Sometimes at night I sit in front of the TV and I don’t have the energy to watch anything more than a thirty-minute sitcom, or a singing reality show, which I can digest in small bites and turn off when I get bored. Because the mental effort of engaging with a longer story takes too much effort.
Watching a story takes effort.
Sometimes I get in bed at night and read one page before my book falls out of my hands and clatters to the floor. It’s not even that I don’t like the book—it’s just that I’m tired and want to go to sleep.
Reading a story takes effort.
Sometimes I don’t think I have it in me to write. It is so much easier to consume words rather than create them myself. So off I go to wander aimlessly around the internet, which mostly involves sort-of, kind-of word consuming.
Writing a story takes effort.
Here’s the moral: anything to do with story takes effort. Studies show that you use more of your brain when listening to a story, and I surmise that the same holds true for reading a story and writing one as well. The more tension in a story, the more you’ll pay attention, the more you pay attention, the more you’ll feel the emotion of the characters in the story, and the more you feel the emotion, the more likely you’ll be to mimic the behavior of the characters in the story afterwards. Which kind of goes to show why everything to do with story takes such effort. It’s almost as if we’re living it ourselves as we watch, read, or write a story.
Because story changes us. Never forget that you wield that power as you write. I don’t know about you but knowing that motivates me to write. It motivates me to open the computer on days I don’t feel like it, to spend the time it takes to get a story onto the page. To make the effort. Because I can’t think of anything more powerful than the ability to change a person’s life with the words you write. Can you?
And so, truly, story is worth the effort.
Here’s a related prompt for you:
The story begins when….
(Remember, just use the prompt as a starting point. And you don’t have to take it literally.)
And if you would like to study story through the lens of the five senses, consider coming to Astoria, Oregon, for a winter workshop! We’ll be offering a week-long writing workshop in fun, funky and eclectic Astoria, Oregon, the first week in February. Great seafood, fun shops, a week devoted to writing and writerly camaraderie. We’re so excited, and we’ve already had several sign-ups. Space is limited, so check it out soon! You can read all about it here.
It was this: make your reader feel the emotion, not just your character.
Simple piece of advice, and yet it was halfway mind-blowing, mostly because I could see in many books I’d read lately where the reverse of this applied. In other words, just because you, or any other author, feel the emotion, doesn’t mean readers do. I thought of so many novels that had fallen flat for me and realized that this was the diagnosis.
The remedy for this is manifold, and encompasses many of the old familiar writing recommendations. However, as with so many things, viewing these old tenets through a new lens can make them more meaningful.
So how do you ensure that your reader as well as your writer feel emotion? Here are some suggestions.
–Show don’t tell. Yes, I know you’ve heard this one before, probably a million times. But it is so often repeated because showing brings a story to life and makes us relate to the character. Showing makes it much easy to be certain your reader is feeling the same emotion you do. Most often, this means writing in scene. Narrative summary most definitely has its place, but the bulk of your writing should be in scene.
–Use character types. Make your character sympathetic, or conversely, unsympathetic. Either extreme will arouse emotion in the reader. Classic ways to make a character sympathetic include making them unjustly accused of something, making them good at something, making them physically attractive, make them actively trying to achieve their goal, make them sacrifice for another, make them courageous.
–Rely on the power of character wants, needs, and fears. This technique has to do with motivating your character from the get-go. What motivates her? What does he want? What keeps her awake at night? Answer those questions–and then put your character in action to deal with her wants and needs and fears. A passive character will arouse very little emotion in the reader, just as a passive person often arouses very little interest in real life.
–Remember style. Word choice is important! And so is sentence structure and grammar. Don’t use gentle, serene words to describe a character’s anger and don’t indulge in long, flowery sentences to evoke it, either. Neither will get your reader actually feeling the anger. Instead ,you’ll probably get him to close the book and wander away
–Ladle on the conflict. Always easier said than done. We fall in love with our characters and hate to torture them. But torture them we must. Because, there is no story without conflict. And whether you realize it or not, the books that keep you turning pages are the ones that create tons of conflict–whether it is emotional or otherwise.
Again, none of this is probably terribly new for you, right? But think about each point specifically in terms of how you can ensure the reader is feeling the emotion. Question yourself: is it just thinking this is a good idea for your character? Is it possible it is just you who is feeling the emotion? Are you going deep enough to make the reader feel it, too?
