An Interview with Barbara Bretton

A Best-Selling Author Discusses Journal Writing

Several months ago I corresponded via email with best-selling author Barbara Bretton about her LifeJournal order. When I learned that she had kept a journal since she was in elementary school, I thought she would have a lot of insights about keeping a journal and writing professionally. Ms. Bretton graciously accepted my request for an interview. I sent her five questions:

  1. What do you most enjoy about journal writing?
  2. When you become a published writer, did your journal writing process change?
  3. How does keeping a journal dovetail with writing novels?
  4. What motivates you to keep a journal year after year?
  5. In a note to LifeJournal earlier this year you were very complimentary about the software. How has LifeJournal affected your journal writing?

Below is Barbara Bretton’s reply:

My journal has always been my refuge, the place I go to when the world is too much with me and I need somewhere to lay down my armor and remember who I am and why it matters. It’s no wonder adolescents are drawn to the process of keeping a diary; how better to process the wild and sometimes terrifying changes going on inside their minds and bodies. Capturing emotion on paper is a form of therapy, of catharsis, of giving form to something that is innately formless. Keeping a journal provides order when life seems to be going out of its way to keep you off-balance.

I was seven years old when I started my first journal. I still have it – a small dark blue book with a stiff cover and white lined pages. I wrote my name on the front cover with a magenta ballpoint pen (that blobbed the first B in Barbara) then proceeded to chronicle my life as a student at St. Bartholomew’s Grammar School in Queens, New York.

“Sister Helaine let me wash the blackboard!”

“Ginger put on her new leash!”

“Mommy took me swimming at the Aquacade!”

“Last day of school!”

Four sentences that aren’t terribly memorable, yet they bring days long forgotten rushing back to me in bittersweet detail.

I wasn’t a diligent journaler back then; the entries span the years 1957-1959 and in most cases they amount to no more than a sentence or two on any given day. But the die was cast. Journaling (“keeping a diary” is what we called it) was in my blood and I would return to it again and again.

When I was eleven I read The Diary of Anne Frank and began another experiment in journaling. Anne wrote her diary entries to Kitty. I wrote mine to Anne. It was the summer of 1961 and the experiment faded away come Labor Day.

When I was fifteen, I was browsing through an artist’s supply store and discovered a beautiful sketchbook, hardbound with satiny white pages just waiting to be filled. I ran home with my bounty, carefully covered it with daisy-sprigged Contac paper (it was the Sixties, what can I say?) then launched myself fully into the process. I described myself in minute detail. I described my friends, my family, my teachers, my world. I kept lists of what I was eating, thinking, reading, listening to. And then on the night of April 15, 1966 I wrote about a boy I’d met at a dance earlier in the evening – the same boy I married two and a half years later. The same man I am still married to.

Our courtship and marriage are upstairs in my office, two shelves of notebooks filled with handwritten entries, typed pages, photos and ticket stubs and dreams. A contemporaneous account of how it felt to fall in love, what it was like to be an Air Force wife during the Vietnam War, how we dealt with my cancer and the fact that we wouldn’t be able to have children. Pain, fear, inexpressible joy, bitter disappointment. The stuff of life. The stuff of fiction, too. Not imagined, not recreated, but written down as it was happening in the raw unschooled language of the heart. When I sit down to write a novel I don’t have to struggle to remember how it felt to be young and in love: all I have to do is reach for one of my journals and I’m sixteen again and it’s as real as it was when it first happened.

The funny thing about writing for a living is that it leaves you very little time to write for pleasure. My journal entries during the late 1980s and early 1990s are mostly business-related. If I had a personal life (and I did) you wouldn’t know it to read my journals. Professional angst reigned supreme. Entries were sporadic and even I have to admit they’re not very satisfying to read. Emotion took a back seat to lists of pages written, pages yet to write, of copies sold and royalties spent and why did being a published novelist sometimes hurt more than root canal without anesthesia.

I must be the only woman who ever dragged a journal and fountain pen down to the beach on Maui and paid more attention to describing the texture of the sand and the feel of the wind than I did to the fact that I was finally in Hawaii! Writers just can’t escape their fundamental selves, no matter how hard we try. Truth is, those notes scribbled on vacation, during plane flights, in hospital waiting rooms and doctor’s offices are invaluable resources for the working writer. Old journal entries are a writer’s gold mine.

