I am not a very good diarist or journal keeper. I’ve tried. Invested even reasonably big money in expensively-bound, parchment-paged volumes with silk-ribbon bookmarks, and, at best, using a favorite fountain pen, filled any one of them to only the first 10 or 20 pages with meanderings and prose. I would inevitably rediscover my most recent journal lying around, like an abandoned baby in a basket at the front door with a note pinned to it asking that it be given a loving home. I would, on one of my bookshelves.
I then realized that I don’t journal. I make notes. Copious notes. Pages of notes. If an idea pops into my head, I write it down. If working on a specific project, I try to capture any errant ideas and flashes of genius in a spiral or perfect-bound notebook, supported with Post-Its, Scotch-taped pieces of paper, stapled thoughts on non-Post-It scraps, or printouts of pictures I’ve taken of a whiteboard brainstorm. I have a collection of Olympus mini voice recorders and try to keep one handy when I’m out and about and either paperless or “penless” or otherwise unable to take my hands off the steering wheel in traffic when an idea flashes into cranial view and needs to be captured before it flits away. I also use a wonderful iPad app called “UPAD” that lets me scribble notes onto pixel paper that I can save and/or print. I find this to be a particularly handy tool at night when I sit on the edge of the bed and do a quiet brain dump. I also use Evernote, the popular app that lets you add to your categorized notes across several computers and platforms.
None of these devices constitutes a journal, however. I make no effort to wax eloquent, or otherwise, but merely capture an idea or fleeting thought, and I’ve had my share of fleeting thoughts that didn’t survive when exposed to the light of day.
I’ve kept my “journalphobia” secret, until now, but circumstances demand that I write about writers and journaling. One of those circumstances is David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist and NPR NewsHour commentator.
After running across Brooks’ piece—“Introspective or Narcissistic?”—which I’ll refer to in more detail later, I did some additional research and ran across Ruth Folit, who lives at the opposite end of the spectrum from Mr. Brooks. I discovered that there’s a lot of cross-border interaction between the concepts of note taking and journaling that brings into question the value of journaling. I also realized that the differences between the two are significantly important. Notes can be an aid when used as a writer’s tool to keep track of various trains of thought or ideas or just to explore a character’s traits, or a scene or plot idea. Journaling on the other hand tends to be little more than a time-killing distraction that can lead to a bad habit that has the same usefulness for writers that heroin has for poets and songwriters—none.
Note taking is what I do. Journaling is what I don’t, and for good reason.
Ms. Folit, in an article on the Writers Store website entitled “Why Good Writers Keep Journals,” epitomizes the confusion between journaling and notes writing. She opens with:
“Skilled writers have developed their own voices—unique ways to express themselves. They have learned to open the windows to their inner workings for insightful perspectives into themselves and the rest of their worlds. How do writers record these everyday flashes of insight and noteworthy musings that might otherwise evaporate into oblivion? A Chinese proverb states, ‘The palest ink is stronger than the most miraculous memory.’ Or rewritten to reflect our computer era: The palest pixels are stronger than the most miraculous memory.”
Ms. Folit then goes on to list the requirements to reach this level of enlightenment. They include maintaining a regular schedule, performing a “centering ritual,” prompting yourself with a “routine self-reflection question,” and what I would call a few platitudes:
• Write because you want to write, not because you have to. (Journaling shouldn’t become an obligation or chore.)
• Create a positive feedback loop. (Learn about yourself?)
• Emphasize process rather than product.
• Use well-crafted journal writing tools. (“Beautiful journal books or comfortable pens.”)
I read Ms. Folit’s article as I sat at my writer’s desk . . . the same place where I create characters whose stories hopefully come to credible life through dialogue, narrative, and description. I have several other venues where I write, including the living room couch with a Surface Pro III sitting on an old corked-back TV tray on my lap; or on the patio-balcony where I can keep an eye on the redwoods and occasionally blow pipe or cigar smoke in their direction; or at the dining room table. I’ve tried the “in-bed” writing technique, but found that I’m prone to dozing off.
What I’m saying is I don’t feel the need to get in touch with myself; I’m more compelled to stay in touch with them, the characters that populate my stories and plots. Why would I get in touch with myself and inject that serum into the veins of my characters? Fictional characters don’t need to be injected with off-the-shelf bland, but bigger-than-life unique and dynamic, electric, and explosive excitement. The source of that serum doesn’t come from introspection, but from what I would call “extrospection,” gained by watching and observing and interacting with others in an array of environments, real and imagined. That is the serum upon which fictional characters and their emotions thrive.
