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by Dave Hood
Most great writer’s have a routine. That is what I’ve learned by reading Margaret Atwood’s “Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing,” Steven King’s “On Writing: A Memoir on Craft,” and Elizabeth Berg’s “Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.”
Writer Elizabeth Berg suggests that your writing routine should be “as personal and as varied” as your routines for anything else.
If your lifestyle changes, so will your writing routine. If you are a student at university, taking courses in creative writing, you’ll probably have lots of time to read and write. But, if you are working full-time, and attempting to write a novel, or short story, you’ll have to do it in your leisure time, perhaps at night or on the weekend.
Berg suggests that you begin your writing day by reading the writing you completed yesterday, and then edit it before writing something new. Why? The break from writing will provide you with fresh insight and a new perspective, perhaps even some new material.
Other writers suggest that you complete the first draft before beginning any sort of editing. Why? Editing can slow down the process of putting words from your mind on the page. Editing can also stifle the creative spirit. I always write the first draft before editing. And I always take a break for a few days before revising my work. The break allows me to discover new material and see my work from a fresh perspective.
Berg also suggests that when you are completing a writing project, continue to read unrelated material, such as other books, magazines, poetry, newspapers, to help you continually fill your creative spirit with new ideas.
How long should you write for? Berg writes for three or four hours in the morning, and then stops. Other writer’s do the same. Most writers don’t write for long stretches of time, such as 9,10,11 hours. Why? Their mind gets tired, they are unable to think clearly, they are unable to dust off authentic and original ideas from memory or their imagination. They are unable to write at their best with specific details, fresh similes, surprising metaphors.
As part of the routine, you should also write in a quiet and inspirational place, some location that allows you to think. Some writers set up a writing room. In their writing room, there is a desk, chair, bookcase of favorite books, a dictionary, thesaurus, perhaps some quiet music on the stereo, art on the walls, and photographs perched on the desk. Other writes craft a piece of writing in their bedroom, lying in bed. Many writers carve out something in a quiet cafe, where there’s the hustle and bustle of people, and soothing music.
Part of your routine also requires that you choose the “writing tools” that inspire you and allow you to quickly express your thoughts on the page, including a pen or coloured pens. A notebook. A writing Journal. A computer, such as tablet or laptop. Most creative writing instructors tell you to keep a writing journal, and write in it each day with a pen or a set of coloured pens. Most writers will also tell you to carry a notebook, so that when an interesting idea pops into your mind, you can capture it.
To write a poem, short story, novel, article, anything well, you require discipline. To be disciplined, you need a routine. Some writers like to write in the morning, other writers like to write at night when it’s dark. Many writers are only able to write in their leisure time, such as on the weekend, when they don’t have to work at their 9 to 5 day job.
If you truly want to become a good writer and publish, you must have discipline. Discipline requires that you make writing a high priority. And so, if you are a person who writes a “To-do-list” each day, you should make writing your number 1 priority, or very close to the top of your list of things to do. As well, instead of writing when you feel like it, you must establish a schedule and write at specific time of day. This helps to establish a routine. If you do not have time to write, you must find time. For instance, you could write for 15 minutes on your lunch, write for 15 minutes on your coffee break, writer while you ride the bus home from work… Discipline as a writer requires that you organize your life around your writing.
The act of writing makes you a writer. Writing requires that you do it regularly. Establishing a routine is the best way to write each day or on some schedule. Establishing a routine enables you to learn to write, to experiment with your writing, to become a writer, to write creatively like Hemingway, Alice Munro, Stephen King. Establishing a writing routine allows you to complete projects and to publish your writing dreams, rather than leave your writing aspirations to chance.
If you’d like to learn more about the writing life, I recommend that you read:
- Margaret Atwood’s “Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing”
- Steven King’s “On Writing: A Memoir on Craft”
- Elizabeth Berg’s “Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.”
Each of these books is an entertaining read and provides insight into the writing life, as well as great advice on the art and craft of writing.
