by Christina Kapp, TWC Instructor & Outreach Coordinator
I wish I could say that my journal was any less cluttered than my desk, my closet, my attic, but it’s not. I aspire to order in so many things and fail miserably.
There are plenty of writers to emulate when journaling. Julia Cameron’s morning pages (The Artist’s Way), Natalie Goldberg’s handwritten, spiral bound notebooks (Writing Down the Bones), Anaïs Nin’s insights (The Diary of Anaïs Nin). And of course who can forget Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” and her careful eye for detail? What do these writers’ musings have to do with my own journals, my page after page of typed (I hate handwriting.) rants, false starts, and observations? Much of the time my journal feels like a daily litany of complaints and frustrations punctuated by the occasional gratitude list, which the internet tells you to write once in a while, you know, for mental health and stuff.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” Oh, how pithy! I write: “I journal so I don’t want to yell at people so much,” which is decidedly less so.
To rein in the chaos, once I came up with A Journaling Plan. I decided I would organize my journal and, in theory, this would impose some kind of order on my thoughts. I had a file for “Rough Drafts, Freewrites, and Experiments,” a file for “Lists and Observations,” and a “Gratitude Journal.” Ann Napolitano keeps a daily photo journal and I did this for a while, but then I missed a few days, then a few more, and eventually I gave up keeping them in a separate “Daily Photo” file. (If you want to try something like this, the Day One app is great.) Now I just take photos when the mood strikes.
But who can keep track of so many things? Eventually I gave up and let it all just run back together.
A writer’s journal is like the kitchen drawer of thought. Just toss the list of all the metallic objects I can think of in the same file with the partial story about the guy making pancakes for his wife who is not pregnant again, the rant about the local Board of Education, and the latest freewrite I did in class about oranges even though I’ve written to the orange prompt at least 72 times
already, one version of which has already been published. What about that letter to my department director that I didn’t send? The one I just needed to write to get it off my chest? Yeah, put that in there too. Then let it be. (Some letters are really just meant for journals.)
A writer’s journal is like the kitchen drawer of thought.
What I have come to understand is that the chaos of the journal is the point of it. The decision to type rather than handwrite is a reflection of my personal experience, my personal preference, and it’s not a drawback, it’s a benefit. But that’s just me. My tendency to draw tarot cards when I sit down to write and then ignore them completely in the writing itself is also fine. Tarot cards are not assignments. They’re not even prompts, unless I feel they fit the moment.
The beautiful thing about journaling is that it might be one of the few things in life that you cannot do wrong. Or even badly. Journaling is where you turn over the soil of your mind and see what’s under the surface. It’s talking to yourself on the page, and who doesn’t like to talk to themselves? It’s where you can celebrate your scattered, chaotic self, and write all those things
that feel uncomfortable, dangerous, or, if you will, just flat out wrong. Nothing is off limits. Nothing is out of bounds.
The beautiful thing about journaling is that it might be one of the few things in life that you cannot do wrong.
Since I started with The Writers Circle I have taught Where Do I Begin, our beginner class for adults, nearly every session. A lot of what we do in that class is work on developing a daily writing practice, and the class offers daily prompts to get writers going. I also give writers daily prompts in Writing Short Stories and Flash Fiction and other classes I teach, but the question of
where prompts come from almost feels like Dorothy tearing open the curtain to reveal the wizard at his little machine. Where does inspiration come from? Who has their hands on the levers?
Your prompts might come from the same place I harvest mine, of course: your journals. In journals, prompts grow organically from a messy compost of thoughts, those little shreds of things that seemed meaningless at the time, but as you scroll back and see that you’ve been writing about the paper flowers your kid gave you for Mother’s Day, the party you went to where everyone wore white, the story you read about a unicorn named Kevin, ideas start to grow. Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote, “Pay attention to what you pay attention to.” Annie Dillard says to “follow your own weirdness.” In truth, these are the only real prompts. And where do does a writer do this?
In your journal, of course. That’s where it all begins.