Writing for Yourself: The Value of Journaling
Welcome back to the still-unnamed Tuesday blog in which I write about craft and mechanics! I just finished up a series on voice, and before I launch a new series, I wanted to take a week to talk about a writing tool that a lot of authors may not have thought much about and look at why you should think about adding it to your writing regimen.
When you think of “keeping a journal,” there are probably a number of scenarios that come to mind: Lewis and Clark recording bear attacks and typhoid deaths, Thoreau scribbling introspectively into a notebook on the shores of Walden Pond, or, in my case, your middle-school self in headgear and scrunch socks funneling all her angst into a locking Lisa Frank diary. *Shudder.*
If you WERE like me (hopefully minus the headgear) and you kept any kind of a personal journal/diary during your younger days, re-reading that journal is probably a fairly painful experience. Even if yours isn’t full of pining for Jonathan Taylor Thomas, it’s probably, like mine, full of spelling errors, incorrectly used apostrophes, and run-on sentences, for a start. (Hey, my long sentences now are a VOICE choice, okay?) Beyond that, there is probably a good amount of just straight-up obnoxious content: sentences you’re disgusted with, sentiments that make you cringe for having expressed the way you did, etc. It’s easier to excuse those embarrassing entries from your really young self, but I journaled on and off through college, and there are things I’d slap my 20-year-old self for putting in print, if I could, just obnoxious, cheesy writing that I’m ashamed to be the author of.
Wow, Erin, you may be thinking. What a great idea. Journal now, with some of my already precious writing time, so that future-me can ridicule and loathe myself retroactively. Thank you for that great advice.
BUT. I have another journal from high school, a yellow spiral-bound Mead notebook with falling-out pages and doodles all over the cover that my 9th-grade English teacher, Miss Stinson, assigned us to write in all year. Sometimes she’d give us writing prompts, things like “make a list of your favorite things,” or “describe your dream house.” Sometimes she’d give us the beginning of a story and have us finish it in our journals, sometimes she’d put on a piece of music and tell us to write about whatever the music made us think of. Miss Stinson would collect the journals every couple weeks and read over our hand-written entries just to make sure we’d done them, and sometimes she’d make comments, but the only grade we received on them was participation credit. She made it very clear to us that these entries were for us, for our benefit, not for her to correct our grammar or to criticize our organization.
The thing that stands out to me now, reading back over it, is the amazing restraint Miss Stinson showed in NOT making corrections or criticizing that writing in any way. We wrote lots of other papers that year, and she took plenty of points off those for extra apostrophes and misspelled words, but she recognized that, to get any kind of momentum in writing, we had to have a place to write where we weren’t worrying about a grade or a review or someone’s reaction. Miss Stinson’s only notes in that journal are smiley faces or underlined favorite sentences or “love this!”/”funny”/”great thoughts” comments in the margins. She made those journals a completely safe space to write in, and as our trust in that safety grew, our writing became adventurous and creative and unfettered in a way it never would have done in assignments turned in for a grade.
Now, please hear me when I say, the place for unfettered, unedited writing is not my inbox. Obviously, the projects you submit to agents and editors need to have been refined and edited and polished, but the point I’m making is that there IS place for free writing, and having a space like a journal where there will literally never be another set of eyes on your writing lets you create in a way that you simply can’t replicate when writing blog entries or books or proposals or anything that you know will eventually be read by someone else. Even pages for a trusted writing partner or critique group are written with the knowledge at the back of your mind that someone will eventually be reading and assigning value to your words. You will never create the same content for someone else that you will create for yourself, and even if you never mine that personal writing for any material you can use for your public writing, the process of writing for yourself and the freedom and honesty you enjoy when doing so can’t help but prime the pump for more honest, more creative work in your other writing.
So what’s the “right way” to journal? “Psh, that’s a leading question, Erin, because obviously the point you’ve been beating us over the head with is that every way is the right way!” Very good. Every way is the right way! Buy yourself an awesome leather journal from Barnes and Noble, pick up a good ol’ spiral-bound Mead at the grocery store, open a new Word doc, however you want to do it. You can start by journaling your day-to-day experiences, but don’t settle for just a laundry list of, “today I did such-and-such;” describe what you saw, where you went, what made you mad, what you loved, what thoughts you had in line at Starbucks.
If you’re not that introspective while waiting for your coffee, make a list of writing prompts and use a different one as a jumping-off point each day– things like, “favorite memory,” “best vacation,” “how you’d spend a million dollars,” “celebrity you’d like to be best friends with,” etc. Google “creative writing prompts” or “dating show questions.” Even a trivial writing prompt can get you started on the path to some really good free writing if you just jump in and start scribbling.
Finally, make a rule for yourself that when you go back and re-read your free writing a year or two from now, you are NOT ALLOWED to edit it or make any comments to yourself. Yes, you’ll probably cringe a few times, but the point of this kind of writing is that it enriches your writing going forward. The value is in the process, not the product, so don’t waste any time looking back in judgment.
And thanks, Miss Stinson, for encouraging us to write for ourselves. And for probably trying to cure me of run-on sentences.
Aside from a handful of poems, none of my high school journals or writing assignments have survived. I think that’s a good thing.
Love this post, Erin. I’m like Loreen — I wish I still had my college journals!
At 50-something, I wish the college-age me had never burned my spiral-bound journals from high school. Who knew they would prove priceless for the genealogical clues and historical references? My own embarrassing high school angst, prolifically documented, could be easily overlooked and forgiven now that I’ve raised a daughter of my own.
Love this post!
I have a whole bunch of journals from the past ten years. Journals that kept me sane through the deaths of my husband and my parents–the years of loss. Journals that repeat over and over, “God, help me!” I can lament with the best of the Psalmists. I’ve told me children that when I die they must burn the journals, unopened, before they even call anyone to come pick up my cold, stiff body.
But I love this idea of keeping a journal that is more creative. More extroverted than introverted. I’d love to just write scenes or bits of conversation as I hear them in my head. What a fun exercise and how freeing to think that no one is going to read it but me. I can be as wild and creative as I like. Great idea.