Friday, November 20, 2009

The Writer's Journal

by Scott Rhoades

I have a confession to make: I'm a terrible journal keeper. I've tried keeping a journal, but it always either fades away to nothing or I get bored writing about my life and start making stuff up and then it fades away to nothing. I'm told that keeping a journal is important and that my great-great grandchildren will love learning everything about me. But let's face it, journals almost never tell the truth because we're afraid somebody might actually read it someday, and that makes us selective about what we say.

But there's one kind of journal that I actually find useful and interesting: a writing journal. I'm still not good at keeping one, but when I do, it's helpful and, I think, something that somebody might someday enjoy reading. And if they don't, so what--it still does me some good.

I discovered the value of a writing journal several years ago when I picked up a book called Working Days, John Steinbeck's journal that he kept while working on The Grapes of Wrath. Looking over the shoulder of a favorite writer as he works is fascinating and inspiring. Watching a prose master go through exactly what we unknowns go through is encouraging.

Steinbeck started Grapes with a flurry of excitement. He had just finished and destroyed another novel about the terrible things that migrant farm workers were going through. Once he had worked out the anger and the heavy politicizing, he was ready to write something he believed would be important, the book of a lifetime. He set a tough schedule for himself, one to two thousand words a day, six days a week, and decided to keep a working journal that would hold him accountable for keeping to that schedule. If he didn't write, his journal would show it.

For the first several chapters, things went swimmingly. Sure he had pressures that might writing tough, and all kinds of distractions, from his neighbor's radio to his own hangovers, to the huge distraction of buying a new house and moving, largely to get away from that blasted radio so he could work.

Then he got to the middle, and like us much lesser writer, was suddenly overwhelmed with doubts. "This work is no good," he wrote. He was wasting his time. He wasn't a good enough writer to tackle his subject. Health issues, a constant stream of visitors, and his own doubts threatened to kill the book. But he was a stubborn man, and kept to his schedule, writing every day whether he wanted to or not, whether he thought it was good or not. He had a goal to write every day, and wouldn't make his predicted word count target in the time he planned if he missed his work. He had set a deadline for himself, and nothing was going to make him miss it, even if he had to tell friends they couldn't visit because he was working.

When I read that, I was just starting a new project, so I decided to try the journal for myself. Immediately, the benefits became clear. Like Steinbeck, I made myself accountable to my journal. If I didn't write, it showed in the journal. Taking a cue from my old track & field days, I started every entry with a warm up, and ended every session with a cool down.

Here, as an example, is one of my entries, chosen more or less at random:


April 11, 2005 9:18 AM

Warm Up:

The first paragraph of Chapter 11 needs to be completely rewritten. When I first wrote that chapter, it wasn’t a very good writing day. I was struggling to get the words out, but I was determined to do it anyway. I used the first paragraph as a warm-up, even writing it in present tense, like a synopsis. It got the mind going and I was able to finish the chapter, but now I need to redo that first paragraph so the chapter is complete. I have a few minutes to spare this morning, and it shouldn’t take long, definitely less time than a whole new chapter (which I also wish I had time for, now that I’m approaching the end of the first draft.

Cool Down: 10:15

There. I fixed that paragraph and turned it into a little more than a page. I also fixed some other minor problems in that chapter. I need to decide what to do with Miss Stern’s “boyfriend.” At first I thought he’d be the new cook, but I don’t think that’s the right role for him. I need to write him into the story more, though, now that he’s been introduced. He and Stern could make a good team of comic villains. I think they should be a little over-the-top, and should unintentionally say things that make them sound stupid and funny.


I did that, day after day, and became converted to journaling as a writer. And then I went to Europe for three months on business, and another three weeks of vacation. I kept up my regime for a while, but the journal didn't last as long as my writing schedule because it was replaced with an on-line travel journal to keep my friends and family back home apprised on what I was doing in Germany.

I never quite got the journal going again. I'd use it in spurts over the next couple years, but not regularly, and my writing schedule suffered. The actual writing was also hurt by not having the warm up and cool down, or a place to record my thoughts about what I was going to work on next or to work through problems I was having. I was no longer accountable to the journal, and then, when I became involuntarily self-employed and had to work long hours to make ends meet, my writing habits tanked.

In attempt to get back to good writing habits, I'm reading Steinbeck's journal again, and it's increasing my itch to write. Once I get through a couple of work things and have a little time again, I'm going to get going again.

And the journal will be a part of it.


Deb Hockenberry said...

Hi Scott,
Great site & a great inspiration! I've heard of keeping a writer's journal before but never knew quite what they were or how to keep one. Thanks for clearing this up & thanks for the tips. I'm going to try this along with the warm ups & cool downs!
Deb :-)

Kiirsi said...

Good advice--thanks!