Monday, January 11, 2010

Do You Keep a Journal ... Or Six?

I have made stabs at regular journal-writing throughout my life, with a singular lack of success. When I was a teenager, I had one of those five-year diaries with a key, in which I poured out my emotions filling the five lines allotted to each day. But I never sustained the habit (or perhaps the emotions). When I was a full-time working mother, I was lucky if I had time to write the times of the boys’ hockey games, music lessons, and birthday parties on the kitchen calendar. I kept them as reminders of what had happened throughout each busy year. When we went on holidays I kept a tiny notebook in my purse to record where we went, what we saw, and how much we spent. Sometimes I made notes about unusual people or events that drew our attention.

When I retired, I joyously abandoned anything that resembled an appointment book. Surely there would be no need for such a thing in my new-found freedom! Within a year, I had gone back to using the usual working-person type of book, with one page for each day, times between 7 am and 7:30 pm provided for meetings, and space for Important items. So what happened?

I discovered that little scraps of paper were not an efficient way to keep track of appointments or phone calls made to arrange such things as furnace duct cleaning. My retired status allowed me to volunteer for community projects, and I needed to keep better track of my commitments. I started to use my day book as a ‘diary’ in which I jotted down what happened each day, weather conditions, the jaunts I took out of town, and what books I was reading. I began to think of it as my journal.

What kind of journal, or journals, should a writer keep? In an interesting article on the topic in the December 2009 issue of The Writer, Ann Edwards Cannon writes about the benefits to writers of different kinds of journals worth keeping. “Stay on track with 6 types of journals” advises writers to free-write, to jot down ideas, quotations, dreams, and submissions, and keep notes on what you’ve written each day and how you feel about it – each type in a separate journal. This article was also noticed and discussed on the Writers-First-Aid blog.

Having now kept a daily record for more than eight years is somewhat of an achievement for me. What is hard to believe is how my various forms of journals have proliferated along the way. The daily book was too large to carry everywhere, so I acquired a pocket-sized book to always have with me. A writers’ organisation regularly gives me a lovely book where I keep track of my writing commitments (SRW meetings, conferences, retreats, contest entry deadlines, dates for submitting blogs, etc.). It has a generous section for notes at workshops and conferences. However, I wanted to keep a real journal, not just a log of daily routines. As 2009 wound down, I spent time in my favourite stationery store looking at other options.

Many people have influenced me on ways to journal to keep the writing juices flowing. I have tried and abandoned some ideas because they didn’t suit me. Some people recommend doing ‘morning pages’ as soon as you wake up, but I get up and walk first thing in the morning so it doesn’t fit my routine. I no longer keep a ‘nature journal’ though I did for a while as a consequence of my interest in writing poems about the natural world.

I learned about writing ‘free fall’ from W.O. Mitchell long ago. It is a technique of writing down whatever comes into your head. This often spills over into ideas relating to your works in progress. This is the purpose for my new journal – a book with an attractive cover, undated, with lined pages where I can write as much as I like without spilling over into another day’s space, or writing up and down the margins as I often did in my day book.

I’m not yet in the habit of writing in my free fall journal every day. A regular appointment book still serves as my master schedule, and I can’t stop writing a full page in it almost every day like a log. It now fits in the larger handbag I have taken to carrying about with me, so I no longer need the pocket size. I received the ‘writing schedule’ book again which is thin and easy to carry. And guess what! I was given a small ‘family events’ diary for Christmas, which I’m sure I’ll use. I don’t go anywhere without a little memo style notebook in my purse, and index cards with a pen attached to the sun visor in my vehicle. I guess you can tell that I don’t own a Blackberry!

Cannon’s article reminded me that I track everything I submit (including results) saved to an electronic file. I think it would also be a good idea to keep a journal on each individual novel I work on (a recommendation from another novelist).

Many of the blogs I read on a daily basis are in fact journals which the bloggers are sharing with the world. Check out the list of personal blogs of the Chicks provided on this page. Notice that Janet calls hers Janet’s Journal. Maybe one day I will also break out into a blog.

How do you handle all the information you need to track? When ideas come pouring out of your head, how do you corral them for future use? Have you always kept a journal? A diary or log of your daily happenings? What is the single most useful technique that helps you as a writer?


Janet said...

Thanks for the shout out, Helena! I tried, when I set up Janet's Journal to come up with something a little more creative as the title - but, my purpose was to have an online Journal, so the name stuck (and I like alliteration).

