Journal of Disasters
Do you use a journal when you are writing? Do you find long-hand writing helpful? I have been using a writing journal for a long time, but my journal is a complex work space — and it can be a disaster. It is filled with hundreds of issues, connections, successes and visions that go into my creative writing. My journal is a historical snapshot of my thinking and learning at any given moment. The more intense and focused I am, the more I write in my journal. This is my work world, this is where connections are made, research and quotes are entered. It is where I store new ideas and feed them along. Margaret Atwood said that “a ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The wastebasket has evolved for a reason.” My journal is a chronicle of mistakes, shifts in ideas, and ideas left for something else. It is accidents, troubleshooting, and complaining, but it is also the moment you create something inspired, connective, and important to your narrative. It is a powerful and transformative tool to make your greatest mistakes, and your most sincere creative moves.
First, let’s just be clear about the journal. It is a place to write when you aren’t writing. That idea sounds silly, but I believe journals are private places to make mistakes, create ideas, let them crash. It is a place to think and not worry about the world outside. For me, it is an electronic document. It is a running document with the date. I write what I am doing and thinking in terms of my creative writing and influences. It is aesthetically more pleasing to write in a nice leather bound journal and keep them as an artifact on your shelf. I have some of those (I wrote an entire novel that way), but they aren’t practical. You can’t copy and paste your ideas into your current work-in-progress, you can’t keyword search five years of creative thinking. Some even use hashtags to organize and connect material together. The point is to use a journal tool that will keep you writing all the time.
I have termed my journals and my thinking in this space “journals of disasters.” These entries are all the things I’ve been thinking about, puzzling over, and eventually formulating into creative projects. They aren’t magical at all. Some are slightly concerning tirades over something I am working on. But in the end, they are part of the process. If I can’t write, I write about why I can’t write — and do it in my journal. It is thinking and it is private. Typically, after a few minutes of journal writing, I can shift. I have written whole chapters in my journal and then copied them into my work-in-progress because I went from thinking out loud to creative writing. I also mark important passages from books I am reading, important articles, and quotes that I may need. Sometimes, I want to capture my initial reaction to a book before I lose touch with it. Sometimes, I just think of an idea and stick it in there to go back and find later. All my writing life can be connected back to this space. This is the place where accidents, failures, and vision of creativity are mine alone. Journals allow you to constantly write, constantly develop ideas, and the result is a constant vision of writing, thinking, and reading.
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The Secret Chamber of Creativity
Isolation and privacy are stereotypes of being a writer. Some of the best projects I’ve worked on have been among good writers and editors. But I think this creative journal is very personal and very private. Writers need private spaces to write. They need to say things for the first time on their own terms. If the journal is a place for your own thinking, then it should be your private vision of the worlds you are creating. In Margret Atwood’s Master Class, she mentions that “If you're afraid that people will laugh at you, just remember, you don't have to show them anything until you're ready. It's only you and the page.”
We live in a social media driven life where posting pictures of your meals, capturing social currency with friends, and making a video in your car might go viral. If you follow the hashtag #writingcommunity on Twitter, you will find people talking about their writing, polling other writers, and promoting their books. That is marketing, that is socializing; that is not deep thinking and creative intimacy. What is in your journal is a private matter. You will eventually reveal your work to the world, but they don’t have to see what was left aside, they don’t have to see your rough drafts, your fledgling ideas. Hemingway was very private about his process. He thought the book in your hand was all you needed to know about his creativity. Some writers need to create in a personal and private space. Part of this privacy is about security and risk taking in creative choices. Some of it is long term vision and developing your own creative voice.
To be a storyteller, writer, a creative thinker, you need the freedom to write in a space where deep thinking and your vision can flourish. Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” As writers and creative artists, I believe that the process and the history of that vision isn’t wasted. Journals are not for everyone, but it can be part of the complex act of writing a novel, a story collection, or a connected project. And we need to be alone. We need to define our story, then let other people influence it and suggest changes. It starts alone as a writer with a story that needs to be told.
It is with some irony that I call my journal - a journal of disasters. It isn’t meant to suggest that everything in it is a disaster, but it is a place where ideas are developing. Like a workshop, experiments fail, ideas fall apart, and characters make missteps. But it is also a place where conflicts are created (a purposeful part of storytelling), where tension is developed, and where plots are finalized. It is also a place where deep thinking creates beautiful and important moments that inspire a work to begin moving forward. It is here that you alone can find your way into your creative life.
Writers need alone time to read and think in a creative way. It can be purposeful and important but it can also be isolating. For some writers, being alone is part of the creative process. Creativity is a solitary, contemplative world. We are afraid of that word because we feel it could become a permanent state. We are afraid of disappearing, disconnecting, and losing people close to us. But that is what is required. Alone, you must find all those stunning disasters and occasional epiphanies we call stories. These are places where the artist and the words create emotion, vision, and redesign the world. It isn’t a public examination, but a private and constant reminder that art is worth creating. The emotional cost of creativity is that we can share that emotional purpose with other people. We can live different lives, and connect them with other people. It takes patterns, reading, and discipline. It takes someone who is brave enough to write when it is the last thing they want to do. Some day, it might be the only thing you need to feel alive.
Feel free to comment about your journal, writing life, and ideas.
It’s so interesting how the creative process is different for everyone! I jot down ideas on my phone, but I have physical notebooks for each project where I outline/draft. Lately I’ve been writing long-hand, which helps me avoid perfectionism in the first draft. Staring at a computer screen for hours just makes me over think and over edit. So I’m trying to break that bad habit in order to be more productive. I also keep personal journals to discuss whatever is on my mind. Having all these different spaces for brainstorming has definitely improved my process.