outside looking in


a guide to writing

Cynthia Gregory

Jounaling works if you’re just a baby writer and not sure where it’s going or what you want from it. Journaling works if you’re a seasoned writer and you need something to keep your writing muscles toned when you’re not working on a project. It’s even good when you are working on a project and need an avoidance tactic that can still work to your benefit event while you’re avoiding working on the actual thing you promised to do. What you may not know if you’re new to writing, is that there is nothing like an assignment or writing goal to make you think of all the things you’d rather be doing at that moment than actual writing.

You might think you’re the first to experience the avoidance factor, but no way, Auntie Mae. You can’t believe how sparkly clean my house becomes when I’m on deadline. And it isn’t that you don’t want to write, it’s just that sometime a writer needs to focus on something else for the ideas to become clear. You know how when you try really hard to remember something, like maybe the name of your third grade teacher, you can’t?  And then the minute you let it go, it just floats up through your mind like a leaf in a stream: Miss Gerber.

Sometimes taking a break works. Other times, you just need to plant your tush on the seat cushion and write. One day I realized that I became bored with my own voice when I journaled. Granted, I bore easily – but hardly ever where my writing is concerned; good, bad, or mediocre. Nevertheless it began to seem . . .familiar. This of course is what happens when everything starts with  me.

It all began to sound the same: I see, I feel, I want. I found that my writing was starting to become labored with too much “I.” This was troubling, especially since writing is almost always fun. I wondered what was up. Then, I developed a method that added some zing to my narrative and my journaling hasn’t been the same since.

You don’t eat the same food every day, and you don’t wear the same clothes, right? It’s important for the human spirit to express itself creatively – otherwise, we would all be dull as rocks. But we’re not. There is an infinite variety all around – from the stars in the sky to the blossoms on a tree. Variety is the pickle juice of life. And the nectar, and the sweet cherry on top. It seems completely logical, requiring no leaps of faith whatsoever, that if you enjoy variety in your non-journaling life, that your journaling process might benefit from mixing it up too.

It’s very true that you need guidelines in general writing and in journal writing too, because if there were no rules and guidelines, there would be complete anarchy and no one would know what anyone else was trying to say. I’m not advocating that you give up structure at all. The same rules apply to journaling that apply to any good writing, and this is as it should be. There are the rules of punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure. A system is necessary, or your journal becomes complete gibberish, and that serves no one, least of all, the journal-ist in you. But it’s possible to add variety to your method, one tweak at a time. So if you suspend one element, everything else stays in place and a sort of balance is achieved and your journal entries still exhibit a sort cohesive read-ability. You may have heard that good writers break rules. But here’s the truth of the matter: they know the rules they’re breaking. They’re not just randomly committing bad writing to the page and calling it creative.

So here’s a very cool way to add variety to your writing, to maintain a certain creative flexibility to your narrative without sending all the rules up in smoke: change your point of view. This doesn’t mean change how you essentially look at life (though that sometimes leads to a creative breakthrough), but it does mean that you get out of your own head. You look at a situation not from your dearest, most precious vantage point; you step aside and consider it from a slightly different angle.

I’m not sure when but at some point in time, I found that I could increase my interest in writing exponentially, when I changed my point of view from first person to second or third person. I began to refer not to “my thoughts” but “her thoughts.” She did this, and she said that. Suddenly, ZOOM! I felt a shift of perspective that allowed me to view my journaling as something not so intensely personal, and therefore allowed me to the freedom to go writing on a tangent if I felt like it. It allowed me the freedom to drift from my life up close, to a view of some one’s life not unlike my own, but because of the distance, it was infinitely more interesting. I became a voyeur in my own life. It sounds like crazy-talk, but it works.

Sometimes feelings are too intense to embrace. This is why people get addicted to a million things: yoga, chocolate, sour apple martinis, you name it. Anything to put a buffer between our hearts and our heads, because otherwise, life is just too real to deal.

