The Power of Observation & More: 5 Reasons to Keep a Journal

Pumpkins 1
Yesterday my daughter had a pumpkin-carving party, complete with home-brewed Nut Brown Ale from her boyfriend and all kinds of delicious pot luck treats.  We carved the jack-o-lanterns in the backyard with leaves falling all around us in the autumn breeze and ladybugs landing on everyone.

I got up this morning and wrote down all the details in my journal.

I write in my journal nearly every day, usually first thing in the morning.  It is actually a bit of a compulsion with me.  Over the years I've filled up dozens, if not hundreds, of journals in all kinds of spirals and composition books and diaries.  They fill crates in various closets, all neatly labeled with the appropriate dates.  I'm not entirely sure why I save them, because lord knows even I can't read my own handwriting.  But something compels me to do so.  And I know that when our house caught on fire and the upstairs burned many years ago, the thing I was most grateful to find unscathed was my journals.  Pumpkins 2

(Brief aside: you know how you always hear people say what they'd save if their house was on fire?  Let me just tell you, when you are fleeing a burning house with children and pets you do not for one minute stop to worry about saving all the family photos or the Grandma's antiques.  All you think about is getting the living creatures out.)

Sometimes I think journal writing is a distraction.  It's a choice I constantly make: write in the journal or work on the novel?  Make notes about what I did last night or get some work done on a ghost-writing project?  When I'm fully engaged in a book project, I tell myself I shouldn't waste time on my journal.  And then I find myself reaching for it and before I know it, I'm writing away.

However, I'm also aware of how valuable journal writing is.  Honestly?  I'm constantly in awe of people who make it through life without one.  I process everything on the page, saving my friends and family hours of drama and myself years of therapy.  But beyond the emotional benefits, there are clear advantages to keeping a journal for writing, too.  To wit:

1.  It gets the crap out.  If all your worries about your day are clogging up your brain, how are you going to write?  Get it out on the page and get rid of it.

2.  It encourages the practice of observation.  There's no better way to start remembering details than writing them down.  The more you write what you've seen and experienced, the better you get at it. And the better you get at writing it in your journal, the better you get at writing on your novel or whatever creative project is dear to your heart.

3.  It is a place to make notes on projects.  Sometimes–often–I start a journal entry by writing about what I did the day before and soon I'm writing a scene for my novel or figuring out how to write an article.  I actually wrote this whole blog post as a journal entry this morning.

4.  Regular attention to a journal can be life altering.  Sounds grandiose, doesn't it?  But it is true.  When you commit to writing in your journal every day, suddenly you start to see patterns in the desires and goals you note.  Hmmm, day after day you write about the creative non-fiction book you want to start.  Is this a clue to what you should be doing?  Or perhaps every day you write about how miserable you are in your job or marriage.  Is it time to make a change?

5.  You can track your writing goals.   Writing down your word count on a long project can be a powerful motivator.  Writing about that project can help you get clear on it, too.  John Steinbeck wrote journals about the writing of his novels. 

Bonus point:  It is a spiritual practice.  People always talk about their spiritual practices, such as prayer, or ritual, or meditation and I always pouted because I wanted a spiritual practice, too.    But I don't seem to have a lot of patience for those kinds of spiritual practices.  One day, however, it hit me–hot damn, I already have a spiritual practice.  It is writing in my journal, which I do as regularly as anyone who meditates or practices yoga.

One last thing.  Michael Masterson has an article on writing journals in his weekly newsletter today.  He looks at it from a manly, business point of view, but I'm a huge fan of Masterson and I like what he has to say about writing a journal.  Read it here.

Lasagne for Lewis, Pineapple-Upside Down Cake for Emma Jean

Pineapple_upsidedown_cake_9I've just finished making a pan of lasagne for my son's birthday dinner tomorrow.  (Brief aside: on Twitter, the spell check wanted me to spell it lasagne, which I thought was correct.  Here on Typepad, the spelling gods insist it is lasagna.  But I sticking to my e ending.  I like e endings.)

I'm sort of famous for my dislike of cooking, but lately I've been trying out new recipes (cooked pineapple and cheese–thank you, Candace), making old favorites I'd forgotten about (apple, celery, and walnut salad), and creating new dishes (brown rice, black beans, burger, onion garlic, other interesting things I can't remember.  My Mom would call this Icebox Cleanup.)  Fall is in the air and it makes me want to cook.

