When I was a kid, around eight or nine, I got one of those little pink diaries with a lock for Christmas. I immediately began styling myself as the second coming of Emily Dickinson, writing poems and scribbles and locking it carefully after every entry, hiding it under my bed. (Yes, I knew about Emily Dickinson at age 8; my father was a lit nerd who read Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, etc. as bedtime stories.)
By high school, I’d given up the silly “My Diary” versions and was a Serious Writer Who Journaled, and I filled stacks and stacks of cheap Mead spiral notebooks with angsty teen musings. There was a WHOLE lot of death talk in those puppies.
By college, probably not coincidentally around the time I took a creative writing class from a sadistic bastard who deserves to spend eternity getting a cast-iron Royal typewriter shoved continually up his ass (oh, sorry, still bitter), I stopped journaling, and writing creatively, pretty much entirely.
I eventually (after a long, winding road to my BA) minored in poetry writing, and drafted poems in journals, but I no longer really thought my daily ruminations were much worth putting to paper. In all these years, I never really journaled again. Occasionally, there would be a reason to keep a consistent record of events (I’m talking about divorce and custody unpleasantness), and I’d “journal” for that, but not in the way we usually talk about Journaling, with a Capital J.
I’ve always kept lots of journals, though. Physically. I love Moleskines and basically can’t resist them, and I’ve been gifted many beautiful volumes over the years as well, so I’ve got stacks. I had taken to using them as notebooks. I keep one to keep track of signed book orders and giveaway copies, and another for charity donations; I have one for world-building and character notes, and so on.
During last fall’s writing crisis, I obviously thought a lot about blocking and the kinds of anxieties I experience while I write, and which anxieties were more keen than others. When at Christmas I again got several journals as gifts, I decided to see if I could write my way out of my writing woes. I wanted to track my feelings through a manuscript, so I could see on the page where, and how often, I despair as I write, and where I get excited again—and, crucially, that I always despair, and almost always recover. So I could go back during dark periods and remind myself, with hard evidence, that I always find the light.
When I started the next book, I decided to make an entry after every writing session. I’ve now written two full manuscripts that way, and 2/3rds of a third, and damn if it doesn’t work. When I freak out about what’s going on in a story, or worry I’ve got myself into a bind, I work that out in the journal, sometimes just talking about my anxiety and pep-talking myself, and other times sketching out various consequences for the story point giving me heartache. And some days I write “Damn, that was awesome!” and pat myself on the back for a page or two.
If any other writers are reading this, they’re probably rolling their eyes and going, “You got this far without knowing this??” But it’s been an absolute revelation to me. And the books I’ve written this way are pouring out of me. I put all my anxieties in the journal and am rarin’ to go when I next open the manuscript file.
I’ve done just about everything in this writing gig bass-ackwards. Of course it would be the same for this, too.
Anyway, I’m really feeling it right now, as I write a story going places that scare me and journaling is keeping my heart steady. I felt the need to put my tardy epiphany out in the world.