How to Keep a Journal
Spelling does not count.
Grammar does not count.
Neatness does not count.
A writer's journal is a junk pile of phrases, ideas, images. Eighty percent of what you write down will look trivial later. However, the twenty percent that keeps its luster, you will be glad to have preserved. Keeping a journal is a way of mining the brain. Expect to find plenty of impurities, and don't worry about the mess; you'll be able to sift the gold out later. If you begin thinking like an editor, you will smother your creative freedom.
Often the best journal entries are the words that come suddenly, unbidden, and demand to be written down, but most writers find this experience rare. Therefore, unless your rise visits you more often than most people's, you will need to force the words out. For this purpose, you can do various types of journal exercises. Below are a few to get you started.
CONCRETE SENSE DETAILS
DESCRIBE WHAT YOU SEE, HEAR, TASTE, SMELL, AND FEEL. DELIBERATELY OBSERVE SOMETHING LIKE AN ELECTRIC HEATER OR A FISH OR A MILKWEED, AND WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU'VE EXPERIENCED. HERE ARE SOME EXAMPLES, FROM THE JOURNALS OF FORMER STUDENTS:
I watched from somewhere else as the knife's blade crossed my fingertip, leaving a deep, diagonal cleft in the skin. A second elapsed before I felt pain and realized what I'd done. A few drops of blood appeared in a line in the middle of the cut. When wiped away, they were replaced by more of the warm, red liquid. Again, and then several more times I wiped the blood before it clotted and stopped flowing.
Sunday being the traditional do-drop-in day, Barry and I went to visit his Grandma & Grandpa with his parents. (They are Barry's mom's family.) Grandma and Grandpa live on a farm and since the lane leading to their home was impassable, we had to drive on a path plowed through a cow pasture. It was snowing—the scene was beautiful: a lone farm house—red brick on white on white on white—and black, still trees, standing tall, somehow oblivious to their own creativity. And inside the house were roasting chicken and fresh lemon meringue pie, white, pressed, ``cut-work'' linen, and corner cabinet crystal, all from some storybook, some other, more honest place in time.
Snowflakes flash like diamond dust, deep snow—silence blesses the street, sled-runners fly over the dry powder as chapped-cheeked speeders whoop into the frozen air.
Dark—bows of people stretching away on either side of me, above arid below me. Hundreds of cigarette lighters arid matches flicker in the dark and then die. The audience is quiet, speaking in hushed tones if at all. Every eye is focused on one small point of colored light here two men stand, each a legend in his own right, together a piece of the very heart of a past era, and together again on tour for the first time in years. Then with a twitch of his finger, the bass guitarist moves the concrete beneath us and the night explodes with sound.
A blank page, white and narrow blue lines waiting to be changed forever. Hopefully someone will take this page and use it to change history or someone' s life. The words scratched across its surf ace could be witty or profound. They could be inspiring or sad. If it is used properly this page could have power beyond the words written upon it. If it is used improperly, it becomes a worthless mash of ink and wood pulp, fit only to wrap yesterday's coffee grounds.
There is nothing that is more depressing to look at than a tree in February. There is no more snow to trace intricate, beautiful patterns on the branches, and there is not yet the blazing green splendor of springtime. All that remains is a dead leaf or two, fluttering in the wind, to remind one of its past glory.
Yet there is something beautiful in the stark simplicity of a bare tree, adorned only by the slightest evidence of what will eventually become buds and, eventually, leaves. It has a certain grave elegance, a certain stately simplicity, a certain purity of form that rivals even the luxuriant beauty of springtime.
Arms akimbo in the sun
She stands, Proud head
there- She stands (arms akimbo in the sun)
Proud head thrown back
Arms akimbo in the sun
Upon a pedestal
She stands in naked glory
Proud head thrown back,
arms akimbo in the sun
Upon a pedestal
The clouds look as if they were painted on the blue sky. They are unusually white and definite. The edges aren't fuzzy, there is an exact line where they end. Many different ideas come from people on the shapes the clouds seem to make. It's not too windy outside, so the clouds seem to be staying in one place. The sun seems to reflect its brightness off the clouds. Some are now just whispers of clouds, traces to let you know they've been there.
WHILE DESCRIBING YOUR SENSATIONS, YOU MAY HAVE FOUND IT USEFUL TO CO-ARE ONE SENSE WITH ANOTHER (``WHISPERS OF CLOUDS'') OR ONE OBJECT WITH ANOTHER. THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST USEFUL AND ENJOYABLE DEVICES OF DESCRIPTIONS. TRY SOME DELIBERATE COMPARISONS:
The nut is hung high aloft wrapped in a silk wrapper which is enclosed in a case of sole leather, which again is packed in a mass of shock-absorbing, vermin-proof pulp (velvet), sealed up in a water proof iron wood safe and finally cased in a vegetable porcupine of spines—almost impregnable.
