a guide to writing
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.