Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Keeping A Journal

This week I'm going to be speaking in a friend's classroom about writing process. One of the things she was particularly interested in having me discuss was using journals. I've been keeping what I've called an idea journal, a writer's journal, and a writer's workbook for decades now. However, I've never spoken on the subject. So when I was in Reading Fool's library last week and saw Note to Self: On Keeping A Journal And Other Dangerous Pursuits by Samara O'Shea, I took it home as a little prep.

I ended up just skimming Note to Self because it's about those personal, intense journals that Note's publisher describes as "life-altering," "soul-enlightening," and "transformative." I had a life-altering experience in a parking lot once, but not so much with journals.

When I was in high school, I kept reading about writers who kept journals. Since I believed writing was my career path, I decided I should keep a journal, too. I wrote one sentence one evening. I was underwhelmed. I may have even been bored.

At any rate, I thought that was the end of keeping a journal for me.

Then when I was a sophomore in college I took an expository writing class. I didn't learn much in it but the instructor made us all keep idea journals. All we had to do was write down one idea for a piece of writing each day. I was off and running.

I think the pour-your-heart-onto-the-page kind of journal didn't work for me when I was young and doesn't attract me now because I'm not terribly interested in raw experience. What interests me is what I can do with that experience. What does it make me think of? Can I see a dramatic situation in it? If not, can I impose one on it? Can I combine that experience with something else to create a totally new situation?

Raw experience is sort of static, I think. Just writing down what happened to me today reminds me of a family member who got a video recorder back in the 80s and drove us nuts with it. He'd record us at some family event and then make us all stop what we were doing to go into the living room and watch what he'd just taped. He was, essentially, bringing our lives to a stop so we could relive the last few minutes through the miracle of technology. We'd live, and then he'd rewind.

A journal in which I'm just writing about getting up, working out, eating a sandwich at my mother's apartment, going grocery shopping, coming home to put up the Christmas tree, vacuuming, and making dinner is just rewinding and reliving a day that is already over.

But a journal in which I start playing with ideas for a Christmas essay in which various family members announce while trimming their tree that they hate particular ornaments, they've always hated them, they think the ornaments look like mutants, and they want to use them for target practice isn't rewinding but living a whole new moment. It's a moment in which something new is happening--an idea is being expressed. It's a forward-looking moment instead of a backward-looking moment because the idea has potential to become something even if nothing ever comes of it.

I don't think I'll talk to the fifth-graders about any of that.

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