By Dave Hood
If you dream of becoming a successful creative writer, meaning that you desire to have your writing work published, read, and talked about, then you must learn and master the techniques of creative writing. There are many techniques that you must learn and master. One of the most important is “showing and telling.” When writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal narrative essay, or fiction, or poetry, such as a narrative poem, you must both show and tell your readers what has happened. And you must either show or tell the inner worlds of characters and the outer world that they see. Showing and telling breathes life into a story and shifts its pace to slow or high gear.
The technique of “showing” means to create a scene, to expand time, and to dramatize the story, whether fiction or creative nonfiction.
You will stretch the details into a vivid description, or a larger scene. A scene includes the setting, dialogue, action from a particular character, imagery with word pictures. By showing your readers what happened or how a character is dressed or conducts himself or herself, you create significance to a story, whether fiction or nonfiction. You also make your readers believe the story and produce an entertaining read. And only work that is entertaining will get published and purchased.
The technique of “telling” your reader means that you summarize and compress description of character and events in the story, reducing or eliminating the concrete and specific details, reducing or eliminating sensory images, erasing the scene of a story. In other words, sometimes you will compress the details of a character or event into a summary. Summarizing enables you to speed up the pace of the story, explain inner thoughts of character or significance of events that cannot be explained in scenes, provide a backdrop, or write about exposition/background of the story.
In this post, I’ll explain how to use the techniques of ” showing and telling” when writing poetry, short fiction, or creative nonfiction.
Showing the Reader (Writing a Scene)
As an aspiring writer, you desire to create compelling, believable, entertaining, even memorable prose or poetry. By deploying the technique of “showing” your readers, writing in scenes, you are able to create a “felt experience” in the mind of the reader. This technique is used to evoke an emotional response. Moreover, showing the reader makes the story believable, as you are able to “recreate the scene with words.” If you are unable to entertain or make the story believable, readers will put down your piece of creative writing before finishing it.
Instead of summarizing or compressing details, the writer shows readers by constructing a scene for each important event that unfolds or to develop a character. The scene in prose or poetry is just like the scene in a movie, which has a beginning, middle, and end. Writing a scene instead of a summary brings the story to life, creates a dream in the mind of the reader, and entertains them, inspires them to turn the page, to discover what happens next. You can only create memorable prose or poetry with scenes. And all great poets, like Charles Simic, or memorable writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, write scenes for their fictional stories or poems. Here is an example from writer Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Fall of the House of Usher:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was–but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me–upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain–upon the bleak walls–upon the vacant eye-like windows–upon a few rank sedges–and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees–with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life-the hideous dropping off of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life–the hideous dropping off of the veil…
When should you show readers what happened ?
You ought to create a scene for any of the following situations:
- Conflict in the mind of the character or with another character or society
- Setbacks or obstacles that prevent the character from achieving his or her goal
- Turning point, such as an illness, marriage break up, job loss
- Crisis, such as when you or the character runs out of options and must make a painful and stressful decision.
As well, when developing a character, you construct the character sketch or profile with vivid details, concrete and particular description, describing the behaviour of a character within a scene. In fiction, you rely on the character sketch or profile to compose your imaginary character. In a personal essay, you share important details, such as personality traits, about yourself.
How can you show your readers a character or what happened?
There are many techniques. The most important are to write down important details, use concrete and particular descriptions, use sensory images that create word pictures in the mind of your readers. Here is a list of ways to show your reader:
- Sensory imagery-use language that appeals to the sense of sight, taste, smell, touch, hearing
- Vivid details that are concrete, specific, particular
- Concrete and specific descriptions
- Metaphor and simile
- Symbolism-something or some object that represents more than its literal meaning.
- Personification-using descriptions, traits, adjectives applied to human beings to describe things that are not human. Example: The rock growled at us as we walked past.
As well, remember to use the active voice. It performs the action of the verb. Example: Rocky, the boxer, closed his fist, “punched” his wife in the face.
