Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.
Thing I miss most about the old blog was the ability to just publicly journal. Basically gone now. Everything is seen as definitive.
—Ta-Nehisi Coates (Twitter 4:42 PM – 15 Feb 2016)
What exactly is a writing journal and why keep one? Writers need to develop muscles that will allow them produce a consistent quality of writing over time. For most people, writing a fifty-word sentence that encapsulates a social theory, a relationship, sets a mood and moves the action forward while enticing a reader, doesn’t come easy, but it will come over time. In that sense, writing a journal is a way to develop one’s prose style. It is a way to record, and to focus one’s thoughts. It is a place to fold in one’s thoughts on what one is reading, or experiencing, as well as a way to describe where one is, what one is doing, and with whom. It’s also a way to get in touch with your core self. It’s a way to know yourself, find and affirm your values, clarify what your project is, and how you see it in relation to the work you admire and are engaged in. Writing is like everything else in life: it will challenge and confound you. You will be forced to make decisions, respond to opportunities, feedback, and criticisms. The self you create and get to know in your journal may be your own best counsel, so to speak. As essayist Jeet Heer noted in response to the above Tweet from Ta-Nehisi Coates, “What I loved about your blog was how it made visible process of self-education.”
The journal is also a catchall. My early journals are thick with theatre tickets, restaurant receipts, bits of newspapers, sketches. I can find out what my thoughts and reactions to the world around me were in 1991 or 2007. What the price of butter was in Aix-en- Provence in August 1993, what the air smelled like in Vermont in 2003 or 2013, and exactly how many wasps it took to put the village in danger.
For most people, writing creatively and writing critically don’t mix. For many people reading is seen as a separate act from writing. For me, there is no border between any of these activities. To read then, is to sit with a pad of paper and a pencil and my journal. To write is also to sit at my computer, with my pad of paper, my notes, several books open around me. Writing is a physical act, and increasingly a variously technologically engaged one.
Over the course of the two decades I have been writing I have gone from being a deeply secretive, shy writer, terrified of publication, and of reading in public, to a writer able and wholly engaged in the process of a public compositional process. Whereas my practice was one of deep interiority, it is now one of interiority with constant public disruptions. In fact, a portion of my journaling is now done on Twitter. For many years before that it was done on a blog. And before that entirely in paper journals. For the record, now it is mostly on paper journals.
For the purposes of your time in creative writing workshops, responses to the work you encounter, to people’s feedback, to assignments, to readings—all of this is material for your journal. Write daily. Write hourly. Write minute-by-minute. Your practice is yours to craft.
Discover Bernadette Mayer’s tips for journaling, and writing experiments:
Writers on Journaling.
The most obvious reason for keeping a writing journal is you need to respond to writing that you read, and to writing that you are undertaking. More specifically you need to do this to satisfy the requirement for Reading Responses. Some people assume that the writers journal is an account of reactions, spats, daily intake of carbs and alcohol. That’s not quite what I’m intending, but if you think that’s where your source material will come from you might follow your instinct.
Writing journals are a way to develop as a writer. They can be a touch stone. They are records, they are archives, they are places to put raw material you can tap into later. They are also a good way to measure your progress. State goals. Note when you reach them.
Don’t take my word for granted though. Read on and here too. Find a good “collected letters” as well as these are sometimes better than the journals. They are often a better way to learn about craft, develop a prose style, learn how to think about and present your work. Particularly if the letters are literary in nature.
Are journals different than blogs? Yes and no. Find something that’s meaningful to you, that’s the trick.