Keeping a Journal by John E. Lane

  1. Write daily: Respect your body's desire for consistency of time and space. Someone said once that the unconscious, like children and dogs craves routine. What this suggests is that you will discover more about what you are experiencing if you write in your journal at the same time in the same place every day. Pick a spot that you are comfortable with -- a desk, chair, nook, cranny, couch or in bed -- and go to that spot each day when you are going to write. Always try to write exactly 24 hours from the last time you wrote. It doesn't matter is it's at night or in the morning, the consistency is what's important. You'll be surprised how much of a priority your writing will become if you turn it into a habit. 

  2. Turn the daily writing into a ritual. Choose the rightbook to write in. Always write with the same pen, one that feels good to you and that you are actually pleased, sensually, with the way it feels and looks on the page. Buy yourself a fancy ten dollar art sketch book, if you feel comfortable writing in an unlined book, and a twenty dollar fountain pen. Try black and blue ink. See which one you like best and stick with it. Protect your special book and pen and know where they are at all times. 

  3. Pay attention to where you are. Always try to maintain awareness of what's going on around you as you write. Fill your journal with the random sounds and smells of the present. Describe the space you are inhabiting, over and over, and pay attention to how it changes over time. 

  4. Allow your mind to roam freely through the raw present, the distant past, and the shifting future. Don't deny whatever comes up as you are writing, no matter how silly it seems. You remembered it for some reason. Write it down. Respect the process of awareness wherever it takes you. 

  5. Work to remember your dreams first thing. Your dreams will tell you another story of your life if you listen. They make up a world of their own, one we cannot order or determine. Write them down and don't judge them good or bad. 

  6. Remember what people say and write it down in your stories. If you can't remember then work at making it up, what you think you remember people said.
  7. Write a little every day without hope and without despair.Isak Dinesen said this. Practice it. Don't judge your daily writing as either good or bad. Accept it as we do breathing: sometimes it is quickened, but mostly it merely keeps us alive.

A journal reading list

Books about the process of writing and journaling:

  • A Life of One's Own- Joanna Field (Tarcher Books). This is a classic, first published in 1926, about a woman's journey toward finding "a truly authentic existence." Field uses a journal as one of her main tools for discovery.
  • If You Want to Write- Brenda Ueland (Graywolf Press). "Everyone is talented, original and has something important to say." So begins this generous, beautiful book about writing. Ueland uses Journal entries as an access to originality.
  • Writing Down the Bones- Natalie Goldberg (Shambhala). A crazy Zen approach to journaling and writing. Great fun and good writing.

A few good journals

  • Notebooks 1942-51- Albert Camus. 
    If you like existentialism, you'll love the daily ramblings of this great writer.
  • Motel Chronicles- Sam Shephard. 
    Playwrite Shephard in a beautiful journal that includes poetry, prose and many clear memories from his childhood.
  • Straw for the Fire- Theodore Roethke. 
    Maybe the most intuitive writer of the 20th century, Roethke used his journals as a way to access the darkest most mysterious part of himself. I love reading this book.
  • A Western Journal- Thomas Wolfe. 
    It's good to see Wolfe in a context outside the novel to see what he sees. This is some good reading.
  • Notebooks- Anton Chekhov. 
    Quick entries by one of the greatest observers ever.

Journal assignments

  • Are there local legends, family tall tales, old and vague gossip you have heard which might be for you a source of a story? Think of places you have worked or visited that you might write about "from the inside." Write a narrative of 100 words or so. More if you get into something.
  • Write ten opening lines for stories.
  • Write ten last lines for stories.
  • Describe in a fresh way, sensory experiences. The smell of coffee. The taste of an apple. A blow to the face. A leg cramp. One way to do this is to use metaphor ... to show how one thing is somehow like another. Enlarge this list and practice metaphor.
  • Is there an object you carry with you? Something you can't bring yourself to throw away? Do you know why? Could you write about this thing as if you were explaining to someone what this means to you? This shell, earring, broken paper fan. This is how we get symbols in stories. First the real thing. Then the vested emotion bound up in it. Write 250 words or more.
  • Make a list of activities you know very well. Perhaps you are a fine rabbit hunter, collect stamps, do magic tricks, rock climb, know native plants, how to win at checkers, arm wrestle, cheat at poker ... you can use your occupations and hobbies in creating characters.
  • Visualize a house. How you would describe it standing on the front lawn. Passing in a car? Walking through furnished, but uninhabited rooms? Someone who lived there twenty years ago? A prospective buyer? A real estate salesperson? A neighbor? Write a paragraph, a page ... whatever ... on this house.