How do you show your readers by constructing a scene?
You can craft a scene with the following characteristics:
- Setting-time and place and context.
- Dialogue-what is said by characters in the story, both the main character and supporting cast.
- Action-describing the conduct of the character with significant details.
- Sensory imagery-language that appeals to the sense of sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing.
- Details-significant and particular details; sensory images.
- Descriptions–Concrete and specific descriptions.
As well, remember that a scene has a beginning, middle, and end—just like a scene from a movie. And always use the active voice, which performs the action of the verb. Example: Eddie Ruth, the baseball player, smacked the pitch with the heavy bat, over the centerfield fence for a home run.
Telling Your Readers (Writing a Summary)
Sometimes, you’ll be required to tell your readers what happened by compressing time and leaving out many of the important, particular details. Essentially, you’ll summarize what happened. Here’s an example:
First, I purchased money from the ATM machine, then I bought groceries, then I cooked dinner, then I watched television…When the night descended, I drifted off to sleep.
This is a summary of how the person carried out their day. It is not detailed description or series of scenes.
When should you tell your readers what happened? There are many suggestions or guidelines that you can use to help you determine when to show and when to tell. You can tell your readers when you are writing:
- Backdrop of the story– setting of the story, such as time and place and context
- Exposition-The writer provides the reader with background details about plot, setting, character, theme.
- Interpret ting an experience or event. Sometimes you will need to explain the significance of a scene.
- Repeated experiences , such as daily rituals or events.
Jane Burroway in Writing Fiction suggests that there are two ways to write a summary:
- Sequential summary-The writer tells the reader what has happened with a condensed and compressed version of the story. Significant details are omitted. Instead, the story is summarized.
- Circumstantial summary-The writer uses summary to describe the circumstances for repeated details or what has happened, such as time, place, cause, effect, reasons for occurrence.
When writing a summary, the writer can also include vivid details–but not a scene. Writing a summary is most important in short fiction and narrative poetry.
As well, a summary can be used by the writer within a scene. Remember, a scene includes setting details, dialogue, action, imagery, concrete and specific description. Often this summary explains the significance of the scene.
Read any edition of the prestigious New Yorker magazine, and you will see that all writers use the techniques of showing and telling in poetry, short fiction, book reviews, film reviews, essays, profiles, literary journalistic essays, commentary.
Showing and telling are two of the most important techniques you can learn and apply in your creative writing, whether you desire to write prose or poetry. To “show” means to write in scenes, and to use vivid, concrete, particular, significant details. “To tell” means to compress and to summarize the character sketch and the events that have happened.
Showing and telling is a balancing act. Too much generalization leads to boredom. Too much detail also leads to boredom.
The successful poet, fiction writer, creative nonfiction writer both “shows and tells” his/her readers, and knows when to use each technique to compose a poem, short story, novel, personal narrative essay, memoir, or any other type of creative writing.
For additional explanation on showing and telling, you can read:
- Writing fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
- Words Overflown by Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight from the Vermont College of Fine Arts M.F.A Program, edited by David Jauss
- Showing and Telling: Learn How to Show & Tell for Powerful & Balanced Writing, by Laurie Alberts.
By Dave Hood
How do you find material to write creatively about? You must open the door, peer into the basement, dust off long forgotten memories of childhood, turning points, achievements, and so forth. These memories of experience are the pillars of the personal narrative essay, the memoir, the autobiography, and biography. And when you think about it, memories plays a vital role in all creative writing, whether a poem, short story, creative nonfiction: When the present moment of time passes, it becomes a memory, a word picture.
In this article, I’ll explain how to tap into your memories and how to write about them in creative nonfiction.
What is the Importance of Memory?
