writer in progress: the novel journals

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day! -- Emily Dickinson, #42

Part of being a writer is paying extraordinarily close attention to what is on your mind. -- Heather Sellers, Page after Page

It's funny, but one of my dullest mornings as a writer birthed one of the best strategies for my writing life. 

It was January 2009, and I was staring at a blank Word document on a Monday morning. It was the day I was starting the next draft of my novel: I'd prepared everything I could, I had psyched myself up, I was on the brink of the next big project... and I had nothing to say. Absolutely nothing.

I stared at the blank page, and the blank page stared back.

I wanted a brilliant opening line, attached to a brilliant opening paragraph, which might lead to a brilliant opening page, and then a brilliant opening chapter... but all I had was a wad of insecurity and a deer-in-headlights stare.

So I started writing, but I wrote about not knowing anything. I wrote about how the weekend was still in my brain while my characters weren't. I wondered what my characters were doing. Probably having a party somewhere, without me. I wondered who brought the drinks and who brought the peanuts.

I wrote about not being smart enough to write a novel. I wrote about being basically unemployable, so this had better not fail. I wrote about how fast the morning was going, and how I still hadn't started. I decided that the characters were probably going to be finished with their party soon, and they might come looking for me.

I scraped together a reasonable opening sentence. I decided I'd just play it out, see where it went. And then I opened another document, and began my novel. Just like that.

But I kept that first document, and it became a habit to write in it first, before each day's draftwork. I offloaded all my insecurities, fears, or whatever little drama was filling my mind. I whined about a lack of ideas, or I gloated that I was brilliant beyond my hopes--the next publishing prodigy for sure. All my craziness went into that document, all through the drafting process.

And now it's a tradition--each major project has an accompanying novel journal. Anything goes: I write huge memos to myself in size 72 type, telling myself to get back to work, or to stop worrying, or to make the next chapter a genius one. I wonder about settings and character voices and if the point of view is right or wrong.

It's such a relief to have a place to put all that noise. It's like a mudroom for my novel: I scrape off all the dirt from outside, or I jump around and get all the craziness out. I stash my wet mittens or the leaves I collected over the weekend. Pick the spiderwebs out of my hair. And then I get back to work, reasonably balanced, reasonably ready.

Sometimes fabulous planning sessions happen in the novel journal. Some truly great booklical changes are born there. Sometimes it's just a place where I ramp up to the novel work, tricking myself back into approaching it again.

As I've listened around, I've heard of other writers doing this too. John Steinbeck kept journals for both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath--we have a copy of one, and I love browsing it, hearing what's on Steinbeck's mind as he works. Makes me feel a little more normal.

My journals, though, aren't anywhere close to being fit to read... I sound about three steps away from a mental breakdown in most of the entries. Either that, or like I'm trying to bore myself to death, and it just might work.

And yet, they get the job done. They get me writing, even if it's writing about whatever's in my head at the moment. And then, eventually, they get me drafting my novel again.

... Which is just what I'm going to do. Right now.

No comments:

Post a Comment