Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Lessons of a Writer’s Journal

“To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.”
—Allen Ginsberg

For a long time, I journaled like my life depended on it. And when I say “a long time,” I mean over ten years. (Prior to my years of excessive journaling, I was merely a frequent journal writer. I’ve kept a diary/journal of some sort since I was nine.)

I never regarded journal writing as important. I thought of it as free therapy. Writing helped me sort through my thoughts. It gave me a place to vent without getting fired or arrested. Bad fiction and sappy poetry lived in my journals, right next to the written temper tantrums and to-do lists. It was word gumbo.

At some point, perhaps after the point at which I was buying my favorite style of journal in bulk, I started reading my old journals.

The first thing I noticed was that the sheer volume of writing practice had sharpened my voice and style. Practice may not make you perfect, but it will make you better.

The second thing I noticed was that I complained a lot. I had journal upon journal filled with ranting, anger, and a core set of constantly repeated gripes (let’s call them Standard Operating Gripes—just because SOG is such a great acronym for what I found). This discovery was enlightening and disturbing.

The last thing I discovered was that there was some good stuff in there. I read descriptions of taking my son to the beach when he was a toddler, of caring for my mother when she died, of lazy afternoons under the plum tree in my beloved old backyard—all of it unedited, honest, and deeply personal. It was like panning for gold. I sorted through the dirt of complaints, marveling when I uncovered the nuggets.

It took me days to read through my old journals, and at the end I realized I had a priceless resource. I had a record of my life, a clear picture of my improvements and failings (as both a writer and a person), and some inspired pieces of work.

Keeping a journal gives you a place for unrestrained, raw writing not intended for an audience. It's where you build the foundation for the article, or the novel, or the breakthrough that will come later.

What have you learned from journal writing?

For more great writing quotes, visit Writer's Digest.

Photo courtesy of TheCreativePen

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