Bad Advice Wednesday: Tough Guys Keep Journals (And You Should Too)

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour

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Every year I bring in a big pile of black journals into my classes and plop them on the desk and go on and on about how important they are to my writing life.

And every year my students nod politely and say “uh-huh” but you can tell what they really want to do is roll their eyes and get this bit about diaries over with so we can move on to more important writing stuff, like how do you get an agent. Journals, admittedly, aren’t sexy. They conjure up thoughts of “Dear Diary” and tears over lost high school boyfriends or girlfriends, and they require that least fashionable of writing tools—a pen.

They are, however, indispensable. At least for me. Not every sentence you write can be a peppy, little goal-oriented go-getter. Not every page can go rushing toward publication. Some sentences need to age for a while, to be collected and forgotten about and then re-claimed. These for me have been journal sentences. Often these are sentences that seem pretty inane when you first write them down—an unspectacular description of an oak leaf fluttering in October 1999, a cloud that looked like a dragon in 2003—but unlike, say, the opening line of a novel, they don’t have to be world beaters. Sentences in a journal tend to be “jotted down.” The experience of that jotting doesn’t usually have the rush and absorption of writing when you are compelled by plot, character, idea. But in my journal I don’t put up walls so there’s room for all sorts of sentences: ideas for future plots, overheard dialogue, doodles, a character’s name, a laundry list. Taken alone these jotted notes look pretty insubstantial. But the value of journal-keeping is the value of accretion. Over time—often years—the pages build up into something solid, and can become a vital part of your writing life. What once seemed dull or incomplete when you scribbled it down, can become gold when you come back to them later in the thrall of plot or meter, absorbed in the work of putting a book together.

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That is one kind of journal-keeping, but there are others, too….. The best journal experience I ever had, the one that charged and enlivened my own style of keeping journals, was while doing the research for a book called Return of the Osprey. In the winter of 1999 I was given an advance, a small advance but enough (and my first), to write a book about ospreys. I mention the advance because it allowed me to focus fully on my topic, and not work except for an extension school teaching gig, and this juiced me up. A fast writer (after years of being a slow writer), my pen always revving up, I was inclined to start writing the book right away. But I understood that, given the subject, this was impossible; that the birds I was writing about were just returning from South America, and that I would have to sit and observe them, and their full cycle of mating and nesting and child-rearing, until they flew south again in late September. So instead of writing I sat. And I jotted. Osprey nests are big and obvious, perfect for voyeurs, and I would spend hours out on the marsh, fighting off mosquitoes and ticks, while staring through my telescope and binoculars, taking notes as the osprey year circled round. It may sound boring, and it was at times, but it was also one of the best things I ever did as a writer. When I say it slowed my world down I don’t mean it in a groovy way, or at least I don’t mean it just in a groovy way. And whether or not it slowed down my life, it definitely slowed down my book. Since I couldn’t really “write” until the birds left, my journal became the repository for all my pent up creative energy, filling up with notes, sketches, ideas, musings, chapter titles, and, before I knew it and almost despite myself, paragraphs of pretty good writing. Mostly, though, it filled with notes. Notes about what the birds were doing, notes about the time of day or slant of light, notes about the weather. Notes that, taken by themselves, were perhaps kind of dull.

But that’s the thing about journal notes. They are not “taken by themselves.” You pick them up, move them around, make walls of words with them, pile them up, build something with them. And here’s the surprise: used this way they become much more than what they were before. Used this way they become perfect bricks. The art of journaling is the art of an unfinished thing, a thing to perhaps be used later. It is the art, as I said above, of accretion. These things, these specifics from specific days, build up over time, and their value increases greatly with each passing season.

What I learned at the end of my osprey year, was that something else was going on while I was keeping a journal. The whole time I’d been scribbling—jotting—my mind had been readying the book itself. And when the birds finally flew off, it was like a starting gun went off. I’ve never written as fast a first draft. I cannibalized my journals and wrote the whole thing in a month.

That osprey year changed the way I approach keeping a journal. Mine is now a much more active dramatic approach. Later, when I wrote a sequel to that book, I took journals with me to Cuba and Venezuela, and excitedly but un-systematically filled them with everything I saw, knowing that my mind was doing more than mere note-taking, and that the greater benefits of jotting would come later. I did the same when I traveled to the Gulf during the BP spill last summer. While these “trip journals” tend to be more energized and thematic, I don’t put up “No Trespassing” signs in the pages. Anything and everything is allowed: cartoons, dialogue, weather, plant names, potential chapter titles, phone numbers of contacts, Latin names of birds. In short, they are a mess. But they are a mess I’ve come to rely on.

So here’s today’s bad advice. Try it some time. Buy a journal (call it a notebook if you don’t like the J word.) Then go on a trip where you just take notes, or find a place close to home to write about. But don’t let yourself “officially” write. Take notes but only notes. Let that other part of your brain worry about the big stuff. That will come later. And you may be surprised to find that when you finally turn to the subject for essay, poem, or story, you will do so with your ideas and methods more fully formed than you suspect.


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That’s the end of the post but for those who can’t get enough of Thoreau, here’s today’s obligatory tidbit. This is Joseph Wood Krutch on how Henry used his journals to create the “Conclusion” chapter of Walden: “The brilliance of that final chapter is pyrotechnic in its effect; one seems to be present at the birth of a whole galaxy of dancing stars. How, the reader is likely to ask, can any writer have been at any given time so sustainedly incandescent?”

Krutch answers his own question by explaining that the incandescence was of course not sustained, but built. He writes:

“{Walden} as a whole was a crystallization and the last chapter was a mosaic of crystals. The moment of sustained and inclusive illumination never existed, and the Orphic profundities never fell as they seem to fall, one after another, from the lips of the prophet in divine seizure. They were written down as fragments, neither successive nor connected, and they were, sometimes years later, carefully selected and carefully fitted together in such a way that what looks like explosive brilliance was actually the result of a patient craftsmanship carefully matching and arranging brilliants that had been hoarded one by one over the years.”

Which was what I was trying to say above.



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