Journals provide a starting place

May 25, 2012
By  Mary Hutchings Reed
Pencil or pen used to be the question. Then type or by hand. Now, of course, PC or Mac? There are a million questions that can become urgent when one sits down to write her novel. Fuzz bunnies that have langoured peacefully for months suddenly threaten. Closets demandcleaning and sorting. The treadmill becomes as attractive as a fudge brownie. Even questions directly related to writing, like whether to outline or not to outline, may delay us indefinitely and keep us from starting. So before we even begin to talk about beginning, we need to commence to get ready to begin.

Have you committed?

It certainly can be fun to curl up on a lazy afternoon with a notebook on your lap and write a few drop dead gorgeous lines of poetry or the first intriguing paragraphs of a story, but if you are spending your nonbillable hours writing because you have a particular story to tell or because you want to complete a novel, that catch-as-catch-can approach to finding the time will become frustrating. The temptation is to wait until the muse arrives, but I soon found that the only time the muse arrived with more than a phrase or a sentence on a soggy napkin was when I was already at my desk with my computer opened to a blank screen. So I made an appointment with myself as if I were my own client.

These were the hours, eight to 10 every morning, Monday through Friday, set aside for writing. My commitment was to stare at a blank page as long as it took. (If you’ve done the “morning pages” recommended by Julia Cameron, you know us “Type-A’s” can’t sit for long without producing something. Isn’t it nice to know that you can write it and throw it away?)

I’ve been told by fellow lawyers that I’m prolific, but actually I’ve been lucky to have the time to write — no kids, no mortgages, no college tuition — and I have in fact been disciplined about it. Since I do write my first drafts quickly, writing one page during each writing session yields 365 pages in a year, a good-sized novel. (First time authors are advised to keep their manuscripts to 300 to 325, double spaced, standard margins.)

At first, my writing time was filled with morning pages and then the early words of a memoir about ocean sailing and childlessness. I’d usually read a few pages of what I’d already written, just to get oriented in my story, and then begin where I’d left off the day before. The two hours flew by. Just like billable time, it’s surprising how quickly it goes when you’re in the thick of it.

The more you write, the easier it comes, and the easier it comes, the more you write. Writing that page a day can easily become two pages a day. Not to worry. First drafts are often wordy, inefficient, rambling. Right now, you are giving yourself the clay from which to sculpt a novel. The hardest part — the editing and polishing — comes later.

At first, the important thing is not so much what you write, but that you write. Day after day. Committed to the process. Exercising the writing muscles and developing the strength to write a novel. Just like any exercise routine, if you skip one day, it’s easier to skip the next day, and the next, and pretty soon, you’ll be back to lots of really good first sentences on soggy napkins.

Think of writing as a new habit, and with practice it will become a way of life. You will find yourself protecting and looking forward to your appointed writing time. Rather than a chore, it is your reward for all the other hard work you do in your life.

The habit of writing will also change how you inhabit the world. When I started to remake myself from lawyer to writer, I began to see the world around me differently. Many lawyers test strongly sensate on personality quizzes and take in the world through precise visual images. I’m of the opposite type, an intuitive who has a whole notion of your story the moment I meet you but not a clue what you look like. That mole on your right cheek could be the size of a blueberry and I wouldn’t notice it.

Not a good trait for a writer, since it leaves me in serious need of details, so I learned early on to keep a writer’s journal. I’d do little exercises in describing images, people, rooms, objects. I’d make a special effort to notice details and write them down. If, on the other hand, you tend to be of the opposite type, you, too, should keep a journal. You might need to become more like me, eavesdropping in coffee shops, talking to random people at the bus stop or art museum and reading the obituaries.

Jot notes in your writer’s journal. A lot of writers offer varying advice on how to keep, organize, index and/or refer back to a writer’s journal, but in the beginning, keeping the journal is good enough. I’ve seldom referred back to a journal for a detail. In my case, the exercise of noticing was the exercise I needed and recording it was the motivation to do the exercise. All the details came back when I needed them. The subconscious apparently has its own filing system.

Oops. Reached my word limit. Once us writer types get started, it’s hard to get us stopped. So with the above dust bunnies out of the way, we’ll really begin next time, when we’ll talk about the elements of story or whatever else bubbles up.

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6 Responses
  1. Jim

    Mary, my experience with writing mirrors yours in many respects. I’ve been practicing law for 40 years. I decided to write my memoir in 2009 when the real estate business cratered. I’m on the second round of edits now (at 400+ pages, it is in serious need of some significant cuts). I’ve also written a book of poetry, started a novel, and sketched out a history book. I work on my computer (the only way to go, in my opinion) in my home office nearly every morning. Unfortunately, my law practice has been intruding on my writing time lately!

    1. admin

      Congratulations on getting a first draft done, and on having the guts to edit it (so many don’t!) I’ve actually come to love the editing process, and it is easier, I think, to fit in, in between all that legal work! You’ve given yourself a lot to work with. There are also editors out there who are quite reasonable, and it’s very interesting to get their totally blind read. I’ve used a woman I met on line who has never heard by speaking voice and knows basically nothing about me except what I write (or post on my site). She was very reasonable and I thought her comments were very savvy.

  2. I found Julia Cameron’s morning pages invaluable; I’ve been using them, off and on (mostly on), for ten years now, and have produced several plays, a novel, screenplays, and TV scripts in the interim.

    1. Me, too. And I must say I’ve never, ever, gone back to them, if I could even find them! Have your plays been produced? Looking for an agent for your novel? Considering self-publishing?
      All the best,