I know this is something I’m going to be paying a lot more attention to in the future. Let me know if it resonates for you.
Last weekend, I hit a creative wall. It wasn’t full-blown writer’s block, mind you, but a wall. Maybe a half-wall. I’d been working steadily and strongly all week on a couple of chapters and finished them. That got me to a natural stopping place before the next action began.
Only problem was, I wasn’t sure of what that next action might be.
It’s easy for me to tell when I’ve hit a wall because of a couple things: First, I’m resistant to sitting down at the computer or page. And second, I’m not thinking of the work much. Not connecting with it mentally in odd moments throughout the day, as I usually do.
And when that happens, the forward progress stops.
And let’s just pause here and remember: writing is hard work. Committing to any kind of writing project is challenging. It is also exhilarating, engaging and exciting. But those things are challenging to manage, too. So: hard work. Give yourself a break, okay?
That’s recommendation one for what to do when the creative wall hits. Take a break. Go relax and do something that refills the well. NOTE: generally wandering about on the internet or checking email does not count as refilling the well. Neither does scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. I’m talking about doing something that inspires, energizes or relaxes you.
You might be familiar with a more formal version of this concept from Julia Cameron’s, The Artist’s Way. She calls it an artist’s date, and recommends you do it once a week, by yourself. I’ve always had a bit of a hard time with this concept, mostly because it adds one more thing to a burgeoning to-do list and I risk feeling guilty about it if I don’t do it. Then it’s not rejuvenating, it is guilt inducing.
But you can do a mini-version of it without making a big production about it. Depending on what you enjoy, pick up a pencil and draw. Bust out the watercolors (maybe your kids have some you could borrow?) Pick up your knitting. Plan a garden. Bake a cake. Cook a gourmet meal. Go for a walk to the park. Swing on the swings. Read a book, or leaf through a magazine.
The point is to indulge in some intentional relaxation, doing things that make you happy. (And note I’m not including watching movies or TV on this list. Yes, I realize you might find it relaxing, but I’d guess you take plenty of time for all kinds of screen time already. Just saying.)
But, here’s the deal. (And this is why I often don’t allow myself to relax.) Don’t let all this intentional relaxation go too far. Because if you do, it can quickly turn into a full-blown block. So that’s recommendation two: don’t indulge in this creative-wall-relaxation for too long.
Which brings us to recommendation three, which is to force the issue. Sometimes you have to twist yourself back into the writing flow, that’s all there is to it. Give yourself some good old-fashioned tough love to get yourself back into it.
Here are some things to try:
—Free writing to prompts.You can take a prompt from your WIP if you like, or use a line of poetry, or search the archives on this blog (see tags on the right column) to find some. Set yourself a timer for 15 minutes and go to it.
–Mind-mapping, which, as you likely know, is a right-brained way to outline.
–Meditation. Quit your bitching and just do it (she said to herself as well as everyone else). It will free your brain and open you to new ideas.
–Journal. Because getting your whiney crap thoughts down on paper is always a good idea.
–Read. Something, anything. Words in, words out. Sometimes reading a novel or memoir or short story will give you an idea that will get you started again.
And then, of course, if none of these work, then go back to recommendation one and start over again. Just remember not to give up. Because you really, really, really do not want this brief interlude to turn into a long bout of writer’s block.
Good luck. Let me know how it works out for you. Leave a comment!
If there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s that not all techniques work for every writer. Not only that, but what works for one writer one time may not work the next time. The system you use to write your novel the first time out just doesn’t fit the next time out. The way you wrote your article, following a template you thought you’d always use, suddenly doesn’t work. Or any of a million variations on those themes.
And yet, if you’re anything like me, you might keep trying to do things the old, tried and true way. Because it worked once, so why shouldn’t it work again? (Because the muse is a mysterious and fickle creature, that’s why, but we forget this.) And you may also be as resistant to change as I am. But recently I’ve had an experience that is earth-shattering in its importance.
Ready for it?
I’m no longer exclusively writing my novel chronologically.