“Memory has been called the ultimate mythmaker, continually seeking meaning in the random and often unfathomable events in our lives.” (Tell It Slant)
Memory also constructs the self– who you are. The writer defines his or her sense of self from memories of life-achievements, misfortunes, sad times, charming occasions, and much more. Every life experience becomes a memory, which molds and shapes the sense of self. And the creative writer writes about self through the forms of personal essay, memoir, and autobiography.
Memories become fragmented in our minds, which are often filled with many thoughts, images of word pictures, feelings, sensory experiences. We must make order out of this chaos of memory. Writing is a way to do this.
A significant memory can be dredged up from the bottom of the unconscious mind by countless things, such as music, a found object, photography, toy, quotation, name of a place, or bumping into a long forgotten friend while traveling. For instance, ask yourself the following: What was your favorite toy as a child? Instantly, you will call memories of your childhood? Perhaps you enjoyed playing with a Barbie doll, Hot Wheels, the Cabbage Patch doll. You can use your favorite toys, these objects, as writing prompts, to tap into memories filed away in your mind.
And so, your memories are the foundation of all creative writing.
The Five Senses
We experience memories through our five senses— sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Each of these senses can be used by the writer to evoke memories to write about.
Our sense of smell is automatic. Some smells we enjoy. Others smells are detestable. For instance, the scent of some perfume can be erotic, but the stench of rotting garbage can make a person want to vomit. To write about memories of smell, ask yourself: What smells do you enjoy? Why? Then write about them. What smells do you loath? Write about them.
Our sense of taste is often acquired. Food provides immediate gratification, fills our stomachs when we’re hungry, meets a need for comfort. The taste of food evokes all sorts of memories. To write about taste, ask yourself: What foods do I enjoy: Why? Write about them. Then ask yourself : what tastes awful? Write about it.
The sense of sound is a powerful tool for mining your memory. For instance, hearing a love song on the car radio as you drive to work can conjure up memories of a love that died, or a childhood memory, or a happy occasion. We hear sounds everywhere: Strolling along the street, we hear honking horns, roadside construction, the roar of the public bus. At home, with the window open, we hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, the rain drumming on the concrete tiles on the porch. To write about sound, ask yourself , what sounds do you enjoy? Why. Write about them.
The sense of touch also evokes memories. We all desire touch. It is a human need. That is why sex is so important to humanity–as it expresses love and the desire to be touched in erotic ways. The sense of touch also allows us to do everything we take for granted, like walking, picking something up, lying down. Without our sense of touch, we would become disoriented in our surroundings. Sometimes touch can cause pain. Other times, it can arouse sensual desires. To write about touch, ask yourself: What are the most painful memories of physical pain, then write about them. Ask yourself, what are your most pleasant memories? Write about them.
The sense of sight is the most powerful of our senses. We see memories in our mind. They are word pictures, which we play over and over. Some are painful, sad, distressing. Others are pleasant. The mind stores these short film clips of memory in the unconscious mind. To write about them, you must get in touch with them. Sometimes an old photograph can stir your memory. Other times, an old show on television can evoke memories. There are countless things that can trigger memories of sight. To write about memory, ask yourself, What is the worst thing you have ever seen? Then write about it. Then ask yourself, what is the most beautiful thing you have seen? Write about it.
What Memories to Write About?
Author Louis Daniel, who has written a wonderful book called “How to Write Your Own Life Story”, explains how to dive into the deep-sea of your memory, find treasures to write about. Here are a few suggestions from her book that you can use as writing prompts to craft a personal essay or a memoir:
- First experiences, like your first love, first car, first sex, first job. Write about first experiences that were memorable.
- Achievement, such as graduation, awards, running a marathon. Write about those things you are proud of.
- Turning points, like the death of a parent, job loss, illness, break up of a marriage. Write about experiences that changed you forever.
- Inventions, like the iPod, computer, Internet, dishwasher, VCR player. Write about technologies had an impact on your life.
- Family traditions, such as birthdays, holidays, vacations, anniversaries. Write about those experiences that had an impact.
Tools for Mining Your Memories?
