath the feelings.
13. Unburden. If you can't write because a non-writing problem or situation is revolving endlessly in your head, your journal is the perfect place to unburden. As you spill it all out, insights may unexpectedly appear, and even resolutions. Your mind will unclog from spinning about the problem, and you'll gain the room to work on your current writing project.
14. Admit blankness. If you're sure you have nothing to say, that's fine. Accept it for the moment. Whenever I'm feeling barren, I remember advice I've often shared and that never fails me, the sage and knowing lines of the American poet Richard Wilbur: "Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind. Something will come to you."
15. Trust your mind and what it wants to write. Let it.
16. Your journal is on your side. Remember that the journal is your friend, your confidant, your private therapist, your personal writing teacher, and a marvelous vehicle for expressing and discovering more of your secret, cherished self.
Do you need more reasons to start or continue your journal? Do you still think it's an emotional indulgence, an empty exercise, or, like Anna, an unproductive activity that takes valuable time away from "real" writing? Well, consider these reasons for keeping a journal.
17. Journaling gets you to write regularly. Daily is best, even for fifteen minutes. This regular discipline will ingrain itself in your mind/body/psyche/brain and become a habit that you can transfer to your major writing, especially if you've been having problems sticking with it.
18. Journaling gives you practice in "freewriting." This technique, taught as part of English and language arts classes in many schools, asks you to choose a subject, maybe one of those life-challenging situations grinding around in your head. Start with whatever comes to you and allow each idea to flow into the next. Soon you'll have at least a page and likely be ready for more. This kind of writing can lead to all kinds of glorious results -- the surfacing of important events to incorporate into your latest project; a new exciting story idea, subject, character, theme, or realization; or the solution to an unyielding plot problem or character who refuses to communicate with you.
19. Regular journal entries get you to loosen up in your writing. Some writers don't feel they can touch certain subjects. Writing colleagues have admitted they shy away from writing about sex, binge eating, and physical abuse. One writer won't touch compulsive shopping and never uses mall scenes. In your journal, especially when you know no one else ever has to see it, you can give yourself permission to write on previously self-imposed forbidden topics.
20. You begin to experience literary gold. The more relaxed you get, the more your natural creativity bubbles up. As you keep writing, stunning similes, magnificent metaphors, and superb turns of phrase will spring up full-blown on the page, like Athena from the head of Zeus, ready to do battle with legions of blank lines.
21. You start to admire your writing. Maybe you glance sideways to see if anyone's watching, but now you dare to give yourself credit. You whisper, or even say out loud, "Hey, that's great! That's brilliant!" And that soaring, matchless feeling suffuses you that, yes, you're finally on the right path and doing what you were meant to do.
22. You gain precious confidence. With this newfound feeling of confidence, you'll resume or attack the writing you've been avoiding, stymied with, or haven't finished. Your self-discoveries will give you the assurance to renew your commitment to yourself, and you'll be raring to go, not only with to your next journal entry but all your other writing projects.
With continued journaling, whatever stage you're at, you'll undoubtedly find more to appreciate and learn from. Enjoy your journal. It's a wonderful tool for understanding yourself and growing emotionally, intellectually, professionally, and spiritually. And it's an instant, almost effortless record of your progress and allegiance to your writing.
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