Let’s back up a bit. I’ve called myself a plotter (one who plans ahead) for years, but I’ve come to realize that I’m really more of a pantser (a writer who flies by the seat of her pants). I like a loose outline so I have an idea where I’m going, but if I get too technical, I’ll get bored. Be that as it may, I’ve been a strict chronological writer with every novel I’ve written. I tell myself it’s because one scene has to flow naturally from another. I need to know what’s come before so I can figure out what to write in the future. Right?
But two classes I’ve taken are changing that. The first class I took last spring, and it was called Write Better Faster by R.L.Syme (highly recommended). The class takes the approach that we are all different (duh) so accordingly, different writing processes will work differently for each of us. I learned a lot from that class but my two biggest takeaways are that A. I am an external processor (which is why I like to talk out loud to myself) and B. I learn and create from the middle. Pantsers, unite! I really am one of you! And I can finally say goodbye to slavishly trying to fit my scenes into a precise order dictated by some structure expert who has probably never written a novel in his life.
Class #2 I’m in the middle of, and it is called the Devoted Writer, taught by Cynthia Morris. Cynthia emphasizes fun things like free writing (set a timer, and write without stopping) and mind mapping (a right-brained style of outlining), both of which I’ve used to varying degrees of success. But, I’m telling you, I have now drunk the Kool-aid big time. I’m a convert. I’m using mind mapping and free writing for everything I write, including this newsletter.
As I was working on my novel the other day, an idea for a new scene popped into my head. I duly made notes about it, as I do, but the feeling I needed to work on it would not go away. “But it’s not in order,” I cried. “Tough,” I answered back. “Do it anyway.” And so, I did. You might have felt the thunder rumbling and the earth shaking, so big a departure this was for me. It feels very freeing, and also a little scary. Lighting out for new territory!
So I’m starting to take a look at all the ways I do things, and try to keep myself open to new techniques and styles. And, by the way, doing the free writing is fast becoming a foundational practice for me. It feels like a way to keep me connected to myself and my writing in 15 simple minutes a day. And make no mistake about it, most of what I write in my free writes is crap, plain and simple. It’s the process that is so mind blowing and illuminating.
(I wrote a blog post that tells more about free writing at the start of the week. Check it out here.)
So please do tell—have you made any changes in the way you approach your writing lately? Leave a comment and tell me. I’d love to hear about it. I’m open to more new ideas!
What are your priorities as a writer? Do you have a firm sense of them? Knowing what comes first in your career and life can help you take hold of your time management.
I started thinking about this after reading an article in the May 2018 issue of the Romance Writers Report, the magazine of the Romance Writers of America. It was written by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who, as many of you may know, is a very prolific writer. Bear in mind that her priorities as a writer might be different than yours–but that’s the point. You need to figure out what works for you. (Also note that these priorities are for indie writers. She seems to take a somewhat dim view of traditionally published writers.)
So…she lumps marketing, if it makes you happy, into #5. I should think a traditionally published author might want to substitute marketing for publishing new words in #4. And then, of course, there are those of us who teach and coach or, gasp, have a day job. That has to fit in there somewhere, too. Right?
But I feel like these guidelines are an excellent starting point for a discussion you might want to have with yourself, your spouse, or your family. Think about it. Roll it around in your mind, talk about it. You don’t have to figure it all out at once. But I do think it is good to have a firm grasp of your priorities so you can pull yourself back when you deviate from them.
Don’t cringe at the words self-care. It is just about eating right, exercising, and sleeping enough, which are baseline activities that will do more for your writing than just about anything. And maybe you are an extreme introvert who doesn’t give a rip about any damned loved ones, in which case you can knock that priority out. But I do try my best to take care of myself, and I do love my loved ones, so I am pretty good with her outline up to #3, but after that I’d diverge, adding:
#6–Things that Make Me Happy and Healthy
In truth, I’m pretty good about the latter, given that much of what makes me happy is spending time with loved ones. And going to France every year, from where I just returned. Honestly, what tends to get shoved aside when things get overwhelming is my own personal writing–and I know I am not alone in that.
How about you? Do you have priorities firmly planted in your mind, or maybe even written down somewhere? Care to share them? I’d love to hear what they are in the comments.
(If you want to read more about this topic from Kristine, go to her site and search for “burnout” or “sustainability.”)