I've always seen cooking as one more thing that is taking me away from writing, one more thing to rush through so I can get back to what I'm working on.  I've been known to set a pan of some slapped-together concoction on the stovetop and wander away to get back to my work–only to return to find the food a burned mess.

Ah, the writing gods are harsh masters, demanding such fealty that we scribes have time for nothing else.  Certainly not for cooking, or any other hobbies.  Alright, I do knit–but it is a rare occasion when I actually finish something.  Writing always beckons before I have a chance.  And then there's the fact that it is difficult to knit or cook while reading, and let's face it, reading is a critical aspect of writing.

But I'm starting to think I've been missing out.  People always yammer on about how grounding and relaxing cooking is and I roll my eyes and tell them cooking bores me, implying, of course, that I have way better and more important things to do.  And the thing is I admire people who cook.  Deeply admire them.  I think that people who cook are very likeable.  They cook to feed others, to please others, to make others happy, right?  So most cooks are very good people, except those snotty ones who will only use a certain kind of cheese from France and the finest olive oil and all that crappery.

My point in all of this is a confession of sorts.  Part of the reason I've started cooking is that the heroine of my novel is cooking.  Emma Jean has recently informed me that she loves to bake (pineapple-upside down cake and cookies to present at her readings) and cook (I don't know what yet).  I'm happy that Emma Jean has told me this because she is a kick-ass, larger than life character, and kick-ass, larger than life characters are sometimes difficult to write in a sympathetic manner.  But because Emma Jean loves to cook, particularly for others, this will make her more likeable.  Right?  Right? 

And so I have some catching up to do in the cooking department.  Hence the lasagne–everything from scratch–for Lewis.  Try as I might, however, I could not convince him that he needed to choose pineapple-upside down cake for his birthday dessert.  I'll just have to bake it another time, seeing as how it is Emma Jean's specialty.

Photo of Pineapple-upside down cake by Mark Pellegrini, used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 license.

I Confess

I cannot tell a lie, because you have no doubt noticed, but I am a blogging slacker.

Two weeks ago I headed to Nashville for the Writer's Loft fall orientation.   This was a big to-do because it was the first actual orientation that my partner Terry and I planned since we took over the program.  And, I am happy to report, it was a rip-roaring success.

So much so that I got completely re-inspired to work on my novel again.  Not just working on it, but working working on it, if you know what I mean–keeping the file open on my computer, working on it every spare moment, obsessing about it all the other moments, stealing time from paying work.  That kind of working on it, which I love because its been too long since I've been in this space.

To my credit, there has been guilt.  Lots of it.  So much that it finally drove me to cautiously log onto my Typepad account.  So here I am.  I've not gone anywhere, just deeply into the novel.

Here's the good news–I took copious notes while sitting in the workshops and lectures that inspired me so much and my plan is to write blog posts about what I learned.  Um, never mind that that has been my plan for the past week, since I returned home.  I'm going to do it.  I wrote this post, didn't I? 

I also have a pile of reviews to post on my companion site, Bookstrumpet.  So stayed tuned, there is much more to come.  Really.  Trust me.  I promise.

And now excuse while I go look at what I wrote this afternoon on my novel.

Oh, one more thing–I was having some computer issues last week.  Like big ones.  Like my beloved Vaio melting down type problems.  Its okay for the moment, but I'm in the market for a new one.   I'm so tempted by the Macbook.  So very, very tempted.  I've resisted the whole Apple cult for years and now I feel it ensnaring me.  Help me, PC users! Not a big fan of Dells, but I've loved my Vaio.  I would like it to be less than astronomically expensive.  So if anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear it.  Has to be a laptop–it goes with me wherever I go.

Why Writing is like Drawing

I'm working on becoming a better observer.

Generally, I go about my business, I travel, I write in my journal about my experiences, and those jottings are too often self-absorbed treatises on what I'm feeling.  I like this, I don't like that, I feel so fabulous this morning or life sucks, blah, blah, blah, endless variations on an emotional theme.

But lately I've been writing a bit differently in my journal.  Instead of the endless scribblings that are all about me, I'm into an objective reporting vein–attempting to capture the essence of what its like to hang out in the Pasadena neighborhood where my friend lives, or documenting the unique aura of Ventura Boulevard, where I have appointments.

