AS YOU KNOW, I’m a big fan of daily journaling (that is what Writing Through Life is all about, after all), but did you know that there are many types of journals? When we think about journal writing, most of us think about a private place to write our deepest, darkest secrets. A place to whine when we don’t feel good. A place to write about that hot guy we saw at the grocery store. These types of journals haven’t graduated much beyond the little pink diary we had as a girl — you know, the one with the ballet slippers on the cover, the one that had a genuine Naugahyde cover and a genuine lock with a tiny little key, the diary that we hid somewhere in our night stand or under our pillow and told our brothers (or sisters) we’d kill them if they ever peeked into it.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that kind of journal, and I encourage you to have one (well, maybe use a real notebook, or keep it on your computer). But there’s another kind of journal I want to talk about today — a writer’s journal. This kind of journal is where you keep notes and process thoughts about that book you’re writing. Or about that freelance assignment you’re struggling with.
Here’s how it works: each day, after working on your project, open your writer’s journal and make notes about what you did that day. Record questions you have that you need to answer, research ideas, notes about a character in your book (fiction or nonfiction). Even if you normally keep your writer’s journal on the computer, purchase a small notebook and keep it with you at all times (we’ll call this the writer’s auxiliary journal) to record that random idea or thought that comes to you about your project when you are away from your desk.
For example, you’re writing your family history, and you’re deep into that part about Grandma Sue, but you’ve hit a kind of roadblock, because you don’t really know much about her. Yet, she had such a profound effect on your mother—and you by proxy—and you know that it’s important to get a better sense of who she really was. You wonder how she could have left all five of her young children with her sister for three years while she joined the Peace Corps and went to Africa to help build houses and teach English. In your writer’s journal, jot down your thoughts about and emotional reactions to your character. Put yourself in her place and write an imaginary dialog between Grandma Sue and her sister. Invent and flesh out the her history. Or write a note about what you need to learn in order to bring her alive on the page. Who in the family do you need to interview? And what questions do you need to ask?
A writer’s journal gives you a place to process your thoughts and feelings specific to your writing. It’s not the place where your write down that you went to the dentist that day, or woke up too early and feel grumpy. It is the place where you bang your writer’s head against the invisible wall you’ve hit. It is the place where you note that every time you try to write about your brother, you find yourself distracted by your e-mail or the sudden urge to do laundry, and that you need to allow—force—yourself to go into your emotions and write from your heart. Your writer’s journal might be, indeed, the place to begin doing that.
Sometimes, the things you jot down in your writer’s journal will make their way into your story, but more often they will simply inform you so that when you come back to your writing, you have more material from which to write and you can write from a deeper place. When you read back through your journal, you will discover insights, like unexpected, vivid blossoms in the midst of thorns. A writer’s journal is a wonderfully effective tool to add to your writing toolbox. If you don’t have one, start one today. As Mikey used to say: “Try it, you’ll like it.”