All you have to do is put pen to paper, one word at a time. As Margaret Atwood says, “A word after a word after a word is power.”
And yet, we make it hard. We resist that power. We make judgements about ourselves and our pages. Which, of course, just makes it harder.
I’m pondering all this because I’m taking a class called The Devoted Writer from Cynthia Morris. The heart of the class is free writing for 15 minutes every day. She provides a prompt, and we write to it. Simple, right?
Well, yeah, it is, actually. There’s a lot of great supporting information about free writing and mind mapping in the class (I’m only two days in, so I’m excited to see what else she covers) but the heart of the class is, I repeat, free writing for 15 minutes a day.
I know free writing. You know free writing. You set a timer and move your hand across the page without stopping, no matter what. If you get stuck instead of stopping and staring off into space you keep writing. No matter what.
I’ve used free writing a lot for brainstorming and idea generating, warm-ups, stuff like that. But I’ve never used it for my “real” writing–when I’m working on a novel or a blog post (like right now). Because, you know, those things are real writing. Serious. Important. Too serious and important for silly ole free writing.
But here’s what Cynthia Says about free writing:
“This is the method to write anything, anytime, for any purpose. And, this practice powerfully, yet simply sets aside the inner critic to bring you into a writualistic space.”
(She adds a “w” to the word ritual, to make it writual, which I love.)
When I started the class, it was with the intention to do the free writing exercises to help loosen me up, nab ideas, all the usual suspects. I had no intention of using it for anything else. But Cynthia’s enthusiasm is contagious and so I’ve been experimenting with it. I gotta tell you, it is pretty magical.
I’ve always been a proponent of fast writing–or at least the idea of it. But it is too easy for me to fall into the rut of fast writing for a few minutes and then taking a break. Because there’s fast writing and free writing. With free writing, you are committed to keep going until the timer goes off. With fast writing, you can stop yourself any time. But applying the guidelines of free writing to any kind of writing project is really quite liberating. And efficient. My God, with concentrated bursts you can get a hell of a lot of writing done.
You need a prompt to free write and there are tons all over the internet. You can also make up your own–which is especially helpful for when you are engaged in a novel or story. (This morning I needed insight into a character’s issue. I started with the prompt, Amos has a problem.)
So go try it right now, even if you’ve tried it before and think it is stupid, or only for journal writers, or whatever. The key is to keep your hand moving across the page or fingers clattering across the typewriter. If you get stuck, I find a useful phrase is “and then.” Just write that over and over again until you get back on track. And remember, go with what comes out. Your words don’t have to relate to the prompt at all. It is just a starting point. Start with 15 minutes and then experiment. For writing chapters or scenes, maybe 20 or 25 minutes might work better for you. The key is to keep your fingers move across the keyboard, or the pen moving across the page. Do not stop! I cannot stress that enough.
And please do try it on whatever project you’ve got going. I used it for this blog post. Nailed it in one session–though of course I did need to go back and edit. Because, of course.
Let me know how it is working for you or if you have any questions in the comments. They’ve been wonky in the past but seem to be okay now. One note: you do need to click on the individual page of the post in order to comment.
As you might have guessed, I am home from France. Jet lag has not been terrible this time. We got home Tuesday evening and as I write this on Friday, I’m feeling pretty good. Which gives me time to dig into all the things that got put on hold while I was gone. And, boy, do things pile up.
I’ve got a ton of recommendations this month because I had a lot of time to read and also many confined hours on long flights in which to watch movies (which I’m usually bad at). But I did want to write a brief recap of the trip and encourage you to think about coming with next year. So here goes.
We landed in Paris on the last day of the month and spent an afternoon wandering about the neighborhood near the Gare De Lyon, which was surprisingly appealing. Also, getting a good dose of daylight helps with jet lag. After a pretty good night’s sleep, it was on to Perpignan via the fast train, which is comfy and relaxing. Dali called the Perpignan train station the center of the world, and while that seems a bit excessive, the city is growing on me. We stayed in the historic center, full of twisty streets and fun shops and a divine place to eat, Restaurant Le St. Jean. (In case you ever find yourself there, it is right next to the Cathedral St. Jean and you actually eat in a courtyard right next to the church.)