There are many ways to mine your memory. I will discuss a few.
The easiest way to tap into your memory is to use a writing prompt. There are many. For instance, find an old photograph of someone important in your life, then begin writing about that person, asking yourself, what memories pop into your mind.
Other writing prompts include brief encounters, favorite books and movies and music, diaries, newspaper articles, old toys, a diary, a wedding dress, or any other object that has been part of your life.
Author Judy Reeves has written a splendid book that will enable you to mine your memory. The book is called “A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Living Muse for the Writing Life. This book provides countless ways to tap into your memory–writing prompts, exercises, ways to find images and inspiration. For instance, she suggests writing about “what makes you laugh?” To write about laughter and humour, ask yourself: What are the funniest moments in your life? Who are the funniest people in your life? Who are those who have no humour? Write about them.
Another way to get in touch with your memories is by freewriting. Here’s how: Opening your notebook and write down the details of significant memories that pass into your mind. Write about anything that passes into your conscious mind. That is why it’s called freewriting. Freewriting will open the door to your unconscious mind, bringing forth memories long forgotten. As you remember these details, other memories will appear in your mind. Freewriting is like knocking over the dominos: After the first domino falls, others fall over.
Another tool is to create a map of your neighborhood–the school, shape of the street, neighbor’s houses, the park. Then fill in the details of your friend’s, your neighbors, the place you played football or soccer or baseball as a kid. As you fill in the map of the neighborhood with details, write about them in detail.
A powerful tool for mining your memory is the time line. Essentially, you take a date, perhaps 1969, and then ask yourself, what important events happened that year? Where were you? What were you doing? How did you feel when you heard or saw the important events of history? For instance, where were you when you heard the news that John Lennon died or that terrorists had crashed a plane into the twin towers?
Tools for Writing About Memory
Your memory provides material for writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal narrative essay or a memoir. When you write about memories, you must share the details of the experience with your reader . You could simply tell your reader what happened. But this is dull. Readers want to be entertained. To write about memories, you want to create order from chaos, and so there must be some significance in the memory, such as a lesson learned, and a universal truth that appeals to or is experienced by all of humanity.
When writing about memory, you put into use the tools of fiction and poetry. Here are a few ways to delight your readers with your memories expressed as personal narratives:
- Show, don’t tell your reader. The best way to show your reader a memory is to make it vivid with details and concrete and specific descriptions.
- When writing about memories use associations, such as the old man smelled like an open can of beer. The best way is to use similes and metaphors to make the abstract concrete.
- Use sensory images–word pictures that describe memories of sight, taste, touch, smell, hearing.
- Write vivid descriptions.
Along with knowing how to write creatively, the ability to mine your memories for significant materials is one of the most important tools you have for constructing memorable prose. And if you are going to write a personal narrative essay or memoir, being able to open the door to the basement of your memory and turning on the light to see what’s stored away is paramount.
In summary, creative nonfiction is based on memory, and so you are required to dust off memories and then write about them in a way that is entertaining. That is why you must apply similes and metaphors and vivid descriptions to your memories. Don’t tell the reader about a memory! Show your reader by using these poetic and fiction techniques, especially by painting your writing with vivid details and concrete and specific descriptions.
Freewriting, using writing prompts, reading ” How to Write Your Life Story”, using a time line—these are useful techniques to find material in your mind to craft creative nonfiction.
To find out more about the tools for mining your memories and writing about these memories, I suggest you read the following:
- How to Write About Your Own Life Story by Louis Daniel
- A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves
- Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach
- Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
Suppose you want to become a writer, but you haven’t developed the habit of writing on a regular basis. Perhaps you’re not sure what to write about. Perhaps you don’t know how to get in touch with your inner self. Perhaps you just want to explore journal writing, learn to do it. Julia Cameron has written a splendid book, “The Write to Right: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writer’s Life.”, that will kick start your journal writing.
It is written for both the established writer and the aspiring writer and been a bestseller.
