There’s a distinct difference between knowing something intellectually, and realising what it means in fact, to do. Take the writer’s journal. I’ve ‘known’ about this for about three years now, after reading in Writers’ Ask how to do it, specifically, and what it was good for. Ah yes, I thought, what a good idea. I made a half-arsed attempt at it, but I didn’t get it.
I guess some part of me must have intuitively known about it for a much longer time, because I’ve been collecting notebooks for the last fifteen years. I’ve carried them around in my bag, constantly, in case an idea or a piece of prose or poetry strikes. I have written in them, sporadically. But herein lies the rub; a little dribble here and there does not a writer’s journal make.
Last year I studied Kate Grenville’s The Writing Book in depth, and attempted some of her techniques. The thing that stuck with me from it is that writing is often made up of fragments and that one must collect fragments. I applied that too, again, in a muddled, unfocused sort of a way.
Then while recently reading Jean Rhys’ Letters, 1931-1966, I had a few fleeting moments of recognition of story, in my reaction to things she wrote about her living conditions. I recognised them as ‘small stories’, thought of writing them down (there were two) and had the unhelpful and stupid thought of it’ll come back to me when I’m writing.
No, it won’t. They are already gone.
I am aware that part of my writing process is for things to coagulate, very slowly, into useful information and that often connections happen in the most mundane or unlikely of times or ways. It seems this coalescing slowness applies to my understanding of writing processes too, because the same day while putting the clean sheets back on the bed, a perfect recognition of what it really means to keep a writer’s journal leapt into my head, bounding across the mattress from that distance of view and inward thinking that the landscape around here offers.
Oh, I should have written them down. Oh, they are fragments. Oh, I need to keep a journal on me at all times. And write in it, constantly.
It’s not just about ideas – ideas in fact, are probably the least important thing in a note book, in a writer’s journal. Ideas often stagnate; stories, for me, generally refuse to be corralled into an idea I once had. It’s impressions, words, small stories, that make the fragments that go into a story, that build a story.
It’s taking notes as I read, both what the words provoke in my mind and direct quotes. It’s the thoughts that wander around in my brain of their own accord when I’m washing up or or cooking or driving past road side crosses on my way to work. There’s characters in those fragments, or parts of them, or moments of a novel or a story.
So yesterday I put a notebook and pen on the little stack of books that I’m reading, and began using them. I have a second notebook in my bag, in which I took a note in class from something the lecturer said about the purpose of writing when writing about art or sport. It has begun.
It feels like this is what I am meant to be doing, like this gives some sense of direction and purpose to those moments when I am not directly creating. It feels like a way forward, a direction, a clarity.
It feels like something inside me is saying, Yes. This. Now. Good.
What do other writers do? Do you keep a journal? How do you use it?