Its not that I haven't done this in the past, because I have.  But what has happened before is that all of my experiences have gone directly into the alchemical pot of fiction, to come out the other side the same base thing yet somehow different.   My new practice feels much more like a non-fiction, documentary approach.

And it requires careful observation, noting specific details.  It reminds me of my brief career in drawing.  Everyone in my family–all three of my older sisters got the art gene.  (And the thin gene.  Is this fair?  I ask you, where's the fairness here?) One of my sisters even makes her living at it. 

Okay, okay, so I got the writing gene–I'm not complaining.  But I did once go off on a wild hair and decide I would start drawing.  There's something so appealing about taking your journal with you everywhere you go and recording everything you see.   And what I learned from drawing is that you truly, truly learn to look at the world and see it when you are drawing it.

And of course, that is what we do with words, whether they are arranged into fiction or non-fiction.  I'm a wordsmith, not a visual artist, that's all there is to it.  What I'm learning from my new documentary approach is how insight grows out of careful observation and objective reporting.  By observing and seeing you really begin to get the gist of the situation.

The good news is that this kind of documentary writing can then be alchemized into whatever form you like–fiction, creative non-fiction, memoir, poetry.  So I'm finding its an excellent writing practice.  And may I just point out that this is why writing never gets boring?  There's always something new to discover.

Keyword Research for Writing

In my ongoing attempts to takeover secure a spot for myself in the writing corner of the internet, I’ve been researching keywords.    This fun little endeavor is part of my effort to find out what y’all want when it comes to writing and writing coaching.

(Brief, but very important aside:  Tomorrow is the LAST day to take part in the survey I posted last week.  Here’s the link: Another Contest: What Are Your Writing Problems?  I had a flurry of activity when I first posted the contest, but since then nada.  Zip. Zilch.  Its depressing me, people.  I’m looking for a last minute surge in entries here, so help me out.  The prize is a free coaching session.)

Anybody who has ever done SEO (Search Engine Optimized) writing for the web is familiar with keywords.   You’ll get a list of words which are usually very similar, like this:

Kitchen Sink
kitchen sink
Kitchen sinks
Porcelain kitchen sinks
porcelain kitchen sinks
stainless steel kitchen sinks
steel kitchen sink

Usually there would be 10 or more, but enough already, you get the idea.  Note the very subtle differences, for instance, kitchen is sometimes capitalized and sink is sometimes plural.  This is because some intrepid soul has been going through and trying to figure out what the top search terms are for kitchen sinks.

This is a tedious process.  I know because I spent last week doing it (in and around the ghostwriting).  The best place to go for keyword research is Wordtracker. They are pretty cool–they give you a free seven-day trial and they make it really easy to cancel if you don’t want to pay them $59 a month to keep the service. 

Amazingly enough, I was not researching kitchen sink words, but writing and coaching words.  After about the 5,000th time I fed a word through I began to see some similar themes, mostly that people put really strange phrases into the search engines. 

For instance, "novel writing priest."  Does this mean anything to anyone?  I actually googled it myself to see if there was some famous novel writing priest that I hadn’t heard about.  But not as far as I could tell.  However, "novel writing priest" has a KEI of 200, which is very good.  (The KEI is the number of searches compared to websites the word appears on.  You can get a word that has a ton of searches but also has a ton of websites devoted to it, and then its not a good keyword.  The KEI uses some arcane formula to figure this out.)

Besides getting me mildly upset about the state of knowledge in this country ("tips for writing fiction novels," is one of my favorites–um, last time I checked all novels were fiction) this process also makes me feel like I’m missing out on stuff that everyone else knows.  For instance, "101 very funny short stories," comes up very high.  As does "nifty stories" and "exotic short stories."  Is there some popular short story series that I’ve missed?

(And do not even get me started on sex stories.  I finally gave up putting anything remotely related to the word story in the search engine because it only returned 50 thousand variations on searches for sex stories.)

But the cool thing about it is that you really can start to get a sense of what kind of information people are looking for.  They seem to be desperate for info on writing feature stories, for instance.  And there is great clamoring for advice on writing outlines for plot.

So, you’ll be seeing more basic articles on this blog in the near future, as I attempt to stake out my corner of the writing world. 

I promise, though, I will not write an article about a novel writing priest.  Unless someone wants to introduce me to one.  The phrase has an awfully high KEI.