Keeping a Journal: What’s It Worth?, by Jack Smith

Keeping a journal is a typical writerly thing to do. After all, writers are absorbing the world around them, noting things of interest for their work: odd and intriguing things, funny things, human traits, distinguishing characteristics, mannerisms. These things find their way into stories, maybe a bit later, maybe years hence. And if writers don’t record ideas and details as they occur, they’ll probably forget them. Valuable material could be lost forever. But saving important stuff for later use is only one purpose of keeping a journal. There are a number of other good reasons, as writers have discovered. And the payoffs can be substantial.


What writers put in their journals depends on their needs as well as how they conceive of the function of a journal.

Some writers keep a journal mostly as a storehouse of information—for later use.

John Flynn, author of a travel novel, Heaven Is a Place Where Your Language Isn’t Spoken, has kept a journal “at varying times, and at varying intensities.” His journals have been all-encompassing in detail, including “thoughts, descriptive passages, lists of books, authors, movies, philosophers, dates in history, quotations, all sorts of information that I may find useful in the future.” But in addition to all this he will “scribble little notes” to himself and later organize them for use in poems, stories, or a novel.

Kristen-Paige Madonia, whose debut novel will be published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers in 2012, uses her journal to work out plot and characters for current projects as well as to generate ideas for future ones. She also keeps her journal handy to eavesdrop in public places. “I’ve mined countless coffee shop conversations for character, dialogue and plot ideas!” Madonia also lists books she wants to read as well as book reviews. She takes notes at writers’ conferences and readings, jotting down “inspiring quotes or writing and industry advice.”

If writers use their journals to record ideas for both works in progress and future ones, they also find them a good place for storing revision ideas. Ronna Wineberg, author of the prize-winning Second Language, states: “I sometimes have an idea for how to revise a piece. I write this in the journal—a quick idea, some dialogue, description, or a whole scene or scenes. Then I go back to it when I have time to work on the story or novel.”

A journal can also be a place to think out your thoughts—a kind of private sounding board. Harriet Scott Chessman, author of Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, among other novels, sees her journal “primarily as a space in which I can be free to ‘talk’ to myself. I try to spill the ideas out, without worrying about how they look or sound. It’s a more fertile, intimate, private space, as close to my mind as I can come in words.” Overall, this private space helps prepare Chessman for writing her stories.

Author of several works of fiction, most recently Heidegger’s Glasses, Thaisa Frank keeps what she calls a “writer’s log,” which departs from any standard kind of journal—radically, she believes. She explains the difference: “That is—I jot down numerous words, phrases and spontaneous outpourings that come from my voice, rather than from socialized language.” Her log is a place of risk versus record keeping of any kind. “I don’t keep a journal in the sense of ‘journaling’—i.e. talking about my day, my feelings. This sort of journal is death to my writing, because fiction writing is about what I don’t know rather than what I already know.” If Frank does write about a real event, she goes “into a reverie and a few concrete images appear (a red coat, a conversation, the way potatoes looked on a blue plate).” These are not images observed in the regular manner. “These images,” she says, “have nothing to do with the running narrative of my day, which I know about and can’t surprise me. They’re what I don’t know about my day or don’t even want to remember.” Above all, her writer’s log needs to be “dangerous.”

If the use and contents of a journal vary, so does the method of keeping one. Some writers keep several notebooks going at a time instead of what we might think of as the traditional journal look—that is, all in one volume. How writers use these notebooks varies, of course.


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