I am a journal fanatic. I have notebooks everywhere for jotting down ideas, feelings, thoughts, interesting dialogue, etc. My problem - keeping track of what I've noted! I spend hours hunting for that word I wrote down, the one I thought was a great descriptor. And when I start looking, I get sidetracked into reading all the pages - then usually writing another entry on my thoughts of reflection. I need to be better organized - like you with specific journals for specific reasons. Perhaps I need a journal for keeping track of my journals? See, that's how journal crazy I am!

And any excuse to go the office supply place and buy another journal :)

Great post, Helena. And welcome to your regular 'every second Monday' timeslot!

Anne Germaine said...

Hi Helena! Wow, I shouldn't try to post so early in the morning--I'm not even fully awake yet I guess.

In every writing class I’ve ever taken, the instructor tells us to keep a journal. Despite this, and despite the fact that I successfully keep a journal for the duration of the course, I just can’t get into the habit of maintaining the journal after the class concludes. I’m not sure why this is, but I envy those who do and find it useful!

I do keep a book of names and story themes I like. And if I have an idea for a piece I'm working on, I'll write it at the bottom of the last page so I don't forget about it.

Helena said...

I love your online journal, Janet, and I love the title (hope you didn't think I was dissing it for telling it as it is). I like your approach, and you do a good job of balancing what I call daily logging and the injection of inspirational content, thoughts about writing practice, and notes on 'the writer's life.'

I never supposed it was your only journal, and I'm not surprised to hear about all your jottings. You should get Muse (or maybe it would be a distraction for EE) to index your jottings so you'd have a finding aid to save you time! And yeah, I love those stationery stores, too.

It is a bit of a switch to move my posting day up one, and we'll see how every second week goes. (Hey, Jana, having a relaxing day out there, are you?)

Helena said...

Hi, Anne. Good to have you here, and glad to get the conversation going early. Come back for more later (after you've had coffee?) if you like!

Most of the advice I've been given on journals has come from writing classes as well. As I said, some of it sticks and some doesn't. Just keep searching for what works best for you. I do believe there is value in jotting down thoughts, even the mundane stuff may end up having a use some day. What if you want to research a typical day in the life of ....? And keep on jotting down those story ideas.

One I didn't mention (my post was getting overly long) was the habit one of my instructors has where he keeps pen and paper by his bed so he can jot down ideas (& dreams) as he gets them. Otherwise those are the ones that are forgotten come morning. I have tested that one out by jotting down the times when I blearily look at the clock during the night, but have never had anything significant occur to me worthy of writing down in the dark. (I wrote a poem about the attempt, though.)

I do think there is something magical about capturing a thought and writing it down. It might be elusive and hard to find later, like Janet says, but it's like closing the door after a bird flies into the house. It might be scary, educational, or just plain beautiful, but you've got it for a while, or forever, to examine.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Yes, I'm loving my "free" morning! Glad to share Mondays with you.

I'm like Anne in that I've never been able to sustain a journal for any length of time. I wrote in a diary as a teenager, as you did, and then destroyed the journals when I was a little older because I didn't want anyone to see them. Many years later I tried following Julia Cameron's advice in "The Artist's Way" to write morning pages. I did that for a while but found for various reasons that they didn't work for me, or at least that time of day didn't work for me. Now I'm using a loose leaf binder divided into sections for my goals for the year, a "To Do" list, a schedule of promotions, blog ideas and story ideas. I also have a day book with a calendar for appointments. If I ever venture into journaling again, it will likely be something similar to what Janet is doing, a personal blog that is also tied into my writing life.


Helena said...

Hi, Jana! Glad to get your comments. Somehow, I think we writers tend to denigrate the things we are doing, things that other people might actually consider journaling. We seem to set our sights high, then don't feel we've met them.

Your binder is a practical way of dealing with some of the things that we all need to track (submissions, promotions, etc.) and should record as they occur to us (story ideas, snatches of dialogue). It's a method that is mentioned in the Writers First Aid blog as an option that works for some people.

I get hung up because I don't journal every day. But it is my intention to make a greater effort to switch to less logging to more journaling. I seem to need to record mundane things, so it's not an addiction I want to completely cure. I just feel the need to do more free writing because it could be more creative, and who knows where it will lead.

I still say -- you have to do what works for you in your own particular situation.

Karyn Good said...

I don't keep a journal - I've tried and never suceeded past a couple of weeks. I do have all my appointment book/calendars saved and stashed in a closet.

As far as writing goes I create a binder for each project or idea and everything I jot down to do with that project gets shoved into it's own binder. I keep notebooks at the ready in different places to record ideas. That's about as organized as I get.