Journaling is about the me; story is about the them—the characters a writer invents along with the worlds where they reside. It is the them that needs constant tending, and the more time spent with me means less time with them. The them tend to be demanding. They need constant attention. Spending time with me means less attention for them, and that creates a big risk for the writer. Ignore your writing and your characters and they might pack up and leave.
I don’t mean to pick on Ms. Folit, but her article handily distills the arguments for why we are supposed to climb onto the journaling bandwagon to the detriment of becoming better writers. I noted that her posting included invitations on various ways to spend money for journaling supplies. And, her last and tenth rule of journaling, clinched if for me: “Have fun!! Journal writing is its own reward. Once you get started, your journal will become another one of your friends—one who is always available and has the time to listen attentively and remember what you said.”
Oh, spare me! Such new-aged drivel! If what you do when you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard does not move you forward as a writer or enhance the quality of your writing, it is a waste of time—utterly or otherwise.
As for the friend who listens to you, well, so does your bartender, but sitting around talking to him isn’t going to get any writing done, either, although I once read an article in some obscure sociology journal about the “heterosexual tendencies of a cocktail lounge.” If you want a writing assignment, write the likely dialogue between the two professors who conducted the “study” and the committee from which they sought funding for their intellectual pursuit of women in bars. And if you think you can reach creative nirvana through some sort of alcoholic or drug-induced altered state, you might as well journal because that’s likely as good at writing as you’re going to get.
Simply put: Writers write. Journal-ists do something else instead. In fact, it turns out that what they do may not necessarily be all that good for them, as a person or as a writer. This is where David Brooks comes in. He discovered a book by Timothy Wilson, a psych prof at the University of Virginia, entitled Strangers to Ourselves. In it, Professor Wilson concluded: “The point is that we should not analyze the information [about our feelings] in an overly deliberate, conscious manner, constantly making explicit lists of pluses and minuses. We should let our adaptive unconscious do the job of finding reliable feelings and then trust those feelings, even it we cannot explain them entirely.”
Brooks wondered “how do you succeed in being introspective without being self-absorbed.” Turns out that is indeed a big challenge. He refers to findings by psychologists that there exists a “paradox at the heart of introspection,” i.e., journaling. It seems, writes Brooks, “[t]he self is something that can be seen more accurately from a distance than from close up. The more you can yank yourself away from your own intimacy with yourself, the more reliable your self-awareness is likely to be.”
In short, we become better self-perceivers, says Brooks, when we “create distance and see the general contours of our emergent system selves—rather than trying to unpack constituent parts.” Treat yourself in the third person.
Gee, that is what writers do. Stand back and create using the observations of their characters and their characters’ surroundings.
Brooks reports that research into what is called Critical Incident Stress Debriefing—where trauma victims wrote about their emotions right after an event—actually increased their post-traumatic stress levels. “[P]eople who wrote about trauma later on can place a broader perspective on things,” he says. “Their intimate reflections impeded healing and froze the pain.”
The solution? Create a “self-distanced perspective” as opposed to viewing yourself “from a self-immersed perspective.” Learn to stand off from yourself. A good way to do that, according to Brooks, “when trying to counsel yourself . . . pretend you are somebody else.” Now we’re getting somewhere. That is what writers need to do. I call this the talent of developing a physic distance from your work when you write, assess, edit, and rewrite you’re own stuff.
What also struck me about Brooks’ piece is his own wonderful conclusion. This hard-nosed political analyst addressed the need to stand back when making self-assessments and see ourselves “in broader landscapes, in the context of longer narratives about forgiveness, or redemption or setback and ascent.” Brooks concludes, “Maturity is moving from the close-up to the landscape, focusing less on your own supposed strengths and weaknesses and more on the sea of empathy in which you swim, which is the medium necessary for understanding others, one’s self, and survival.” That is the same sea into which we dip to find and create our characters and stories.
It makes sense for a writer to see his characters in broad landscapes and add necessary details that bring them to life, as opposed to extracting some idea from the quagmire of one’s own details. I’m not saying your characters cannot arise from your own world or life experiences, but that it might be better to start from a character’s perspective rather than your own. That is what writers do, and that is what they should practice doing and spend as little time as possible in a state of angst over whether they’re off schedule on some self-imposed introspective exercise called journaling, which, more likely than not, will prove counterproductive.
I still have to figure out what to do with all these damn journals cluttering my bookshelf. And, therein lies the connection between the title and the theme of this piece. Don’t piss away time journaling when it could be better spent writing.