The next day it was on to Collioure, our location for the next three weeks. That included two weeks of writing workshops and one week of leisure in between. There is something so special about sinking into one place for an extended period of time. Even though I was working two weeks out of three, it is infinitely relaxing. On workshop weeks, we meet every morning from 9:30 to 12:30 (except on Sundays and Wednesdays, which are market days, so we meet at 10 in order to give everyone time to wander the stalls). Our teaching is a combination of mini-lectures on writing, discussion of assigned books (see below), writing exercises and prompts, and discussion of the assignments everyone has completed the night before. You may think that people don’t make much progress on their writing when billeted in paradise, but the opposite is actually true. Every year we see writers make huge leaps in their works in progress, get re-inspired, and write more than they thought they would—all while enjoying the hiking, shopping, eating and drinking of the region.
But three weeks does fly by—and last Saturday it was back to Paris, this time to stay in a lovely Airbnb in Montparnasse , my favorite neighborhood in the city. It rained like a mofo on Sunday afternoon but once the rain cleared, everyone emerged, and we were able to celebrate the hub’s birthday at a fun restaurant. The next day we played tourist and went to the top of the Arch de Triomphe (there was an elevator, thank god—my poor hip couldn’t have done the stairs). And then, sadly, the next day it was time to leave.
But leaving is made easier by knowing I’ll be back next year. And even more than that, by knowing that my family awaited me back home. Along with good friends, my own comfy bed, my crazy fat cats, the even crazier family dog, and good plans for the fall—not to mention crisp autumn days. (Temps in Collioure were in the mid-80s, but the humidity was very, very high and the mosquitos were killer.)
So that’s my story about leaving and coming home. Oh, while there, I read over my novel one last time and fixed a couple inconsistencies. My agent is submitting it even as we speak I write. And I made some good progress on my next book. So, there was that, too.
We should now be back to regular weekly programming here. So, I’ll see you next week—but please do leave a comment and tell me what you’ve been up to. And see below for the links to September reading and watching, as well as a new feature, a weekly prompt or two!
We had such fun using prompts at the writing workshops in France, I thought I’d start a new series and give you a prompt thematically linked to the love letter’s topic each week. Here is this week’s effort:
Write about a time you hated leaving. Now write about a time you couldn’t wait to leave.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. This was one of the books we assigned in our France workshops (the other being Educated, by Tara Westover, which I highly recommend). I had decidedly mixed feelings about this novel and can’t help but feel it is over-rated. We did have lively discussions about it, though!
Pardonable Lies, the third Maisie Dobbs mystery, by Jacqueline Winspear. I picked up #10 or #11, not sure which, of this series and liked it so much I’m reading them from the beginning.
The French Exit, by Patrick DeWitt. I hate to speak ill of a fellow Portland writer, so I won’t. But I will say this book was just not my cup of tea.
Two books by J.A. Jance, both in the Ali Reynolds series. A friend finished Deadly Stakesin Collioure and gave it to me to read. I enjoyed it, so I downloaded the first in the series, Edge of Evil. I’ll definitely read more.
Slain in Schiaparelli, the third Joanna Hayworth vintage clothing mystery, by my friend Angela Sanders. I love everything she writes, her capers and her kite mysteries written under the name Clover Tate, as well.
A Wrinkle in Time. This was my favorite book growing up—my sister and I read it a million times. But the movie was terrible, awful, wretched. I hated it.
The Post. Conversely, I loved this one. It tells the story of the Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers, and how that turned the paper into the national publication it is today, as well as changing Katharine Graham from a D.C. socialite into a powerhouse publisher. Highly recommended.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The Mr. Rogers documentary. Proof that Fred really was as nice as he appeared on TV. Wonderful.
Book Club. Pure fun. Loved it. Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, and Diane Keaton. So good.
While I’m in France, teaching writing, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating good cheese and bread, and drinking lots of wine, I’m offering either a collection of writing prompts, story starters, or exercises each week. Today I have a couple of writing exercises for you. I hope you will use them to jump-start your writing!
Sometimes writers think that writing exercises are for beginners. Wanna-bes. Not for serious scriveners like you and me. And then the writing stalls. And you don’t know what to do with yourself. That is when, my friend, you pull out the writing exercises. Because they will help you.