—Earnest Thompson Seton
Today it was so cold. How cold was it?
As cold as a mother-in-law's heart. As
cold as ice. As cold as cold can be.
It was so cold I saw a snowman
wearing a hat and mittens. Oh, the cold.
Peony in a bud vase sheds her ruffled petals in a circle, as a Southern belle, weary after the ball, drops her pink satin crinoline and delicate white petticoats on the floor around her and stands in the center, naked, save for a jade necklace about her throat.
Why Am I Failing English at the Moment?
This has gone through my mind quite a lot since I started college. It wouldn't bother me if I didn't put any time into my papers; I would then deserve the grade. But I do put a lot of time in them and I haven't received any respect from them yet.
I feel just like a parent. The words look so cute when they are starting out as a sentence. Then just before you know it they become an independent clause, which is a proud moment for any writer. But before you know it, they have grown up to be a para-graph. This is the rough age, because now the words become hard to handle and before you know it they want to be written with the family pen.
When the day comes that they are old enough to be read by a college professor, they always let me down. Then instead of shooting off their mouth on how independent they once were, they become back with their vowels between their legs. I tell ya, words these days!
LARGER DESCRIPTIVE PROJECTS
AS YOU DISSECT IT, DESCRIBE IN DETAIL AN EGG, A LEMON, OR SOME OTHER COMMON OBJECT. DESCRIBE A THANKSGIVING TURKEY FROM AN ANT'S POINT OF VIEW.
THE JAPANESE POETIC FORM CALLED HAIKU USUALLY TAKES SENSORY DATA (OFTEN CLEVER ANALOGIES) AS ITS SUBJECT, ALTHOUGH IT MAY TREAT ANY SUBJECT. SUCH POEMS ARE A GOOD EXERCISE IN COMPRESSION, AND THEY ARE FUN TO WRITE. THERE ARE RULES TO FOLLOW, BUT THESE ARE RULES WHICH HELP THE CREATIVE PROCESS BY MAKING YOU SEARCH FOR ALTERNATIVE WAYS OF EXPRESSING IDEAS; THEY ARE NOT THE RULES OF ``CORRECTNESS,'' WHICH YOU SHOULD WORRY ABOUT ONLY WHEN YOU POLISH AND EDIT YOUR FINISHED WORK. BELOW ARE FOUR EXAMPLES (TRANSLATED) OF JAPANESE HAIKU POEMS. THE FIRST THREE ARE BY THE SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY POET MATSUO BASHO, AND THE FOURTH IS BY THE LATE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY POET ISSA. COUNT THE SYLLABLES IN EACH LINE AS YOU READ.
So then, did it yell
until it became all voice?
Hollow locust shell!
On the moor: from things
—how the skylark sings!
Lightning flashes out:
into the darkness travels
a night heron's screw.
grumbling old wife—
if only she were here now!
This full moon tonight
THE ONLY RULE FOR WRITING HAIKU IS TO HAVE THREE LINES: FIVE SYLLABLES, SEVEN SYLLABLES, FIVE SYLLABLES. HERE ARE SOME HAIKU POEMS BY STUDENTS:
Mona Lisa smiles.
She is two months pregnant.
This is her secret.
Steam, mists, Japanese
Tea ceremony—but I
must sort the laundry
Water travels far
carrying life to the world
laughter reaches deep
my favorite soap
is the young and the restless
wish I had a job.
A clear pane of glass helps you see into the house
As does the conscience
Searching through my dreams
I need to find the true me
and be that person
THERE ARE A NUMBER OF GAMES TO PLAY WITH WORDS IN ORDER TO GROW ARE DEEPLY ACQUAINTED WITH THEIR MEANINGS. FORMAL DEFINITION IS ONE. YOU MIGHT AMUSE YOURSELF WITH WITTY OR SILLY FORMAL DEFINITIONS: A CYNIC IS ONE WHOSE FLIGHTS OF FANCY CAN NEVER GET OFF THE GROUND.
BUT YOU CAN ALSO JUST PLAY AROUND WITH WORDS, WRITING DOWN WHATEVER OCCURS TO YOU:
Man annihilates—woman rejuvenates
Man discriminates—woman appreciates
Man assassinates—woman accommodates
Man simulates—woman stimulates
Man opiates—woman utopiates
Man vindicates—woman venerates
Man calculates—woman celebrates
Man hates—woman creates
ONE VERY OLD LITERARY FORM (l.B., JOURNAL GAME) IS THE SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ``CHARACTER,'' WHICH TAKES AN ABSTRACT TERM AND PERSONIFIES OR AT LEAST SOLIDIFIES IT. HERE ARE EXAMPLES WRITTEN BY STUDENTS:
Cynic is an old man beaten by the system that should have helped him. His hair is white and uncombed, his hands arthritic and nervous, his lips blue, and his clothes from a time when things were better for him. He reads about relief for the elderly, but he knows better. His family promises to stop by more often, but there have been many broken promises. The only thing he can count on is that he will be thrown out if lie doesn't pay his rent. Cynic sits alone in the dull, musty room embittered. He deserves better but has learned to know better than to expect it.