In this post, I’ll discuss some of the aspects of her book, and how her exercises and advise can inspire you to write in your personal journal.
Author Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write” is a series of essays on a myriad of topics. Each essay ends with an exercise that will help you begin journal writing or bring an end to writer’s block. She includes essays on such topics as “Let Yourself Write”, “The Writing Life”, “Bad Writing”, “Mood”, “Place”, “Procrastination”, “I Would Love to Write, But..”, “The Right to Write.” If you’re not sure what to write about in your personal journal, Cameron’s book “The Right to Write” is a valuable tool that will inspire you to write, and also provide sage advise on writing.
One of Cameron’s themes is that we must make time to write. In journal writing, you can “think of something to write about or write about what we happen to be thinking about.” It’s best to just let the words flow like a river from your mind to the paper or the screen. Don’t think so much. Just write. Journal writing allows you to make time in your life for writing.
Cameron shares the wisdom that we must “make time to write” rather than waiting to “find time.” In other words, you must set a time, establish a place, purchase yourself a notebook and pen, or setup a file, blog on the Web, and then begin writing on a regular basis, each day for 15 minutes to 30 minutes. Journal writing allows you to get into the habit of writing, enables you to practice your writing, experiment with your writing, record your life story, plant seeds that might grow into poetry, personal essay, a short story. She suggests that we “don’t wait to find time.” We should “steal time”, and use this precious time for writing—-at a coffee shop, while cooking dinner, first thing in the morning.
How do you get in the habit of journal writing? Cameron introduces the task of morning pages. Each morning, first thing you need to do is write three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing, also known as free-writing, in a personal journal. You can write three pages of absolutely anything that pops into your mind. The point is to write. Writing develops the habit of writing, makes you a writer. “We often say we don’t have time to write But we do have time to write—a little, each day.”
Cameron also suggests that we use the tool of the “Artist’s Date” to inspire us to write, prevent writer’s block. She writes: “Learning to take such dates is pivotal to our artistic maintenance. They enrich a sense of well-being and create a bubbling up of inspiration and insight.” Each week, or a couple of times a month, you need to feed your creative spirit by doing something that involves creativity, such as visiting an art gallery, see a vintage film, walk along the Boardwalk next to the lake, take a bike ride in the woods, attend a jazz festival. By doing such activities, you will discover things to write about.
Cameron also suggest that we should focus on just getting it down on paper, now worry about making mistakes, not judge our writing. She writes: “In order to be a good writer, I have to be willing to be a bad writer.” In other words, write it all down, fill the paper or screen. Don’t edit as you write. Revising, editing, proofreading take place later in time. She points out: “Perfectionism is a primary writer’s block.”
For instance, her chapter on “This Writing Life” ends with the following exercise: “We are often so busy wanting to have a life as a writer that we forget that we have a life to write about.” She suggest that we start writing about our life by describing a situation in your life that you want to metabolize, such dealing with the bossy boss, worrying about an illness, dealing with unemployment.
She has an exercise in her chapter on “Drama.” She writes: “Drama in our lives keeps us from putting drama on the page” When we lose focus, we need to reconnect with our “before, during, and after life.” She suggests that you write out a list of 100 things you love. After you have completed the list, save it. Next time you lose focus in your life, reread the list of 100 things you love.
In the chapter on “Valuing Our Experience” she writes: “Writing is an act of self-cherishing. We often write most deeply and happily on those areas closest to our hearts. “ In this exercise, she suggests that you write a list of things your “most proud of.”
One of the most interesting exercises in the book is from her chapter on “Specificity” in which she suggest that you list and describe 10 things in your environment, such as your bedroom, living room, study, coffee shop. Next, ask yourself: What are your associations with them, however nonsensical Then write about it. For instance, I used this exercise to help uncover deeper meaning in a poem on driftwood. I described the driftwood, and its deeper meaning to me was that it reminded me of a piece of art by Henry Moore, who sculptured various shapes, forms of reclining figures, art that I love.
