Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Keeping a Writer’s Journal

I have kept journals for many decades. Even before my creative writing professors encouraged me to keep them, I kept writer’s journals after reading that writers I respected, such as Virginia Woolf and Madeleine L’Engle, had kept writer’s journals. I have stacks and stacks of them, and periodically I wade through years of them, reading and mining for ideas and memories
You will notice I did not say I’ve kept diaries. A diary is an account of your day-to-day activities. A writer’s journal is the artist’s sketchbook of a writer. It holds the raw material, the thinking on paper, that goes into learning how to write better and into creating minor and major projects.

A writer’s journal may have accounts of daily activities in it, along with discussions of current events, descriptions of the striking woman seen at the coffee shop, the idea for a new novel, the first few paragraphs of a short story, lines or whole stanzas of a poem, descriptions of the sound water makes dripping from trees into a fountain at the park, pages of location or historical research, a scary near-miss turned by what-if into the germ of a story or novel, lists of words I love, scenes recaptured from my childhood or other past moments, and much, much more. Writing exercises. Lists of possible titles. The initial sketches of characters. Accounts of dreams. Rants and complaints and a good bit of whining, as well.

Now, I also keep computer journals as I write each novel. This is where I go deeper into character, work out plotting difficulties, set myself goals for the next chapter or section of the book, and keep track of things that impinge on the writing of the book. Older versions of this are what I turn to when I need to find out how long I think it will take me to complete some phase of the new book. Also, it’s where I look for encouragement when going through tough times on a book. I almost always find I’ve made it through something similar before. I keep my journals in bound books between novels and in addition to the novel journals kept on the computer.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found ideas or characters or settings for stories, poems, and books while going back through these journals—or found ideas that connect with other ideas I have to complete the concept for a novel or poem. Also, as I look through them, I can see on the page how my writing has improved over the years. I consider these journals necessities for my continuing growth as a writer. Just as a musician continues practicing the scales and more ambitious exercises daily, just as a painter continues sketching constantly, I keep opening my journal and writing down a description or an idea or a question I’m wrestling with or a character I’m exploring. Madeleine L’Engle called her journal work her “five-finger exercises.”

I often tell young students to keep journals, even if they don’t want to become writers. I believe it will help them navigate the fraught waters of adolescence. I know it helped me come to terms with a damaging, abusive childhood and write my way out of the anger, pain, fear, and shame it engendered in me. I’ve used journaling as an effective therapeutic technique with incarcerated youth, and I believe it’s something anyone can do to help them work their way through emotional pain and problems.
I have plain spiral notebooks, composition books, three-ring binders, and an assortment of bound books of many sizes and appearances. I have heard some people say they could never write in a really beautiful bound book because it would intimidate them, but I write even in the gorgeous handmade ones friends and family give me as luscious gifts. The act of writing is what keeps me from becoming too intimidated to write.

If you’re a writer, do you keep journals? In notebooks or on the computer or both? And if you’re not a writer, have you used a journal before to work through thorny issues?


  1. I kept a journal all through college and 9 years of graduate school. I developed the habit, because I hated taking notes. A professor, now a good friend, asked if he could give me an oral exam because he said I did so much better than any of the other students and, he noticed, I did not take notes. In defense I told him I recorded the lectures.

    After that humiliation I started to pretend to take notes while journaling instead. My journaling became more important to me than my studies. When I go back and look at the entries in my old spiral notebooks I don't recognize the writing as my own. It is though, because only I know some of the things that I have written down in my garage. Some notebooks read more like stories or books. I'm not sure where my mind was all those years in school. I wonder now why I hadn't studied literature or writing.

  2. Aaagghh! I can't stand it when faculty do things like that. As if everyone learns the same way.

    Obviously, your brain knew you were a writer, even if you didn't at that time, Reine. :-)


  3. I have kept journals off and on since I was just a kid. The last time we moved, I spent an afternoon reading the thoughts of my fourth-grade self instead of packing. It's hard to believe sometimes that I'm the same person. Or that soooo much time has passed!

  4. Ha, Julie! About ten years back, I reconnected with my aunt and uncle with whom I'd lived when young. My aunt, bless her heart, had saved my diary from the year I was thirteen for me, among other things. It was one of those key-lock page-a-day things. Reading through it, I was surprised to see how much of it was about boys. Hadn't realized how soon I'd fallen into that trap! And soooo long ago, yes!

  5. My journal is a place where I give myself permission to write anything with no quality control at all. It's like walking on a treadmill. And it yields similar life-sustaining benefits. When a week has gone by and I haven't written in my journal at all, I know life is out of balance.

  6. Yes, Ben, anytime I haven't written in one journal or another for some time, I know I'm in trouble. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Like Ben, no quality control is important to me too and makes it do big things for me.

  8. Yes, Reine, that's the great thing about journals. They're for practice. No one ever needs to see what we write there.

  9. I kept a journal for decades before the advent of Facebook and blogs, but find it difficult to sit down and write on paper nowadays. Somehow the instant publishing of opinions and observations on the net has taken away the urgency to note it down.

    I remember one writer telling us not to describe a plot in detail to friends because it would remove the urge to write. Maybe he had a point.

  10. He absolutely had a good point, Michael. That's why I seldom talk in any detail in conversation or blogs about what I'm currently writing--it's too easy to lose the momentum and drive to write it.

    Try using your journal for writing exercises, the kind of fragmentary writing to capture sensory details or description of body language that you wouldn't put on a blog or Facebook because it's too fragmentary to interest others.

    Best of luck!

  11. I'm appreciating all of these comments and suggestions. Michael's comment today is a very important idea and clue to some of the things that might get in the way of writing.

    I try to write on all the topics I have in mind for the day before I comment on blogs. That is why so many of my comments are very early. I often stay up late writing and then see if my favorite bloggers have anything new to read.

    I'm not as good with that on Facebook, so I trying to find more ways to keep Facebook from tempting me. Shutting off notifications will help. Keeping Facebook from opening when I turn on my computer will also help... why does this make me feel slightly panicky? :-)

  12. I know, Reine. I have to shut off the internet entirely now, so I can write today's pages on the new book. No other way to get it done.

  13. I've kept a journal since middle school and would dearly love to have some of those early ones around. Decades later, I still keep a journal. It calms me and helps put my mind in gear. I also do a lot of prewriting or "deep background" on my characters and settings in the journal along with personal rants and whatever else is going on in my world. I've found some great story ideas sitting in journals several years old. Hubby complains, but I keep them. :)

  14. Yes, I have always kept a Journal of my everyday life. I also keep an online Writer's Journal and also keep one on OneNote, which I have divided into sections...one for characters, another one for Ideas, another one for poetry and a Notes section.