It’s funny, because practitioners of other creative genres rely on exercises and warm-ups as an integral part of their practices–dancers and musicians spring readily to mind. Yet we writers (because I don’t think I’m alone in my sometimes-disdain for them) are far too apt to dismiss them as irrelevant.
When you are stuck, when you have been away from your writing for a while, when you are fishing for ideas—pull out the writing exercises! Here’s why I think they work: because they give you some structure to hang your words on. No longer are you facing the empty page (or screen). You’ve got somebody telling you what to do. Which is helpful when you don’t exactly know what to do.
And here’s my best tip for working with writing exercises: use them in relationship to your current project. This helps me to convince myself that I’m not wasting my time, since I’ll be generating ideas and scenes for my WIP. The other thing I find is that while doing this, ideas for other projects come up. I just had a brilliant (she said modestly) image for a short story appear, for instance.
Here are two that I’ve used over the years. I hope you find them helpful!
When my granddaughter Olivia was a toddler, just learning to talk, she used to suddenly stop what she was doing, say, “need something,” and stagger in a babyish sort of way to the kitchen. When Livie said “need something” she always meant food, so it was easy to satisfy her.
Alas, it is often not so easy for writers.
I’m in Collioure, France, teaching the second of two week-long workshops. We meet every morning for instruction and writing and most often the assignments we give are related to the writer’s work in progress. During the first week, my co-leader Debbie decided that one of the pieces “needed something.”
I immediately thought of Livie, of course, because it always amuses me to hear those words. But then I thought further–about how to figure out what it is that your work needs. Sometimes that can be quite opaque. You know it needs something, but what? And how do you identify that what? These are the kinds of thorny writer problems that can stop you for days–or weeks.
But “needing something,” doesn’t have to stop you in your tracks. Rather than let it do that, apply the cold light of writerly analysis to it, or at least as analytical as it gets around here (this being the province of a dedicated right-brain, ENFP, process-oriented writer).
Most often you’ll be asking yourself what is needed for a scene or character, but you can also apply some of these ideas to the big picture. You could try asking the following:
Does it need a different setting? So often, a simple location shift can suddenly open up a scene. Amazingly, nine times out of ten I find this to be the case. Changing a scene to a different setting is sometimes just what it needs. Sounds so simple as to be un-useful, but trust me and try it.
Does your character need more depth? I am the type of writer who figures out the basics, doing some prep work in character, setting, and getting a rough idea of the story, and then plunges in. I learn from the middle what the story needs. And this often results in characters needing more depth. When this happens, I go back to the well, and learn more about their backstories and motivations. I look at their arc–where they start and where they end up–and study how that will affect events that happen in the novel.
Does the dialogue need more differentiation? It is easy, especially in first draft writing, for all characters to end up sounding the same. And, let me stress, this is totally okay in first drafts, because you’re just trying to get the story on the page. But if you’re feeling like your story needs something while you’re immersed in a later draft, take a look at the dialogue. Try giving your characters speech tics, or phrases they say repeatedly. Also remember that some characters might talk a lot, some only a little. Some might speak in long sentences, others in short bursts. Play around with it.
Does your scene rise or fall? Or, in other words, is it flat? A scene with rising or falling action starts in one place and ends in another. Your main character may start out the scene feeling on top of the world–and end it as discouraged as she’s ever been. Or vice versa, in multitudes of variations. Examine your scene and see if you can give it some life by un-flattening it. An excellent book that tells about this in depth (maybe even too much depth) is Story by Robert McKee.
Do you need a second thing? Sometimes, a story, whether long or short, just needs another element. We writers are often afraid to put too much into our stories, scared we’ll lose the focus. But often the opposite is true–we don’t put in quite enough. Is there a sub-plot you can add in? Something that
So as you can see, when your work needs something, you can view it through the lens of the fundamental aspects of fiction and figure out what is missing. I hope. Let me know how it works out for you.
And if you want to come to France for a writing workshop in an idyllic location next year, you can! We’ll have information about the 2019 event shortly. In the meantime, you can check out our website for more information. But if you want to get on the mailing list, just email me.
While I’m in France, teaching writing, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating good cheese and bread, and drinking lots of wine, I’m offering either a collection of writing prompts, story starters, or exercises each week. This week, I have something a little different—a journaling technique you might find useful. Enjoy!