Another useful exercise is explained at the end of the chapter “ I Would Love to Write, But…” The exercise is called “The Reader’s Digest Quotient”. You are to list five trite, clichéd, heartfelt topics that are human to you. Your goal is to generate a list of topics that anyone can relate to. You then choose a topic, write about it. You are to recall what was memorable, what you enjoyed, what is loveable about your subject, then write it down in detail.
Throughout the text, she provides words of wisdom. Here is some of the sage advise she shares:
- “The act of writing makes you a writer.”
- “When we just let ourselves write, we get it right.”
- “We should write because writing brings clarity and passion to act of living.”
- “Writing is like breathing, it’s possible to learn to do it well, but the point is to do it no matter what.”
- Most of us try to write too carefully. We try to do it “right.” We try to sound smart…Writing goes much better when we don’t work at it so much.”
- There is a great happiness in letting myself write. I don’t always do it well, or need to, but I do need to do it.”
For Cameron, writing is food itself. She requires a certain amount of writing to stay healthy. If this metaphor applies to you, you need to read her book “The Right to Write”. If it doesn’t, you still need to read her book. It will provide words of wisdom, useful exercises that you can use for journal writing. Most of all, it will inspire you to begin writing through journal writing.
If you desire, have a dream to become a writer, you need to write on a regular basis, preferably each day. The act of writing gets you in the habit of writing. The act of writing each day allows you to practice your writing. One of the best ways to learn to write well is by keeping a personal journal. In this article, I discuss what you can write about in a personal journal and some of the benefits of journal writing.
What should you include in your writing journal? You can include anything you want in a personal journal. The decision is yours to make.
Here’s a favorite poem about things people include in a personal journal:
“What’s In My Journal”
by William Stafford, from Crossing Unmarked Snow
“Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Thing, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can’t find them. Someone’s terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine
Clearly, from the contents of the poem, you can write about anything in your journal. You can write about your thoughts, feelings, impressions. You can write about a bad dream, something that created anxiety, joy. You can write about what goes in during daily life. For instance, perhaps you want to write about the “odd ball” you met on the way to the subway. You can write about a summer vacation, winter getaway, day trip.
You can write about what you see and hear. For instance, perhaps you want to write about an overheard conversation, a car accident, your frustrating experience in the checkout lineup. What you include in your personal journal is personal—and for your eyes only.
I use my laptop as a tool to make journal entries, then save the entry to my journal writing file, more than 100 pages, on my hardrive. Journal writing has allowed me to get into the habit of writing and to record my travels from day to day, record my thoughts, impressions, experiences in a permanent place.
In my journal writing, I include new words that I stumble across while reading. For instance, the other day, I learned the word “cornucopia.” I also include interesting or inspirational quotations.
If I read a good book review, I write down the title of the book, author’s name, synopsis of the book. If I discover a good poem, I include add it to my personal journal.
Here are a few things you can include in your journal:
- Thoughts, feelings, impressions
- Opinions on topics or issues important to you
- What goes on in your daily life. Example: Attending a film, walking along the beach, your book review
- What’s making news or in the public consciousness
- Short poems
- Inspiring photographs
- Interesting quotations
- New words come across while reading, language that you intend to use in writing or daily conversation
- Something you’ve learned
How should you write an entry in a personal journal? There are no rules. The decision is yours to make. I always include the date of the entry. Sometimes I write in a notebook. Other times, I make an entry in a journal I keep on my laptop. Sometimes I write in phrases. Other times, I write complete sentences.
Some instructors of creative writing suggest that you engage in freewriting. This involves sitting down, pen in hand, or hands on keyboard, then just writing about whatever “pops into your mind.” This is a good way to begin writing if you don’t know what to write about. Freewriting enables you to get into the habit of writing. It also allows you to record what’s on your mind. It is a good method to use for people who are just starting to write.
