I love reading the diaries and journals of famous writers and artists. My interest in how they think, and thus create, borders on the obsessive. I want to know how they did it so I can do it that way, too. In my off-moments, when I’m not happy being just me, I dream of being famous. I don’t see that as a repudiation on all that’s holy about being ordinary, because this is what dreamers do.
But here’s the thing about journals: Unless you’re Virginia Woolf or Joan Didion or John Steinbeck or Dave Barry your journals aren’t supposed to be made public. They’re the private warm-up exercises, the word salad meanderings, the lazy throwing out of thoughts that come before the good stuff starts to happen. Coming from those of us without a soaring talent or a public life, they’re–I’m sorry–just so much junk to anyone who happens upon them.
To the outside world, nothing could be more boring than the day-to-day word-wander of the unknown journal-keeper One of two things happens when a journal becomes food for a blog: Either the writer is so wrapped up in writing it down fast before she forgets it, she also forgets that other people will be reading slowly, thinking there’s something worthwhile in there when there almost never is. Or the writer writes to an audience, in which case it’s not really a day-to-day journal but a pushy attempt to interest readers in a whole mess of words that in the end don’t amount to much beyond, “Hey! Look at me!”
I’m a believer in keeping writing journals. I have a dozen or more spiral-bound books filled with the everyday things I’ve recorded over the years about writing and other writers and the writing life in general. These journals often move into the moody stuff—joys and triumphs, for sure, but also crying over rank failures or self-imposed embarrassments or grudges I plan on holding forever. They’re not meant for prying eyes. They would hold no interest for anyone else, and when I write in them I don’t think of myself as a writer but as a person in the throes of writing down what happened that day.
Natalie Goldberg started me on my journal-keeping and if I could thank her in person, I surely would. In her excellent book, “Writing Down the Bones”, she told me a journal was an essential tool for any writer, and even told me why. (Practice, practice, practice.) But, more important, she warned me against trying to fill a fancy, blank journal with thoughts on the job of writing. Fancy is as fancy does. If you buy a fancy journal you’ll think you have to fill it with fancy words. Thus the cheap spiral-bound notebooks. They work just fine. Probably better, since they lay flat and don’t get in the way.
Here’s another tip: (It could be this came from Natalie, too. I don’t remember.) Only write on one side of the page. Keep the other side blank for filling in when you’ve forgotten something or when you want to add something later. It’s not a book, it’s a journal. Keep it loose.
I keep a travel journal in the car and fill it with things I don’t want to forget: road conditions, gas prices, good and bad motels and restaurants, the sighting of roadside oddities like The Creation Museum. Things like that. It’s simply record-keeping without worrying about who’s looking over my shoulder. But the point is, I’m always writing. I keep notebooks in my purse and in my pocket and if I can’t find paper when a thought jumps out, I suppose I could make myself bleed and use the blood to make notes on my arm.
(Oh, I’m kidding!)
But what I won’t do is muddy up my blog with out-of-the-gate random thoughts without benefit of editing or simmering to perfection. (My idea of perfection probably isn’t the same as yours. Hell, my idea of perfection today probably isn’t the same as it will be a week from now—which is why I reserve the right to change anything I’ve written here at any time, no matter what. That’s the beauty of a blog: Independence! It’s also the ruination of some I will not mention.)
I’ll probably be talking about that idea of perfection down the road, since it’s one of those wiggly things that pretends it’s something that it’s not, thus making it endlessly perplexing and fascinating. But for now I just want to beg you not to use your blog as a journal. You can call it a Journal if you wish. (And who am I to stop you?) Just don’t treat it like one. Treat your blog like a finely-honed public work and remember that it’s not just for you, it’s for those other people who come in, sit down, and want to be enlightened or entertained. They’re the reason you push the “Publish” button in the first place and they deserve to at least know you’ve noticed they’re there.