In her classic book about the scribbler’s craft, WRITING DOWN THE BONES, Natalie Goldberg shares her philosophy of writing and the practical applications she’s developed over the years for getting words on the page, ideas into sentences, life into print. “This book is about writing. It is also about using writing as your practice, as a way to help you penetrate your life and become sane” (3).
Sane? Is she serious? Some days I think true sanity would be giving up writing altogether. I know from past experience, however, that no sooner do I officially “quit” writing than I am hit with the irresistible urge to begin again.
A word to the wise. If you ever think, “I could write a book. I have this great story idea . . .” then squash that thought immediately or you, too, may find yourself hopelessly addicted to this drug we call writing. Obviously, it is too late for me. I’m already hooked. While I can’t cure myself of my addiction, I can attempt to manage it. Enter, Natalie Goldberg and timed writing exercises.
Since this is January, the month we’ve designated as National Unreachable Goal-Setting Month, I went ahead and resolved to commit to daily timed writing practice, i.e. setting the timer on the stove and writing crap, er, thoughts in a journal for ten minutes every day.
Excuse me for being initially skeptical about the efficacy of this exercise. I’ve been a diarist since sixth grade, the year I filled a red, hard-bound book with adolescent gushings about one Patrick Tardy (not his real name). That particular journal went up in flames, literally, on New Year’s Day 1981 when I symbolically annihilated my love for dear Patrick by throwing the book into Dad’s Ashley wood stove down in the cellar and waiting for the pages to turn to ash. Unfortunately, I hadn’t learned my lesson and was already showing classic signs of writing-addiction (not to mention romance-addiction). That same day, I began writing in another diary, this one blue with a gold clasp and a key. This artifact from days-gone-by now sits on the top shelf here in my office along with its myriad companions–assorted spiral-bound notebooks, black and white marbled essay books, pretty padded cloth-covered journals, and even one hunk of white, lined loose pages stuck into a manila envelope from the year I decided I couldn’t be hemmed in by bindings of any sort.
As if that made any difference.
Thirty years of daily writing practice, and all I have to show for it is a collection of truly horrible entries. No, really. Some writers may sit down with their beautiful Cross pens and their leather-bound journals and compose the most wondrous prose. Not me. My journaling is the equivalent of psychological diarrhea. All my angst. All my anger. All my frustrations and illogical worry and obsessions. Endless probing of emotional baggage. Repetitive questioning of motives. Tiresome analysis of relationships past and present, punctuated occasionally with some recording of actual events like what I ate that morning, how much I weighed the night before, and what I plan on cooking for dinner later on. My journals make BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY look like a deep and insightful literary masterpiece rather than the delightful, campy chick-lit novel that it is.
(Need I mention my increasing paranoia that I will unexpectedly die and someone–my husband, a parent, my daughter–might actually decide to read my journals? Shudder. I may have to look into buying a safe and instructing my lawyer that the contents are to be destroyed immediately in the event of my departure from this earthly plane.)
I have to ask myself: If journaling hasn’t helped me become a better writer yet, why do I think it will help me become a better writer in the future?
Journaling can be used as a warm-up exercise, a way to get those words and sentences flowing. Daily journaling means showing up with your writer’s mind on a regular basis, not just when you feeling “inspired.” Journaling is a mining exercise, spelunking both near the surface and down in the depths of the writer’s psyche. It provides raw material for future projects. It is also a record of the writer’s journey, regardless of where the writer ends up. It is a place to try on various voices without someone overhearing. It is a place to explore ideas, paste observations, create a mood, or paint a scene to use in a later piece of writing. In most cases, a journal of this type isn’t for public viewing. A journal is private. A journal is your mind, your heart, your soul . . . on paper.
The journal is what we make of it. At least, that’s what I’m gonna tell my students when I start up a teen writing workshop next month. First assignment? Find a journal and a pen you like. Set the timer for ten minutes. Write until the buzzer goes off.
If writing is an addiction, does this mean I’m a drug pusher?
Stay tuned for next time when Yours Truly goes spelunking in her new journal for writing material . . . Outside the Box.