Youth believes that he is an expert on everything. He knows much more than the more experienced, older people around him. Youth doesn't have to listen to his elders because lie has thought about it at length, and lie knows exactly what he is doing. Youth grits his teeth in anger and frustration when he feels that nobody understands. Finally, youth smiles at himself when he realizes that he has been wrong, and maybe there is something to experience.
Truth is lying in the corner of the Watergate plaza. He curls there on tile steps searching the crevices for someplace to hide. His time-worn garments exude a musty odor where they have come apart at the seams. His scales of justice have been crunched under the feet of careless passersby. Truth has been dealt a severe blow from behind! He rubs the back of his head. He looks up at the sun and as his vision clears he stands upright, brushes the dust from his coat, and sneezes.
Possible subjects: truth, lust, conceit, sorrow, wisdom, lie, disorder, beauty, humility, friendship, ignorance, order, sacrifice, company, solitude, work, cynic, crusader, youth, patience, sloth, play, optimist, nature, age, haste.
A STILL OLDER FORM OF DEFINITION GAME IS THE RIDDLE. HERE IS AN ANGLO-SAXON RIDDLE TRANSLATED INTO BERN ALLITERATIVE VERSE:
Oft I must strive with wind and with wave,
Battle them both when under the sea
I feel out the bottom—a foreign land.
In lying still I am strong in the strife;
If I fail in that they are stronger than I.
And, wrenching me loose, soon put me to rout.
They wish to capture what I must keep.
I can master them both if my grip holds out,
If the rocks bring succor and lend support,
Strength in the struggle. Ask me my name!
ALL YOU DO IN A RIDDLE IS IMPERSONATE AN OBJECT AND DESCRIBE YOURSELF.
IMPERSONATE SOMETHING NON-HUMAN, AS IN THE ANGLO-SAXON RIDDLE, BUT INSTEAD OF DESCRIBING YOURSELF, WRITE ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE:
Oh, lady! There's the alarm. I was sleeping so well, and now I have to go to work. How I hate to look at the same stuff every day. Light blue tiles, indoor-outdoor carpet, painted fishes, the wall tiles; this guy really thinks he' s sharp. Him and that stupid Crest. It's about time for me to retire. I just don't have that stamina I used to, and I `m getting so sick of looking at this bathroom!
Here he comes, that ol' ugly thing. At least I'll be glad to get off this rack for a minute; my neck's killing me. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot; he has to shave first. Attaboy, Paul, slap that shaving cream on your worthless, no-count, good-for-nothing Well, at least I'm not a shaver. That would be awful rough, and it would be like kissing him. Oh, God, I think I'm making myself sick.
Good boy, Paul, rinse your face. Yes, you really think you' re good-looking, don't you? It's too bad he can't hear me; I would really tell him off.
Ooooo, here goes! Don't squeeze me! I hope that's not Crest he's pickIng; I liked that mint better. Darn, it's the Crest again. Jesus! He sure put a lot on me that time.
Here's the part I hate. Oh, God! Scrub, scrub-scrub, scrub-scrub-a-dub. There's got to be an easier way to make a living. I wonder if he knows about this cavity here. I hope not. Maybe it'll rot out and all his other teeth will mess up. That would be all right! Yuck! Yuck! Back here it sure is yellow. And boy, does it stink! Black! Oh, please hurry and finish; rinse me out. Please! Finally! O.K., Paul, put me back in the rack; my job's over. Oh, I just can't wait for tomorrow morning.
SOMETIMES, ALTHOUGH YOUR MIND HAS BECOME ONE WITH THE MIND OF YOUR SUBJECT, YOU MIGHT FIND IT EASIER AND ARE NATURAL NOT TO PRETEND THAT HE (IT) IS ACTUALLY SPEAKING.
Garbage. The most beautiful sight in the world. Garbage. He loved the sight, smell, and taste of it. His whiskers quivered with excitement as he ravaged through the alley. Discarded bones covered with fat and grease, empty cans scraped not-quite-clean, spoiled meats and cheeses—it was a meal fit for a king. Someone must have had a party. He'd better feast fast before the other rats in tile neighborhood found out about this gold mine. Not that he was a greedy rat, but who shares their gold with the lowly scavengers? There would be plenty of time later to boast about his good fortune. But, right now, he would enjoy himself in solitude; for he could socialize much better on a full stomach; and this was a day he could reminisce about for weeks to come.
