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The Chantlicleer

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Journaling tips from the pros


My Sunday mornings consist of coffee, a heated blanket and “Brain Pickings” – a lovely literature newsletter delivered faithfully to my inbox by the time I wake.

It’s filled with information book lovers can appreciate – “The 7 Best Music Books of 2012” and “Why Creativity Works Like a Slot Machine.”

My favorite articles lately have involved the journaling habits of famous authors.

My journal and I’ve had an on-again/off-again relationship for as long as I remember. For some reason or another, it always comes in spurts. I can go back through bookcases and find half-filled journals from different points in my life. There’s the Fossil journal with pages of up-and-down teenage relationship woes. The brown leather one with a clasp, where I faithfully documented the first weeks of my relationship with my husband.

The smooth red plastic one that has only a few entries, because I didn’t like the way it laid on the table.

For various reasons, though, I’ve never consistently written. And, the creative writer in me – the aspiring novelist – has always frowned upon that lack of dedication.

So imagine my surprise when I read about Virginia Woolf’s extensive collection of diaries – that she didn’t begin writing until age 33. The relief I felt when I found she often went days or weeks at a time without writing. Suddenly a weight lifted.

Since then, I’ve gleaned every bit I can find about writers and their journaling habits, and all from the “Brain Pickings” library. For instance, an essay by Mary Gordon talks about the importance of putting pen to paper, but not any pen to any paper. She writes about how she must have her black Waterman’s with a trim of gold to write in the precise journal for that particular moment. She keeps several going at all times.
Woolf would intertwine writing about her routine activities with philosophical meanderings, and – what I find most fascinating – she would write about the lives of her fictional characters. It can get quite confusing when reading.

And somehow, all these insights have led me to begin journaling again, taking bits and pieces from each writer to build a routine that’s now my own. As someone who’s extremely particular with my pens at work, why have I not made that connection before? I’ve since gone out and bought medium-point Sharpie pens that give me the consistency and beauty I love to see when flipping through the pages.

My entries are a mixture of joy and sorrow, boring details, and yes – I’ve slowly ventured into the minds of the fictional characters I so desperately want to bring to life. Now that I’ve given myself free reign to write whatever comes to mind, I’m filling pages at an astonishing rate.

I don’t see myself ever keeping multiple journals at the same time, because I think all of “me” is best kept in one place. Because I do go back and read old entries. That angst-ridden teenager from the Fossil journal reminds me that every heartbreak – no matter what type–eventually heals. Those first dates with my husband are required reading for the romantic in me.

The red journal serves as a reminder to make future decisions – no matter how small – carefully.

Joan Didion summed it up best – at least in a sense best applicable to me – with the quote, “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”  

While I’ve never been able to consistently keep a record of my every moment, every thought, I have enough bits and pieces to create a pretty good picture of who I once was, and who I am today. Sometimes what I read makes me proud; at other times, cringe.

And, hopefully, years from now I’ll have more pages to read from, learn from. And even better – the ultimate dream – perhaps someone will curl up on a couch somewhere with a cup of coffee and read journaling tips from Emily Hayes. The famous author.  

Emily Hayes is a staff writer at the Fort Payne Times-Journal, where this column first appeared.  

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