In another article, 3 Reasons Everyone Should Keep a Journal, I’m talking very generally about the benefits of keeping a journal and is geared towards anyone that wants to put pen to paper. This article, however, goes one step further and discusses a few reasons why writers should be keeping a journal as part of their daily writing habit/obsession.
The first thing I am going to mention is dreams. I included dreams in the aforementioned sister article, and my claim was that writing down your dreams can help you see deeper into yourself, and I think that’s true and beneficial for everyone.
For writers, there is something else that recording your dreams can provide you: the possibility to plumb the depths for poetry and plot.
If you are a fiction writer, you can use your dreams to spark anything from narratives to plot twists. That shady character whose face you never quite see: wouldn’t he make a great antagonist? Creepy location? Perfect for that scene you’d just been tinkering with the other day.
I often find myself drifting off to sleep with a story question floating around in my noodle and more often than not, I wake up in the morning with the answer. But there is a warning. Dreamstuff doesn’t always make sense and sometimes needs a bit of tweaking, but the seed grows into a plant, right?
If you are a poet, you might compose a set of surrealist poems based on your dream-worldly experiences like so many talented poets have done. See John Berryman, Sara Arvio, and Sinead Morrissey, to name a few.
Our dreams inspire us. Many cultures believe dreams are sacred/holy/messages from above/below/somewhere/is that you, uncle Jim? But I’m happy enough to settle on dreams being the way our brain re-sets itself to be ready for another day of being furiously human.
I just want interrupt myself to say that you don’t have to journal the way I journal. I think it’s obvious that journaling is an extremely personal process and you can journal any way that you deem fit. But just in case you’re just starting out, or are drawing a blank, I wanted to throw a few ideas out there for those the might need them, and you can tailor your practice to your particular needs.
Okay, to return.
Lines for Poems Past
Oh, these. Even if I have convinced myself that a poem is finished, my brain doesn’t always think so. It sometimes knocks on the door and asks, “Do you have a pen handy? Because BLART!” Blart, of course, being the line of poetry as suggested by brain. I’m pretty sure that’s the technical term for it.
So then you decide to dig up that poem and its resurfacing means much more editing, self-doubt, nail-biting, over-caffeination, and a resulting lack of sleep. Sigh. It’s tough, but that line could change the face of the earth—! And if not the earth, the poem, which is important enough in its own right.
Lines for Poems Future
How many times have I had a great line that I swore to myself that I would remember only to forget it literally seconds later? So. Many. Times. Remember those lines guys. Your future poem-spawn depend on you keeping the fantastic lines that sneak up behind you and hit you in the forehead, or the ones you painstakingly compose in your mind while you’re elbow-deep in dishwater. Make sure it gets into your notebook, even if you write it on a pad and tap it in later.
Alternatively, you could write those random lines onto cue cards, stick them in a bowl, and fish one out when the well is dry. It’s a guarantee you’ll always have a little spark to work with, and sometimes that little spark is all you need.
Mundane to Metaphor
You know, sometimes it’s good to note simple things, things you notice in your daily life that could seem trivial, but if looked at differently, are actually huge. You can craft a wicked poem from the mundane and provide your readers with a revelatory and mind-blowing experience. I’ve seen it done—and maybe have even done it myself. See poems like Cut by Sylvia Plath and Mending Wall by Robert Frost.
Anything and Nothing
I don’t have this one as part of my personal practice, but mention it because I recently had a sneak peek into a friend’s notebook and he had been doing some automatic writing—AKA psychography—which is where a person would hold a pen and move it around a page, but actually let their unconscious/spirits/something else provide content. I like the idea and contemplate trying it, but anticipate getting spooked. (I get spooked.) For more info, read this Wikipedia page.
Journal Entry Brainstorm
I’m going to go into list mode. Here are some things you might find in my notebook.
- all manner of lists, to do lists, grocery lists, writing supply lists (need those pens!)
- recipes for things
- quotes I find helpful
- cat stickers Emily gave me
- weird pieces of paper or bits of stuff I don’t know why I like
- washi tape to hold said weird bits
- if I made a connection between things I’ve written that share subject matter or tone, and could therefore end up collected into a zine or chapbook, and notes on how each would change each
- doodles of random stuff
- memories that got triggered for one reason or another
- words that I like or find curious
- words to look up to see if I invented them or if they’re real (surprisingly often are real)
- words in Danish as I’m (slowly) learning the language
- titles for poems; existing ones or some yet to be written (sometimes the egg comes first)
- lines of dialogue I have heard/imagined/imagined I heard
- ideas for fiction; settings, plot points, themes, aristotelean trinities
- scenes for fiction pieces in progress
- scenes for fiction pieces that have yet to be fleshed out/written
- lots about The Story Grid as I’m studying it
- birthdays I don’t want to forget
- books to research/borrow/purchase
- things people say or do that ring, one might call synchronicities (thanks, Jung)
- notes about novels I am reading (beats, devices, tricks, things I like/dislike, etc)
- notes on poetic craft/metre and rhyme schemes I’m working on
- things I don’t understand but want to (stuff to research)
- something one of the cats did, like yarking on the heater (What is that smell? It’s hot cat yark.)
- really anything. What did you do today? Do your pants have spots or stripes?
In the End, it’s About Habit…
We humans are creatures of habit and I think by making a conscious decision to write, the more second-nature writing will become until it’s a necessity for some semblance of internal wellbeing. Studies have been done to discover how long it takes to form a habit, and the results are varied and all depends on the type of person you are, which makes perfect sense.
I have gotten to a point that if I don’t do some kind of writing or writing-based activity every single day, I feel off, unbalanced, and not like myself. A journal entry, a blog post, a scene in a fiction piece, a poem, even typing up a scribble. It all counts as far as the habit is concerned.
…But it’s Also About Time and Place
Some writers decide on a specific time to do their work because that is what fits into their schedule. Some—like myself—jot things down on a fairly regular basis and keep their journal on hand throughout their day. Others have been able to detect what time of day they’re at their most performant and work the rest of their lives around that. Are you an early bird, a night owl, or a midday fowl? Find out and use it to your advantage. Also, don’t discredit the possibility that your optimal working time can change. Before I went to university, I was undoubtedly a night owl. I’m finding that after, and as I get older, I have my moments of clarity earlier in the morning, usually while walking or doing something mundane and usual, like making tea and toast.
Wasn’t it William Wordsworth that took long walks in the Grasmere moors to get his mind to the place he needed to be to write? You need two places then; the place your body can physically do the writing, and the place your mind needs to be to do the writing. I know it sounds complicated, but don’t be intimidated. You can do this.
You might have a specific and cozy location in your home designated for this purpose. You might have a local library or coffee shop that suits the mood. and even when you have what you think is the perfect location, you have to do something to get to “the place”. Read a favourite passage, recite a mantra, doodle on the page to get your pen ready, pretend to play a piano scale, crack your knuckles. Have a thing—and do it. Writers of all levels are going to keep telling you this—DO IT! Do the work.
Find what is best for you. Then—repeat.