Keeping a Journal
What’s a journal? And why keep one?
. . . a notebook that you devote to writing. Think of it as an idea book, a place where you can, for instance, list thoughts that come to your mind, incidents that interest or disturb you, or questions about the world that have troubled you. You can also use it as a way to respond to a classroom lecture, a performance of some kind, and so on. Good writing develops from good ideas, and writing in a journal on a regular basis—at least two or three times a week in addition to the other writing you are working on—is a great way to develop good ideas.
Of all the prewriting techniques, keeping a journal (daily or almost daily) is the one most likely to make writing a part of your life. Some journal entries focus on a single theme; others wander from topic to topic. Your starting point may be a dream, a snippet of overheard conversation, a video on MTV, a political cartoon, an issue raised in class or in your reading—anything that surprises, interests, angers, depresses, confuses, or amuses you. You may also use a journal to experiment with your writing style—say, to vary your sentence structure if you tend to use predictable patterns.
What do I put in my journal?
A provocative and potentially useful writer's notebook might contain any or all of the following types of writing, and more:
- Reactions to one's reading: "I . . . love reading . . . Lillian Hellman, esp on Dorothy Parker, or Hemingway vs Fitzgerald" (Kumin, p. 53).
- Provocative quotations—invented, read, or overheard; appealing figures of speech; dialogue, dialect: "'They have Irish whiskey [in Ireland]. . . . But I don't use much mesilf [sic]. I am not a hard drinker, sir. Give an Irishman lager beer for one month and he's a dead man. An Irishman is lined inside with copper and the lager beer corrodes it" (Twain, p.43).
- Lists—including sights, sounds, scents: "On one wall [of the living room] was a dart board with no darts and the wall behind pocked with holes. The lining had been torn from the bottom of a yellow Chippendale sofa and stuffing poked through. . . . On the carpet . . . was a bowl of milk with Cheerios floating" (Bibler, p. 68).
- Memorable details—of clothing, objects, natural settings, jelly. . . . thinking too of a poem about making jelly. how one begins with the pallid fruit, stewed . . . little by little the jelly takes on a color, it deepens, flushes" (Kumin, p. 54-55).
- Personal aspirations, fears, joy, anger: "I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me . . . from the relentless cage of routine and rote. I want to be free" (Plath, p. 51).
- Sketches of people, either intrinsically interesting or engaged in intriguing activities, whether novel or familiar: "want to get that look of intense concentration on judy's face as she plays cello bassoon duets with dan. . . . the two pairs of bare feet keeping a twitching time have a pathetic vulnerable look" (Kumin, p. 55).
- Analyses of friendships, family relationships: "My parents are getting divorced. . . . We did not put up a [Christmas] tree. . . . This year [since dad was gone] mom said we could eat when we wanted. But we never did. I ate a beans n franks dinner [by myself]. My brother went to drink his gift certificate" (Weast, p. 67).
- Commentary on notable events, current or past, national or more immediate: "In California thongs are still Nipper Flippers or Jap Slaps. . . . December seventh is the Ides of March. I'm asked how I can see, is my field of vision narrowed?" (Watanabe, p. 70).
- Possibilities for adventure, exploration, conflict: "Today in class Dudley said he's 'tired of racial issues in class. ' Well—if he's tired of them, hwo does he think I feel? For years I have been the only Black (or at most one of two or three) in class and I have had to deal with white negativism towards Blacks" (Coles, p. 68).
- Jokes, anecdotes, and humorous situations, characters, comic mannerisms, punch lines, provocative settings: "Stopped at Arkansas City April 24. This is a Hell of a place. One or two streets full of mud; 19 different stenches at the same time. A thriving place nevertheless" (Twain, p.49).
- Rough drafts of writing in progress, analyses of one's writing, ideas and plans for future writing: "a lovely work eve last eve in which I finished 1st draft of apddock poem tho by cold light of day think it turns too harshly & needs a slower transition" (Kumin, p. 59).