How Writers Used Their Journals: And Thoughts about How to Use Your Journal

  • “Don’t get it right the first time,” James Thurber admonished. “Just get it written.” The journal is the perfect place to get it written the first time–to have the space to work within the bounds of imperfection. Writing within an environment where there is no audience to please helps most writers loosen up.
  • Allen Ginsberg took the prose he had written in his journal and changed where he broke the lines and created poems. Re-read journal passages with this thought in mind. You may also consider going back to a list (see List Journal Technique in Help Menu) that you have created and see if it has potential as a poem.
  • Notebooks that Dostoevsky kept while writing Crime and Punishment are notes to himself about how to write more convincingly. For example, he wrote “in giving it artistic form, don’t forget that he is 23 years old.” You may want to use your journal to coach yourself about guiding principles you want to remember when writing a piece.
  • Virginia Woolf used her diaries to sort out her feelings about the writing process. She reported her doubts as well as her confidences about her books, as well as her worries about how the reviewers would respond. Expressing how you feel about your writing process may free you to write with greater ease.
  • Graham Greene used his journal to store all kinds of information that he might later include in his writing: the big picture of a plot, anecdotes, and minute details. About how he utilizes this information, he remarked in a footnote in one of his journals: “The economy of a novelist is a little like that of a careful housewife, who is unwilling to throw away anything that might perhaps serve its turn. Or perhaps the comparison is closer to the Chinese cook who leaves hardly any part of a duck unserved.”
  • Writers as diverse as Robert Louis Stevenson, Amy Tan, and Spaulding Gray credit their dreams as inspiration for their stories. Keep a notebook by the side of your bed so you can write down a few notes about the dream before you get out of bed. Then, go directly to your computer (which you may want tokeep on overnight so you don’t have to wait while it boots up), open a Dream Journal entry, and write as much of the dream details as you can remember.
  • Eavesdrop shamelessly. Maeve Binchy, author of Circle of Friends, describes in an essay in The Writer magazine how she purposefully goes to particular places to overhear dialogues that overlap with what she is writing. If, for example, you are writing a conversation between eight year old boys, spend time in a nearby playground or video arcade. Listen astutely and you’ll learn more than just what people are saying, but how they say it: speech patterns, slang phrases, and the rhythm of the conversation.(Keep these overheard conversations in your LifeJournal, under a Topic such as “Conversations.” You may want to also create a Topic called “Characters” to include the cast of characters on which you are working.)
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald used a special notebook exclusively to write possible titles for his works. Create a Topic or a journal entry called “Possible Titles” and add to it whenever an idea surfaces. You’ll have a plethora of possibilities handy next time you look for a title.