I discovered that if I wrote “she came to the conclusion that she had to fire the boyfriend” it pinched  a little less, and by the way, made for some slightly juicy “fiction.” We can split hairs about what is “memoir” and what is “made up,” but that is a debate that’s been raging for centuries. Really. And all fiction is at least marginally revisionist memoir at its most basic level. So what if you make your journal slightly fictionalized? Does it really matter? If it helps you get to the heart of what’s bugging you about what your sister said, or the fact that when you opened the door for the plumber expecting a soiled tee shirt and three day stubble but found instead Adonis’s younger and slightly hotter brother, slide that narrative into third-person and start writing.

Shifting point of view allows you to explore themes and ideas from a slightly higher vantage point, and so allows a roominess to enter into your writing that might just allow you to spread your wings and soar.

empty your mind


a guide to writing

cynthia gregory

Sometimes, it feels like that are too many words in the wide world to squeeze down to the size of a journal page. At other times, it feels as if all of the words have turned to smoke and there is literally nothing left to say. The universe is eternally creative; you just have to remember that when you approach the blaring, blazing, empty white page of your journal. Emptiness is an illusion. This is always more.

There is a wonderful parable that I think about when the emptiness arrives. This is a story of a teacher and a student. A new student comes to a teacher one day and begins to tell the teacher all the places he has studied, and all the wonderful teachers he has had. The master listens patiently and then begins to make tea. When the tea is ready, she pours the tea into the student’s cup until it begins to overflow and run across the floor. The student watches the chaos of the overflowing teacup and shouts, “Stop, stop! The cup is full; you can’t get any more in.”

The teacher stops pouring and says very calmly, “You are like this cup; you are full of ideas about knowledge and skill. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.”

Periodically, you have to forget everything you know about a subject. You may have studied writing for years. Or, maybe not.  At the very least, you were forced to sit through years of grammar and composition training in school where you were taught how to spell, craft a sentence. As a writing teacher, I’ve often told my students to quit trying so hard to sound like a smarty pants.  Somewhere along the line,  we developed the idea that to write well, we must adopt the voice of an expert with a PhD in microeconomics or some such thing. In fact, the opposite is true.

Have you ever read A. A. Milne? He is best known for his books about a bear named Pooh who is much beloved by a boy called Christopher Robbin. Milne also wrote some astonishing poetry, and he had a penchant for writing everything in lowercase. Sometimes without punctuation. The trick to his writing is that it seems so simply and elementary. In fact, its complexity is brilliant. His work seems to be written for an audience of five year olds, but if you look closely, the beauty of his prose staggers.

Pablo Picasso said that every child is an artist. It’s true, isn’t it? A child is completely open to the creative process, she resides wholly and completely in the Now moment. She does not project her thoughts to tomorrow, or think critically about how to shape a hand or what color to paint the sun. She lives completely and utterly Now, and is willing to put it all out there without filters, without revisions, without guile. You must approach your journal with the same integrity.

Empty your mind and release all expectations. Forget what you wrote yesterday, don’t give a nanosecond of thought about what you might fill your page with tomorrow. Just show up and use whatever material is at hand. Look at it, find the shape of it, bounce it around in your mind for a moment and then put it on the page. Don’t think about what it means about you; that is none of your business. Don’t worry about what someone might think if they snoop in your very private, very personal journal. Don’t wonder if the Nobel Prize committee will publish your journals in their entirety when you are dead and gone, dazzled by your genius.

Empty your mind, pour every drop out of your cup. What is your cup so full of that it crowds out the possibility of an original thought?

We all have incredibly complex lives. Sometimes it is astonishing when you consider what it requires to navigate through a single day. All of our busy lives and the lives of those we love requires thinking, and organizing and planning. Add to the responsibilities of a single day, a lifetime of memories, or worries great and small, anticipation of future events, future plans, all the might-haves and could-be’s. There is so much crowded in our cups!

But then, we have moments of clarity. We empty our cups and we just are. Have you noticed  that when you’re completely absorbed by a project, whether its painting the fence or writing a letter or playing a Bach prelude, that time falls away? That you are no longer aware of sounds outside of the room, of the pattern of your breathing in and breathing out, of anything but the melody? You can lose hours and gain lifetimes of pleasure by simply being present to the creative process. This is the paradox: only when you empty your cup, are you open to the possibility of filling it.

Each time you approach your journal take a moment to empty your mind to all but the intention to write. Let the words come. Trust that they will. A bit like magic, it works.

 to be continued. . .