YOU COULD ALSO SIMPLY ENTER THE MINDS AND IMITATE THE SPEECH HABITS—EVEN THE SPELLING HABITS OF OTHER PEOPLE:
My name is Sherry. I am 5 years old. If my mom knew i was writing with a pen and not a pencil she'd be mad at me.
But I took this one off of my brother's desk downstairs. See, mommy and daddy are having a party and so I had to come up here and go to bed. Mommy said she was going to tuck me in, but she won't; she never does when they have a party. All they do is give me some cookies in the morning. My brother gives them to me 'cause he says I have to be quiet in those mornings.
The party sounds fun. Lots of people come to laugh with my mom and dad. Almost 100 came last time. Then tile maid—her name is Miss Kim—and her boyfriend Tony get mad 'cause they hafta clean up when they go home. One time i saw a policeman' s car in the driveway with the lights blinking. Later Tony said somebody got sick at the party and had to go home. Mom says when I get older I can stay up to see some people come in. I want to grow up but then she won't tuck me in. That' s OK 'cause Miss Kim will. She always will.
Hey man—what you mean I needs a ID to get in here? I always comes in here to dance and nobody ain't never asked me for no ID before. This is some Communist plot to keep us away from all the bars arid dancin'. Them Russians don't like to do no dancin', 'cept for some kind of kicking jive. Need a ID! Of all the turkey ideas!
MOMENTS OF INSIGHT
ONCE IN A WHILE, YOU WILL HAVE THE SPARK OF A GOOD IDEA WHICH, IF NURSED, MAY FLARE UP INTO A LITTLE BLAZE. SAVE IT IN THE JOURNAL. SOMETIME LATER, WHEN YOU HAVE HIT WRITER'S BLOCK, CHEWING YOUR PENCIL TO NO AVAIL, YOU MAY STUMBLE ACROSS THIS IDEA AND FIND YOUR THOUGHTS REKINDLED:
So sleepy. My Brain has been washed, wrung out and left to dry. It is shrinking in the sun.
[A SERIES OF MISFORTUNES TO MEMBERS OF THE WRITER'S FAMILY PRECEDES]
William in the meantime, has developed a fever and a cough. He has to go back to the doctor's. He may be re-admitted to St. Elizabeth's.
Sonny, the only son, is trying to get here from Chicago. He's snowed in. Kitty, the other daughter, is mad at the world and does not share in the family burden.
I am confused and scared. I am tired to the bone. I'm behind in all my work but I can't get all this off my mind. I'm worried to bits. Please, God, I hear the wind beginning to howl—give me some good news. Make me happy again.
I am never quite sure that I have positioned the ladder of my life against the correct wall.
What unworthy feelings grow by some strange chemistry into love! One is drawn to another person by his ugliness or beauty of body; one feels sorry or lustful, condescending, possessive, hungry; one feeds one's ego on another' s admiration; one loves because forced to do so by circumstance or because forbidden to do. Once kindled, how-ever, love is love, however kindled once. (A palindrome. Read it backwards.)
Adapted from Writing: Experience and Expression, David Dillon
Freewriting is another name for spontaneous, nonstop writing. It is a strategy for priming the pie during dry spells and for sustaining the habit of writing when you' repressed for time or simply not in the mood. It is also an effective technique for focusing a topic.
The basic procedure is simple. Set aside 15 minutes in which you jot down anything that comes to mind without worrying about grammar, style or coherence. Open the gates and let the words pour across the page. You will undoubtedly produce a lot of gibberish, but in freewriting the process is more important than the quality of the product. You can always edit and revise, Mt your first job, as William Faulkner observed, is to ``get it down. Take chances. It may be bad but it s the only way you can do anything really good.'' Freewriting puts words on paper.
After 15 minutes look over what you have written and if you come across an idea or an image that interests you, try to develop it. If nothing you have written interests you, start over or try a more ``structured'' exercise.
The procedure for focusing a topic is similar. Set a time limit, jot down whatever thoughts occur to you about the topic, and group those that appear related. Then, using one of these groups as a starting point, do a second and perhaps a third freewriting exercise until you have a tentative thesis or sequence of ideas that might be developed further. Remember, however, that even at this stage you are only mapping your topic, learning its boundaries and configurations. Be willing to move in unexpected directions and try not to become so frustrated by working with fragments that you force your ideas into a pattern. Better to brainstorm for an hour or two than to spend days staring at a blank sheet of paper waiting for that perfect opening sentence to pop into your head. The advantages of freewriting are that it gets you started and enables you to uncover a great deal of raw material in a short space of time.
 Answer: An anchor