However, if you’re an experienced writer or have lots of things you want to write about, the best way to write is to type the date, and the begin writing about what’s on your mind.
The journal becomes a record of your life, a personal scrapbook of thoughts, experiences, impressions, memories, meaningful things you’ve collected in your travels, like inspirational photos, ten dollar words, illuminating poems, and so forth.
Keep in mind that a journal is not a diary. The journal is much more: You can include anything—from photos, to poetry, to inspirational quotes. Journal writing is also a way for you to plant the seeds for future writing—such as a poem, short story, personal essay.
What are the benefits of journal writing? There are many. I’ve discovered that keeping a journal has allowed me to experiment with my writing. For instance, I’ve written poetry in my journal by experimenting with poetic devices such as simile, metaphor, personification. Keeping a journal has also enabled me to capture ideas to write about in the future. For instance, I often write poems based on what I’ve recorded in my personal journal. And journal writing has also allowed me to get in the habit of writing. Finally, journal writing can be a catharsis. For two years, when I was going through a difficult time several years ago, I kept a personal journal of my experiences, thoughts, feelings. By writing, I was able to clear my mind of thoughts that were distressing experiences.
To learn more about journal writing, read Julia Cameron’s “The Right to Write” and Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”. Susan Tiberghien has a good chapter on journal writing in her bestselling book on creative writing called “One Year to the Writing Life.”
Many people say they don’t have time to write. Julia Cameron in “The Right to Write” suggests that to begin writing, you must “make time”, not wait to “find time.” One of the best ways to make time for writing is through journal writing.
Let me repeat: One of the best ways to begin creative writing is to to keep a personal journal. As well, please note: The act of writing makes you a writer.
The easiest way to begin journal writing is through “freewriting.” Just sit down, write or type the date, and a title if you wish, then start to write about what you are thinking about, whatever comes to mind. Don’t try to think about what you want to write, just begin to write. Get it down on paper or on the screen. Freewriting gets you in the habit of writing. Do it every day for 10 to 20 minutes. By writing, you will improve your writing.
Don’t try to be a perfectionist. Attempting to do this will prevent you from writing. Instead engage in the act of freewriting. Write about your thoughts, feelings, impressions. Write about your memories as a child, what happened to you yesterday. Write about an adventure or misadventure.
Don’t try to write and then edit as you go. Trying to polish your work as you write will prevent you from getting into the “flow” of writing. It will prevent you from using your creative spirit. By editing as you go, you will be striving for perfection, which will stifle your creativity and need to get your thoughts, feelings, impressions down on paper. Strive to write continuously–edit your work after. And with journal writing, you don’t need to edit your work. Your personal journal is for your eyes only. It is a private writing experience.
Journal writing gets you into the habit of writing. It also allows you to capture memories, get in touch with your thoughts and feelings, find your voice, plant seeds for writing poetry, short fiction, personal essays, and much more.
To be a writer, you must write. Keeping a journal is the best way to begin creative writing. You can use your laptop, a notebook, or setup a blog, set it to private. Each day, set time aside to write. Get into the habit of writing. Remember, the act of writing makes you a writer. Journal writing and freewriting are the foundation of creative writing.
To help you begin journal writing, there are several great books available from a bookstore near you. (Amazon or Chapter’s ,Indigo) .Here are three that I recommend, not only for journal writing, but also to advance your creative writing:
- Julia Cameron’s “The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life”
- Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”
- Natalie Goldberg’s “Getting Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within”
Each of these books provide advice and exercises to help you write. The author’s wisdom on writing will provide inspiration for journal writing and other types of creative writing.
Another book I recommend is “One Year to the Writer’s Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art “and Craft by Susan Tiberghien. She includes an illuminating chapter of journal writing. Reading this book, becoming mindful fo the advice she offers, completing the exercises, and journal writing each day will fast track you to the writer’s life.
Remember, the act of writing makes you a writer. Journal writing is an easy way to get into the habit of becoming a writer.