Great post today, Helena and welcome to Mondays :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

A journal is one of those things I often thing about but never really do. I remember two things my mom told me when I was young. One was a relative discovering (yet another) long deceased relative's journal, just day to day entries of what was going on, nothing profound.. but after such a long time, the insight into that daily mundane was invaluable. A lot of great historical resources (especially for writing) come out of those sorts of records.

The other was my mom's own attempt, marking things down every day (again, the mundane) over the course of a year, and then looking back on it the next year. She realized things like new clothes for the kids, haircuts, etc, etc always happened at exactly the same times every year.

So I always think it might be interesting to keep a record, watch the cycles. I do keep a small notebook with me for jotting down ideas, but I've never been much for random freewriting. When Hubby and I take our trip, though, I'm taking a couple journals for that. One to keep on hand for notes, research, and the like, and another larger one to journal everything we do. Apparently my dad recently found journals from trips my parents took when they were young. I'd love to look through them now.

Helena said...

Thanks, Karyn. It's good to finally get started on the new rotation.

I'm glad to hear about how you set up your 'system' for keeping each project all together. Sounds organised to me!

Part of my so-called research for my NaNo novel is now pulling together absolutely everything I have that might relate to the era when the story took place -- books, letters, pictures. etc. But I also have a lot of questions that arose in November that I didn't stop and look up at the time. And I think that keeping a journal as I work on this novel would also be useful. It might be my test case for that kind of journal.

Helena said...

Hi, Hayley. Thank you for your valuable insights into what we often think of as the boring trivia of our daily lives. Without journals (or the lost art of letters!) future generations will lose that look back into an earlier age. The archives of TV sitcoms will definitely not give them an accurate picture of life in our time. Historians in the future might have a rough time dealing with electronic bits of emails that can't be deciphered by the technology of their time.

Maybe I'm getting carried away ... but surely in the future it will still be possible to read handwriting? This, of course, is not why writers are urged to keep journals (tho perhaps it is of secondary interest). No, the reason is much more immediate and selfish.

Glad to hear you intend to record as much of your trip next summer as possible. Ironically, I find the most difficult time to keep up with a journal is when I'm travelling, so beware. Do snatches of it during the day, don't leave it all until night when you're either too tired or wanting to go out on the town (I've experienced both situations!) The snippets you do get written and the pictures you will no doubt be taking (properly documented and dated) will provide a good record when you put it all together after your trip is over. So will entries in your blog as you travel -- Brit Rail has web access on the trains, and all the travel info centres do, too. Sometimes expensive, but sometimes free. (Hint, hint: some people, often writers, set up a special travel blog even before they leave home to set the scene, and for people to follow as they travel. And some people even turn them into books!)

Suse said...

Hi Helena, I enjoyed your post today. I have a couple of books that I write ideas in, but it's definitely not a daily occurrence. I took time buying my last purse so that it can fit something bigger than a little note pad in. The purse has an outside pocket that can hold a 5x8 Moleskine book, plus another pocket for a pen and flash drive. I also carry another Moleskine book in my book bag to work. I'm ready but a lot of times ideas don't written down because I think I'll remember to do it later. I try to date my entries though.

I'm glad there are people who do keep daily diaries though because I will need some of that type of info for a couple of my story ideas.

Heather said...

reading through all the comments has been very helpful. The idea of keeping a journal on a trip and another while writing each book are wonderful. Thanks for the suggestions, whether any will stick???

Helena said...

Hey, Suse, thanks for dropping in today. I can relate to choosing a new bag based on what you want to carry in it. It's definitely important to me. (Unfortunately, I seem to want to carry more around now than I used to!)

Love the sound of your journals, and I wish you luck in capturing all those ideas that come calling!

Helena said...

I'm glad you picked up some useful ideas today, Heather. I agree that the proof is always in what we make of them to our own benefit. Lots of food for thought, though. Give one a try ...who knows?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey there Helena. I've always kept some kind of journal but I usually only filled one partially then left it for months and started a new one. Quite unlike my daughter who has over a dozen filled books which include everything from the actual events to drawings and telephone nbrs.

The most faithful I've been is a coil ring family planning agenda. I bought one for myself and my sister every year for the past 8 or 9 yrs at Costco for $8. I have to be careful though because they get them in in Aug and by the end of Sept they're all gone. Then I have to go to Chapters or another book store and pay $16 for it.

Last year I found I barely used 5% of my agenda because I had switched to my iTouch. I don't delete my appts after the fact because they are my record of what I've done. My iTouch also has checklists and logs which I use for different things. And then I have files in their for blog or story ideas, etc which usually explains what I was doing when I thought of it. I love my iTouch. :D