5 Reasons Why Writers Should Keep a Journal

Blogging last week about the value of keeping a journal has me thinking this week about how important journaling is to the writer. 

It can take lots of forms. It need not be expensive or romantic. You don’t need a leather bound volume and a fountain pen, or copious hours to devote to it. Unless you like that sort of thing. Then, by all means, go for it. But a 50 cent spiral notebook from Walmart and a Bic pen work too. Or the envelope of a piece of junk mail, and a broken crayon you found on the floorboard of the car is just as good.

Whatever form it takes, it‘s a good practice for many reasons.

Here are my top 5.

1. Preservation. If you played video games in the 90’s, you saw these words on the screen when you tried to power off the Nintendo: “Everything not saved will be lost.” It’s true, and don’t think for a second that you will remember that perfect line of dialogue that came to you while you were driving, or showering, or grocery shopping. It will be gone, like a dandelion puff, blown away to who-knows-where. You won’t even remember that you wanted to remember. Use your smartphone, or keep a pad of paper in your purse, or even a napkin in your glove box. I’ve been known to utilize them all as makeshift journals. 

Don’t let those wonderful bursts of creativity go to waste because you didn’t have a way to preserve them until you could sit down at the computer and work them into your MS. Youll thank yourself when you open your journal later and find all sorts of crazy things sticking out of it, on which your creative gems have been saved.

2. Practice. Practice. Practice. Every May my kids bring home a writing journal they’ve kept since the beginning of the school year, and they always cringe to see their work from last August. “I can’t believe I used to write like that!” they cry, embarrassed. And for a while, it will be embarrassing to see the misspellings, the crooked, ill-formed letters, and the terrible grammar, given what they know now. But after some time passes, they will look back on that old, simplistic work, and be fond of it. They will understand more clearly the growth that occurred, and they will appreciate having this artifact from their youth. It’s proof of how far they’ve come, and how hard they worked even before they knew everything there was for a 2nd grader to know. It’s proof of their mind, their hand, and their imagination. It becomes a treasure. The same is true for us who write.


3. Precision. Sometimes I don’t know what I think until I see my own words on a page in front of me. Last year I decided my MS was ready to query (it wasn’t, but that’s a topic for another blog post). Nevertheless, I had to do something I’d been dreading: write the blurb. Every writer hates writing blurbs. It’s universally painful to condense your 80,000 word baby into a 75 word summary. Staring at that blinking cursor on a blank white page, I panicked. I didn’t know what my story was really about. I was so consumed with minute details, character arcs, and plot twists, I couldn’t pull my head out of it long enough to say: This is who my MC is, this is what happens to her, and this is what’s at stake. So, I did what I do. I clicked the computer off, sat down in my comfy chair, and opened my journal. I wrote about stories I liked, and what I liked about them; political things that had been on my mind; I copied down a bit of commentary I’d read recently which sounded like something my MC’s father would say. Basic rambling stuff. Then something amazing happened about 3/4 of the way down the second page. I wrote this:

The church and state had united as a colossal tyrant over [my characters]. Failure to yield meant persecution, imprisonment, and death. Yet they resisted. They endured. This is what my story is about. It’s about the child of a people who will not conform, a girl who wonders, “Why not conform? Life is better, easier, more pleasant for those who conform.” The reader must ache for her to join her family on the Mayflower, to resist the urge to be a mindless, state-approving, acquiescing drone. The reader must learn, not only about history, but about herself, her place in time. She must come to the conclusion: I will not be coerced into believing what “they” (secular society) say is true. Even if they accuse me of “thoughtcrime.” Even if they persecute me. I will rise up in defense of my conscience, my freedom.

Boom. A blurb was born in the pages of my writing journal.

4. Posterity. Most people think what they say today will never matter to anyone years from now. But anyone who’s unearthed an old sack of letters, or read a crumbling, fading diary knows that’s a lie. My grandmother-in-law, knowing my love of old things, gave me one of my greatest treasures. It’s a tiny “Five Year Diary” kept by her grandmother-in-law, a woman named Rose. She wrote in it nearly every day from 1944-1948, mostly in pencil, and mostly about waxing the floors, ironing, attending funerals, and going to town. I love to see her handwriting, the places where she erased or crossed out words, the math problem she did on the corner of one page, and the list on the back page of enlisted Scobee men, and where they were stationed. It’s a glimpse into another time, and a look inside this woman’s life, but it’s only a partial view which sends my imagination screaming down the path of story after story. 

Perhaps my own journals will eventually decompose in a box unread, but perhaps, seventy years from now, a great-great granddaughter will discover the words of this faithful woman who was passionate about story-telling. Perhaps she will read my thoughts as I walked this writing journey, my ups and downs, my frustrations, my prayers, my perseverance, my despondency, and my hope. Perhaps she will love them as much as I love Rose’s words. Perhaps it’s reason enough to keep a writing journal.

5. Purity. Nothing written for an audience is truly pure. The words we write for others tend to be biased, pompous, and pretentious. They’re written to impress, beguile, entertain, and show off. Journaling is different. It’s private. Truthful. Raw. It’s our guts dumped out and splayed across the page, messy, sloppy, dirty, offensive, maybe even bloody. These are the kinds of pages you want to take out back and burn after you write them (please don’t–they won’t appear quite so bloody after some time has passed, I promise). It’s therapeutic to write this way. It’s like setting down a heavy bag you’ve been carrying a long time. You can stand up a little straighter after the weight of the words is out of you. You can look ahead and see more clearly where you’re going, and why you’re still following the same thread. 

Writing this way has preserved in me the ability to write the other way, you know, with the pre-planned chapters breaks, contrived obstacles, and lessons learned. That’s the writing you edit and revise until your head is about to explode. That writing is for others. It’s writing that entertains. For me, one kind of writing begets the other, enables the other, feeds off the other, and that’s reason enough to keep a writing journal.

There are a thousand more reasons for writers to keep a writing journal! What are yours? Tell us in the comments.

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