I had always been a devotee of pen and paper. I believed that a big part of the pleasure of keeping a journal was the sensual delight to be found in cracking open a brand new book of blank pages, uncapping my favorite fountain pen, then watching the words glide across the page. In June of 1997 I took a leap into the future and began writing daily journal entries on my computer. (I also published them anonymously on line. The total right now hovers around 1500 entries.) I type at supersonic speed and suddenly I found myself digging more deeply into my day, spilling details across the screen as rapidly as my memory could process them. Now don’t laugh but I swear to you that the more attention I paid to journaling, the sharper my eyesight grew, the more acute my hearing. The world around me suddenly became more interesting, more filled with incident and color and texture. My days seemed rich with material for my nightly journal entry and that richness fed both my soul and my work.

Someone asked me once why I bothered to keep a journal. Wasn’t it a pain in the ass, she asked, having to step outside the borders of yourself and observe what was happening? Wouldn’t you rather just live your life and let the details fall where they may?

Well, no. Not at all. Not even a little bit. This is your **life** we’re talking about here, your one shot at getting it right (or enjoying what you’re getting wrong.) Who you were and what you thought and how you acted last Thursday or ten years ago is part of who you are right this minute. The wisecracks, the walks in the rain, the overdue rent, the hospital vigils, the trips to the supermarket, ironing shirts – it’s all part of one glorious whole and if you don’t take the time to mark it down, to preserve it in amber, it will all be lost and I guarantee you’ll be the poorer for it. Very often the answers you’re looking for today can be found in yesterday’s questions.

Last fall I began to have a great deal of trouble motivating myself to keep up my journaling. My dad’s colon cancer was growing worse, my mother wasn’t feeling too well, and I was trying to juggle being a daughter with being a wife with being a professional writer with being exhausted. My days had a sameness to them, a sadness if you will, and I had no desire to capture any of it. Living it was tough enough. I couldn’t bring myself to make it any more real than it already was.

But, as I’ve said before, journaling is part of my DNA. I can’t will it away, not anymore. Unfortunately, however, my attempts last fall lacked enthusiasm and the kind of attention to life’s details that make journal entries so invaluable years later. The joy had drained out of the process and without it I felt bereft. Then I found LifeJournal. To be honest, it had been lying on my desk for some time and I had never gotten around to installing it. I knew I needed something new, a kind of creative jumpstart, and I figured I had nothing to lose. So I installed LifeJournal and a whole new world opened up to me.

How can I explain this without sounding mad as the hatter in Alice’s Adventures? The physical look of a page is very important to me, which is why keeping a journal on the blank white pages of Word documents always left part of me unfulfilled. I played with fonts, imported photos to illustrate my text, scanned ticket stubs and postcards, but I still craved something else, something that would surprise me, offer up new ideas or new ways of working the old ideas, a creatively exciting but cozy place to capture my days. I was longing for structure, a foundation that would take the place of my old wild enthusiasm.

LifeJournal did that for me and so much more. It’s like being fourteen and having your own room, a place where you can dress funny and sing along with the radio and not have to answer to anybody. LifeJournal is there to spark your creativity if you need it. It’s there to shelter your dreams as you type. LifeJournal pulls you immediately into its world with no downtime wasted while you master reams of documentation. It’s fully intuitive, forgiving, and more encouraging than your best friend. It automates some of the more annoying tasks associated with keeping a journal, offers prompts that just might lead you down some very interesting writing paths, quotations to inspire you, just about anything you could possibly want in the way of journaling software.

The only thing it can’t do is write the entry for you.

And that brings me to where I am right now. After a short and fierce 44-day battle with pancreatic cancer, my mother died unexpectedly on May 6. My father is moving swiftly toward his own end. I am an only child and the responsibility for easing their journey from this world to the next is on my husband’s and my shoulders. I am torn most days between inexpressible grief and exhaustion. I haven’t written a proper journal entry since March 23rd when we learned that my mother was dying. LifeJournal, however, has made it possible for me to hang onto the details until I have the time and the heart to do them justice. Believe me when I say I wouldn’t even have done that if I’d had to call up the yawning void of an empty Word document. LifeJournal’s flexibility and open acceptance of as much or as little as you can give is a godsend to me. The tools are easy to use, intriguing, and fully functional right out of the box – something you can’t say about most software programs. They seem to somehow think the way I think and look exactly the way I thought they should look. Even if I can’t write a traditional subject-verb-object journal entry, LifeJournal helps me list the events of my day, chart my daily pulse, record my dreams, and when all else fails LifeJournal will gently kick me in the seat of my pants and nudge me back on the right road to my old creative self.

About the author: Barbara Bretton is an avid journaler with over fifty-five volumes to her credit. She is also a best-selling novelist of over forty books. She maintains a website athttp://www.barbarabretton.com/ where writers (and readers) will find much of interest, including a page on journaling. She is the owner of Writers Daily Quote, a mailing list that delivers a daily quote for, by, and about writing life. You can reach Barbara at barbara@barbarabretton.com.