The good thing about keeping a writer’s journal is that there really are no “rules”. How you keep your journal, what you include in your journal, what you use to record your thoughts, ideas and observations, is completely up to you. That is one of the joys and personal pleasures of journal-keeping in the first place. According to writer Al Young, “…keeping a diary or journal gave you the freedom to write (or not write) anything you damn well pleased.” (Bender, page 335) In other words, you don’t have to worry about what you think a journal is supposed to be.
Journal keeping can provide a “haven” for personal thoughts and observations, giving the writer an outlet whereby he or she can write without engaging in “self-censorship”, according to Janice Eidus. (Bender, page 69) And, according to author Reginald Gibbons, writers use journals just to “spill”, to “pour out words from one’s being.” (Bender, pages 79, 80)
Journals can take any form, and are a matter of personal preference. Some journals consist of scraps of paper — thoughts, ideas for poems, character sketches, plot lines, overheard phrases, anecdotes written on such things as napkins, receipts, and book and check register margins — and accumulate in such things as shoe boxes, paper bags, loose-leaf notebooks, etc.
Journals include ideas for short stories, fragmentary notes hastily written. Many writers use letter-writing as their preferred form of journaling, writing to a close confidant or even an imaginary friend. Journals can include anything that happens to come to mind. Journals ar not formal in nature.
How Writers Use Journals
Journals can be used to create and store a writer’s “inventory” — thoughts, phrases, images, and associations, even though they may not be connected to other material at the time they are written down or recorded, according to Brenda Hillman. (Bender, page 144) You can use a journal to get down on paper those “half-completed” ideas and thoughts that need further work in order to make sense. The idea is to have some kind of record that you can refer back to later on. Journals provide a “blank tablet for ideas.” (Bender, page 144)
Writers use journals in order to “extricate” a thought or feeling. That is, the process of writing an idea down on paper, no matter how incomplete, allows the writer to “let go” for the time being, permitting the sub-conscious to work on the idea, and then enabling the writer to return to this “germ” of an idea later on. Journals are used to “store away ” ideas to be used later.
Journals are good for “unloading” concerns about the work writers are currently engaged in, for expressing whatever difficulties are hindering the creative writing process. Sometimes just the act of getting something down on paper (or word processor) will help to unlock the next thought, idea, phrase, or word needed in order to get the creative process going again. Jounal keeping “feeds” a writer’s work.
The process of journaling may also uncover underlying personal themes in a writer’s work, themes that reveal themselves as recurring ideas, repeated words, images, or patterns of things, patterns of feeling, according to Diana Abu-Jaber. (Bender, page 1) These themes or recurring “motifs” may be material that has not necessarily been part of a writer’s conscious effort, but rather, material stirring underneath the surface, in the subconscious. Journaling helps to bring these ideas forward.
Journals contain various types of passages and entries. These can be brief phrases or sentences, fragmentary in nature, capturing an unusual image, word, or thought for example, or they may contain more complete thoughts and ideas, leading to longer passages, which in turn may lead to a poem, short story, or idea for a larger work, according to author James Bertolino. (Bender, page 21) Journals serve to “jog” writers’ memories. Journals often contain material for first drafts, isolated phrases, words “in the middle of something else — bits and pieces serving a more formal writing project.” (Bender, page 77)
In the words of Reginald Gibbons, journals are valuable to the writer in that they contain “…everything having to do with beginning new writing“, new ideas, trying out “styles, strategies, beginning and endings…” (Bender, pages 79, 80)
Some writers don’t keep personal journals, but do keep notebooks “earmarked” for current projects they are working on. These notebooks are specific to single projects — a novel, play or poem, for example. Work done in special notebooks can include “in progress” work on such things as dialogue or characterization, according to writer Omar S. Castaneda. (Bender, page 40) Special project notebooks include detailed note keeping, photographs, and drawings — details having to do with the given project.
Journal Keeping as a Form of Writing Practice
Journal keeping can be an aid in developing the practical skills of writing, encouraging patience. The process involves detailed observation, what the writer sees and hears. The ability to accurately record these personal observations can be developed through repeated practice, and the writer’s journal provides an excellent medium for this purpose. A journal can help the writer become better at “note-taking”, accurately recording the world he or she experiences, so that the process itself becomes second nature. As a writer becomes more skilled at observing the external world, this process also helps to better communicate inner emotional experience as well, according to Kim R. Stafford. (Bender, page 273)
Bender, Sheila. 1997. The Writer’s Journal — 40 Contemporary Authors and Their Journals. New York: Dell Publishing.