spontaneous creation

Journal THAT

a guide to writing

Cynthia Gregory

There are some conventions in writing that insist that you have a plan. For instance, back in high school when you had to write the dreaded five paragraph essay, there was a formula. Personally, I never understood the formula with its Roman numeral and abbreviated heading titles; it never made sense to me. How could you know what you were going to say before you said it? I quietly complied with the assignment and made an outline. And then I wrote whatever came into my head and aced the drill. Ha.

The idea of planning an essay is like reading a roadmap. Chances are, if you know that you’re going to drive from San Diego, California, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, you will consult a map. You will choose one route or another, and more or less follow it. You’ll have a general idea of where you want to go, but will build in the flexibility to stop in Winslow, Arizona to see the Barrington Meteor Crater, or swing by Stanton, Iowa, to marvel over the giant Coffee Pot Water Tower.

I am told that there are some travelers who travel like it’s a race, speeding from the first rays of light until deep night – but I have never been that kind of traveler. I know writers, wonderful novelists in fact, who know every plot twist before they strike the first key on their laptop. There is a special place in heaven for these extremely organized and disciplined writers. The rest of us rely on bat sonar to get us where we want to go.

Journals do not generally have a plan. That is the great beauty of the process. You’re writing it pretty much for the satisfaction of the creative process. But what if you are journaling for a greater purpose? What if you are taking random notes with the hope that you will organize them into something more or less cohesive and useful? Maybe a plan will work for you.

If you need to have an outline, then write one. If you are the type of grocery shopper who carries an itemized list and ticks the products off one by one as they are dropped in the cart, you may need to make an outline.  Go nuts. Use Roman numerals, capital letters, everything. If an outline will make you feel safe and satisfied that there is order in the universe, have at it. But if you are more of a right-brainer, someone more randomly creative – or a left-brainer with an appetite for adventure, you can safely forget everything your eight grade English teacher exhorted about the delicious conformity of the outline, the clear mesas of organization, and write without a road map.

I once had a (completely manic) writing teacher who said that creative writing does not need to conform to an outline because the issuer of thoughts and ideas, the subconscious brain, knows exactly what it is doing. It could be that if your subconscious has a plan, you should not mess with it. A journal does not need to proceed in a linear manner. That is, one thought need not link to the next thought and the next and the next after that. That’s the beauty of the journal.

For instance, say your vague, generalized plan for your journal is to write about childhood memories, a true and wonderful goal. You do not need to start with your first memory, move on to the birth of your little brother, then start working on the preschool years, graduate to primary school.

You can skip all over the place if you want. Write about that trip to the county fair. Pick up the trail of that summer vacation where the family hit all the national parks north of Bryce Canyon. Write about the winter you found out about the Tooth Fairy and Santa. Describe piano recitals out of sequence, your first love after the college years. Start at the end, finish in the middle.

Chronology doesn’t matter in your journal because your heart – arbiter of all that is true and good – knows how it all fits together and it is never, ever connected by a straight line. Creative juice likes backtracking. It adores leaps forward, sideways slides. Creative energy is a baby bird learning to fly – it swoops and swings, aims high and lands in the middle branches, totally content to have made it anywhere at all.

Carry your journal with you whenever possible. Pick it up spontaneously when you’re sitting at the gas station filling up your car. Bring it to your doctor’s appointment and write in it instead of reading six-year-old articles in a middling magazine. Keep it with you so that when you have those sweet, random, poetic moments, you can record them exactly the way they played in your head, sound by sound, because if you wait to write them down later, like a dream, you will find that the image have turned to vapor and faded.

Instead of sitting on the sofa watching TV at night, write in your journal. After you fold the laundry, write in your journal. Write at dusk. Write when Venus sits like a diamond on the tip of the setting moon. Instead of sitting at your desk at lunch, working, take a break and write in your journal. When you wake up in the morning and the house is still quiet and you haven’t so much as mumbled your first word of the day, write in your journal. Fill the quiet place in your mind between dream-time and day-time with filaments of creation so pure, so honest, you can almost taste the honey sweetness.

So many parts of our modern lives require control. We control our money, our electric bills, our newspaper subscriptions. We control how much access our children have to the Internet, how many ways they have of communicating with their friends. We manage what we eat, how much we exercise, and what kind of shampoo to use. We are dizzy with the need to control the million details of our modest lives.

So give up control in one area of your life. Give up control of your journal. Just give in to the spontaneous nature of your innate creative genius. That’s right: genius likes to be spontaneous. And play. And have fun. Just like you. Genius.

29 thoughts on “spontaneous creation

  1. Thanks for stopping by my blog :) Loved reading this, especially the part about childhood memories – I started a journal ‘About Me’ months ago, and got stuck, I think mostly because I was tryingt o order it all. I went back to it today and decided to just dip in as I remembered things, and get them in there somewhere, and feel much happier now I know it’ll all be disorganised and out-of-order (a bit like me!).

  2. “Play and have fun” This helped me alot, thanks. I tend to be in control of almost everything i do, even what i whant to post, so im going to have fun from now on.

  3. “bat sonar” LOL. I usually make outlines when I start a novel, but the last couple projects I’ve been letting the characters dictate what happens. Oh, I have a broad idea of where I want the plot to go, but nothing like the notes I used to make. The bat sonar technique is definitely more fun for me. Now, whether that makes the work better? –> no idea.

