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Writing Life: Captain’s Log

July 3, 2010

Captain Kirk did it.  Doogie Howser did it.  Voldemort did it.  If keeping a diary is good enough for those guys, shouldn’t it be good enough for you?

Some writers view a personal journal as an invaluable form of self-expression; others see it as an exercise in narcissism.  Ultimately it’s an individual decision, but let’s look at the different types of journals and the ways in which keeping one can help (or harm) you as a writer.

Types of Journals

Daily log. “First I got up and had a piece of toast.  Then I brushed my teeth. Then I went to the store to buy some fish.”  Like the Captain’s log, this type of journal is nothing more than a historical record, and often is not considered particularly private.  It’s an aid to memory or possibly to posterity: a collection of snapshots of your daily life, with or without injection of opinion and feeling.

Journal (the verb). When people talk about “journaling” – leaving aside the grammatical ethics of verbing nouns – they are generally talking about something more introspective than a daily log.  A “journal” of this sort often skips entirely over many events of the day, focusing instead on thoughts and emotions.  Sometimes these are a supplement to psychotherapy; at other times they’re simply an outlet that keeps one from throwing inanimate objects at one’s neighbor or spouse.

(We)blog. The typical blog is closest in form to a “journal,” in that it is more often a place to expound upon a certain subject or feeling than it is to painstakingly record the events of the day.  The major difference between a blog and a journal, however, is that a blog is intended for an audience, however small, and therefore the writer can be held accountable for anything said, however personal and emotional it may be.  Over time, a kind of self-censorship develops – either that, or a hide like an armadillo’s.

Benefits for a Writer

For beginning writers, journals of any kind can be invaluable.  Expressing oneself via the written word is not an inborn skill, and so at the beginning of a writing career, every word written constitutes progress.  Journals can provide practice in capturing emotional moments, choosing from shades of meaning, and even simple structural skills such as effective openings and closings.  And what’s most useful of all for a very new writer is that all of this practice comes without a grade or a critique.

As writers progress in their careers, the record-keeping aspect of journals becomes more important.  If, while it’s still fresh in your mind, you write down a detailed description of your first sight of the aurora borealis, it will remain preserved as though under glass.  You never know when such a moment might make an appearance in a piece of fiction.  The details of strong emotions and overwhelming experiences can often fade from memory, and these details are what can make a fictional scene real and immediate to the reader.

And of course, let’s not forget that when you become famous, your journal will be valuable in and of itself, as posterity pores over its pages and marvels at their sense of being near to greatness.  (Come on, you know you were thinking it.)

Potential Pitfalls for a Writer

The danger of any sort of journal-keeping is that it can take time away from your work.  Journal-writing — like research, market study, “reading in your field,” outlining, etc. — can be helpful, but it can also be a convenient excuse not to sit down and do your daily 500.  Ask yourself: “If I do not capture this feeling or moment right now, will it be detrimental to my and others’ understanding of my life experience 20 years from now?”  If the answer is no, you can probably go without writing 2,000 words about it and should put in 500 on your  novel instead.

One benefit for a new writer — lack of critique — can also be a drawback for a more seasoned one.  As Samuel R. Delany points out, practicing bad writing only makes you better at being bad.  There comes a point in your progress where you need others’ eyes in order to spot your grammatical mistakes, your faulty logic, and your cliches.  The old adage “write for yourself” can only be taken so far.  If your desire is to be a storyteller, at some point you do need to learn how to reach an audience that doesn’t automatically understand everything you say.

Blogs in particular can be perilous.  They can seem even more like real work, since you are “building an audience” and “keeping in touch with your readers” and “marketing yourself.”  But let us not spend so much time cultivating a readership that we fail to give them anything to read.  Keep in mind also that the nature of the internet presents its own dangers: you may be writing for one audience while the wonder of search engines and post tags delivers you quite another.  Before you know it, your heartfelt and impassioned commentary on the ethics of time travel could make you the office joke at a package delivery company in Phnom Penh.

Despite all of the drawbacks and dangers of this sort of personal writing, its benefits make it a worthwhile experiment for any writer.  Not only can the habit of pausing to examine our own lives make it easier to incorporate our personal experiences and feelings into our fiction, but the very existence of these personal records can also surprise us years later with fresh insight into our own histories.  Last but not least, you never know how valuable that same insight might be some day to a descendant, to a fan, or to some beleaguered writer of historical fantasy in the year 3714, trying to wrap his mind around daily life in the dark ages of the 21st century.

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