So here goes. My current favorite type of journal writing is the Chronology. This is my name for actually writing about the things that happen in your life, the people you run into, the day to day events that make up your existence.
The desire to write a chronology of our days is why many of us are drawn to journal writing. It is the urge to make meaning of our lives, or perhaps the desire to leave something for posterity. The chronology records history in the making if we’re lucky–witness the diaries of pioneer women that have been such wonderful records of that era.
The chronology is also fertile ground for practicing the writer’s craft. In noting the details of your best friend’s outfit and how she never seems to wear things that match yet she always looks great, that you start to understand how to create characters that come alive on the page. In writing a description of the coffee shop you visited the day before, the seeds of description and setting are created. And so on, through all the aspects of observing a day to day life.
The chronology is what fills our journals with rich detail and interesting tidbits. And yet, this kind of writing is what is often sorely lacking in my own diary. Why? Because when writing a journal on a regular basis, I tend to get lazy. It is far easier to indulge in a whiny emotional outburst or write quick morning pages that are really more about the day’s to-do list than to really write about the what happened the day before: how the sun looked on the river as you crossed the bridge, or the way your son’s face lit up when he took a bite of chocolate.
I realized how the quality of my journaling had deteriorated when I read My Life in France, by Julia Child, after seeing the movie, Julie and Julia. If you saw the movie, there were several scenes where Paul, Julia’s husband, is seen sitting at a desk writing letters to his twin brother back home. Those letters were apparently so filled with detail and wonderful tidbits that they were used heavily by Julia and her nephew in writing her memoir (which is, by the way, delightful, and well worth reading). Upon reading this I was struck by what a rich vein of gold letter writing results in, and then I realized that journal writing could be the same thing. My journal writing could be a rich vein of gold, if only I weren’t so indulgent about all those whiny outbursts. Or obsessed with to-do lists.
So, I resolved to actually write something of worth in my diary and began to sit every morning and write an account of the day before. Yet this chronology meandered and lacked cohesion. (I know, I know, it’s a journal, it is not supposed to be perfect. But, as with all writing, I need to feel comfortable inside the form before it takes off for me.) And then I read a charming article in O magazine. I’m sorry I can’t point you to the exact month because I tore it out and gave it to my daughter, but it was sometime this past fall. The article was written by a woman who had recently had a baby. During her pregnancy, she wrote down every single item she had eaten and with whom, the idea being that her baby was the sum total of all of this food and company.
And from this I got my brilliant idea–keeping a Food Journal. No, not the kind that nutritionists and diet experts tell you to keep, though that can easily be incorporated. This kind of food journal notes not only what you ate, but where you ate it, who you ate it with and what they were wearing, what song was on the radio as you drove down the freeway with a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich in hand, whatever. And then that leads to a paragraph about how, you guessed it, the sun shone on the river as you crossed the bridge over it and so forth and so on and before you know it you’ve written a chronology of your entire morning, full of lush detail and interesting anecdotes and now you’re onto lunch, which is a whole other story in itself, because your numbskull co-worker told that stupid joke and then your boss yelled at all of you while she had a piece of toilet paper stuck to her shoe.
What the Food Journal really does is give you an excuse. It gives you an excuse to write about everything that happened in your day, and in giving you a structure, it makes it so much easier than to meander about in your brain and try to remember what you did. Food is life, as we know, and it turns out that writing about food makes remembering life easier.
This kind of journaling takes a long time. Writing about your entire day could easily take your entire morning. So, you might want to limit yourself to one aspect of it. Or not. What I find is that this kind of writing, the loving attention to the detail of reality, leads me back into the writing that I truly love doing–writing novels. And then the hell part is that I get so engrossed in writing novels that I don’t have time to keep a food journal or really any kind of diary.
But that is okay, because my journal will be there waiting for me, as it always is, when I feel the need to write morning pages to get myself back on track again. Or to do some writing exercises because I’ve lost my way and feel blocked. Or because something happened to me of such import that I feel the urge to write about it. That’s the great thing about journals–they are always there for you.
Are you a journaler? Got any techniques you use that you’d like to share? Leave a comment!
I will return to regular love letter programming on September 30th.