An Interview with Nancy Oliver

playwright and currently staff writer for HBO’s “Six Feet Under”

written June, 2003

Q. Nancy, when did you start keeping a journal? 
A. I started keeping a journal–we called them diaries then–when I was 13. I was already used to writing; it was what I did while all the other kids were drawing. My family doesn’t have the drawing gene. I was partly inspired by the Diary of Anne Frank. Also, believing that someday I would be a world-famous singer and dancer, I wanted to leave material for my biographer.

Q. What is your journal style?
A. Renegade. The only rule is no rules. The only way I can keep a journal going is by not trying to keep a journal going–otherwise it’s too much like practicing the piano and I rebel. Early on, there were sometimes gaps of a couple of years between one entry and the next, but I always came back.

Q. What is in your journal?
A. At first it was all about mememe. Pages and pages of questioning, complaining, analyzing, working it all out in words. This went on for about 20 years. Then gradually, I became less interested in myself and more interested in everything else. This led to a long period of concentrated study, where I would copy out phrases or passages or pages from whatever I was reading. It was a big shift–the journal had gone pro. I used it pretty much exclusively for study and reference, serious pondering related only to work. After more years of that I got claustrophobic, so I loosened up again and at the moment everything’s in it: recipes I’ll never cook, ideas, scene fragments, overheard conversations, more complaining. It’s wide open.

Q. How has LifeJournal affected your journal writing? 
A. Definitely for the better. It’s way easier and much more convenient to spew thoughts into LifeJournal than to write longhand in a composition notebook, which is what I was doing. It amuses me to chart emotions day to day and it’s more organized than I could ever be on my best day. And now, when writing a screenplay, I use LifeJournal rather than solitaire to procrastinate.

Q. How can a journal help a writer?
A. I consider the journal my writing stash. It’s very secret, very private; nobody sees it but me. EVER. A writer needs a safe place to practice technique and craft, and somewhere to store themes and images and ideas. Even if you’re in a writing class or a group where you’re used to people reading your stuff at all stages, try keeping a journal. Remember that James Joyce quote about what an artist needs? “Secrecy, exile and cunning.” Well, that’s what your journal signifies: something separate and apart, not subject to any law, where you develop your brain and your talent with no thought of approval, as a pure action. You get that going, and then you’ll really start to learn.

If you want to see a writer truly work a journal, read Virginia Woolf’s diary. In fact, her husband Leonard put together a volume that collected entries specifically related to writing. You can read her experiments with language and she articulates the struggle to write well better than anybody. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to the actual experience. She used them to “write out the pain,” to encourage herself, to express her fears and ambitions. In addition, she was consciously and deliberately clearing her mind in order to create.

I use my journal for that too. It’s where I try to do most of my whining and complaining. The other advantage to that is when you write out all your crappy emotions in a journal, you can go back, re-read, and cannibalize the best parts to use in one of your characters.

Q. Can you recommend specific techniques for writers in their journals?
A. Copy the writers you like. For a while, write in your journal in the style of a particular writer. How would Colette say what you have to say? How would Ann Rice describe your day at work? How would screenwriters Charlie Kaufman or Alan Ball turn your scene into dialogue? It’s fun and the best way to get inside somebody else’s style. And once you can do other people’s styles, you can steal what you want and make it part of your own. Good writers must be thieves with discrimination and originality.

Get used to recording random thoughts without judging them. You never know what tiny seed will bear fruit and an idea can take years to grow. Or rather, we can take years to grow into the idea. The unconscious is usually way ahead of us. I wrote a line in a journal one day, “Your hypocrisy was irresistible.” My conscious mind forgot about it, but my unconscious kept working and two years down the road, that one line turned into a suite of seven short plays and a personal breakthrough. Who knew? But it was in my journal so it didn’t get lost.

There will be many times when you’re full of restlessness with no project going. Or maybe you’re in a fallow period, with no desire to write at all. That’s when you go to your journal and write. Doesn’t matter what; you don’t even have to use your own brain. Take 15 minutes and copy a page out of a good book, whatever. A journal teaches you to chart, learn and manage your own creative energy. This is a critical skill, particularly for a writer who cares to turn pro. You’ll need to persist and produce on somebody else’s schedule, often using somebody else’s ideas, and writing in somebody else’s style. That takes confidence, experience and discipline, all of which can be served through a journal.

Q. How has LifeJournal helped you?
A. Organization is hard for me. I only have a limited supply and I save it all for writing. So the rest of my life is sort of chaotic–I was always losing my old journal notebooks or accidentally deleting the computer files. But I have yet to accidentally delete LifeJournal and it takes care of irritating details like date and time and little boxes to type in and all I have to do is mindless clicking which I love. It’s a great program; I’m a fan.

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Bio: Nancy Oliver has been writing and directing theater for more years than she cares to mention. She has also written and edited for magazines, newspapers, television, and computer games. After moving to Los Angeles in 1997, she was a reader for Alan Ball, wrote for the Six Feet Under website and spent last season as a staff writer for HBO TV show Six Feet Under. Ms. Oliver recently completed a screenplay and is working on other screenwriting projects.