    • I know what you mean, Erin. It’s definitely easier to write with an outline (of some sort) but not at much fun. I just finished writing a short piece that completely took me in a direction that I would not have predicted. D*mn those characters! Cynthia

  4. I’m catching up on my blogs today and this is the second one about journalling…making me think I should get back into it! This is the first project where I’ve worked within an outline and I pretty much had to force it out of myself (and it was still peppered with issues and question marks). I’m much more a ‘bat sonar’ type of girl. :)

  5. Wonderful article. I’m not an outliner… exactly. I’ve always thought it was because I wasn’t structured enough in my writing. but, I am a (almost obsessive) note taker and somehow, I always know when it’s time to turn notes into novel.

    • I know, Kathy, right? I am a short-story writer, and almost all of the bones come from my journal. Notes and journaling somehow become their own form of outlining.

  6. This is an extraordinarily useful post. What you say reminds me of the advice offered by William Zinsser in one of his books on memoir. He advocats writing memories – episodes, or adventures – as they came to mind. Just one a day would do. After a time, he says, the structure will begin to reveal itself. You’ll see what is important, because that’s what you’ve remembered. And away you go.

    I use my wordpress draft file, too. When something comes to mind, I tuck it in there. I have some “drafts” that are only titles. Others are no more than a paragraph. Some have an intro and a conclusion. But every couple of weeks I make a run through them, just to see if something has been developing while my back was turned, and it’s time to do something with it.

    • Thank you for the kind words. I blush!
      Drafts are good thing. I have pages and pages of notes. Some of them go somewhere, some of them run out of steam. But I’ve never regretted filling journals, because they always come in handy. Always.

  7. I never wrote an outline except when it was required, either. It makes things harder for me! I never know what twists and turns lie ahead in a story – and for me that’s the beauty of it. I finally accepted that my writing style mirrors my journaling style. Do what works for you. That’s the only way you’ll find your own style. Loved this post, I’ve been journaling since I was 8 and it’s such a wonderful part of my life.

    • I am so with you! I started journaling as an angsty teen and it has saved my life a million times over, never mind it became the boneyard where some of my best writing appears. Yay for accidents.

  8. Nice article about the many advantages of journaling. I have journaled my whole life from about 13 on… even went so far as to attempt to throw some of them away from my early 20s, (more than once have I tried) but after ripping out the first half of the first one, decided they were still interesting enough to keep in the old wooden chest awhile longer (and maybe my daughters would find them and want to read them one day!) Thanks for reading my blog post and glad to have found yours… both of yours, interesting that you are sharing a blog with a friend on the other side of the country… how did that come into being, I wonder? I’ll be back. SB

    • SB, I love that journals are a source of both a deeply personal conversation and a public dialogue. I started as a confused teen, wanting to put all the words I could think of on a page in order to find a pattern or some kind of meaning. Now, journaling forms the bones of most of my writing. PL and I started writing together when I lived in the east for a short time. Originally, writing was the glue in our friendship, now it is the bonus. Thank you for checking in. Best, CG

  9. Like many of the respondents here, I have been journaling for ages (ever since I read “Harriet the Spy” when I was ten). The journals vary from diary-type entries to brief notes to drawings to beginnings of poems or essays, and never have been daily per se. I don’t go back and read them.

    Now that I teach (not creative writing but comp), the value of structure has become more clear for me. I think I learned structure as I went–the structure of chronology, of imagery, of association, of flashback, etc. I was never an outliner, but as you advocate, go with your strengths! Some of us benefit by outlining! I am more the write-it-down-and-figure-out-where-I-am-going-later sort of writer, which seems to be your style too.

    The best thing about journals is the practice they offer. The way to be a good writer is to persist. Keep writing, and keep reading. I like the bat sonar sentence too. Fun comparison!

    • Ann, I am so touched by how this entry resonates. Maybe it’s because when we’re learning to write, there are all these rules, and while guidelines are important, the writing process is so intensely personal I believe that we each have to find our own way.
      As a fellow comp instructor I totally get the value of structure if you haven’t a clue about where to begin or how. And I do follow a certain structure in my short stories, but in my journal? Not so much.

    • I had to comment on this because I too read Harriet the Spy when I was about 10, it was one of my favorite books when I was young, and to my delight, my own daughters loved it too…. we watched the film version of that story many times when they were around that age. thanks for the memory!

      • It certainly is! remember Pippi Longstocking? My danish husband informs me that Astrid Lindgren is one of the most beloved children’s book authors in Denmark, and that her stories about a naughty boy named Emil are at least as popular as the Pippi books. cheers to wonderful childrens book authors!!

  10. Cynthia,
    I am so glad that you stopped by my blog. This is the first of yours that I have read and I feel like I have encountered a kindred spirit! I can so relate to the ‘planned’ creative writing instructions that were/are taught in school. For me, to start writing is to uncover the mystery of how will it end! Keep on writing.

  11. I’m pleased you stopped by so I could find you. I love the concept of your blog. This post, in particular, has real resonance for me.

    In my fiction, I’m an out-liner. (Actually, a section mapper ala The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing.) In my blog, and other social media, I strive to stay as close as possible to an entirely paranormal (or at least dark/creepy) theme. Your post reminds me that I used to journal for a reason: freedom. Maybe it’s time to play on a page with no rules.

  12. For years, I’ve seen adult education workshops that teach how to use one’s journal as source material for a novel. As a dedicated journaller, I thought it meant I could one day read through my old entries and pull a book out of them. But this post clarifies that the type of journal one would use is not a diary/personal journal, but more of a verbal sketchbook. Thank you for the incredible revelation!!! I know I’m still a million light years away from writing a novel, but it’s nice to be one step closer to that goal.

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