Today’s guest is Laura Nicole Diamond author of debut novel Shelter Us. Laura’s first book was Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, a collection of true stories from twenty writers; all proceeds from Deliver Me go to PATH Beyond Shelter. Laura is a civil rights lawyer who writes about family, parenting, and occasionally rants about social injustice. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.
I have kept a diary since the 4th grade, but never expected that it would prepare me to one day write a novel. Yet in keeping a diary—that unassuming private forum for understanding my small life and the players in it—I prepared myself to create settings, understand characters motivations, and develop my writer’s voice. Keeping a journal was a crucial part of my “training,” I realize now, as my first novel debuts.
How Writing a Journal Prepared Me to Write a Novel
Going from journal writing to fiction writing was not the giant leap I imagined it would be.
This realization came as quite a surprise, considering that I was not a child who was always making up stories, that I avoided creative writing classes because I had no original ideas, and that I never declared, “When I grow up I want to be a writer.” (Actually, I believed I was destined to be a ballerina.)[pullquote]When I turned thirteen, with my Hello Kitty diary long-since filled and put away, my pleasure in journal writing morphed into a deep need. [/pullquote]
But I was a kid with a Hello Kitty diary, who enjoyed writing down what had happened, giving it my personal take, and finding humor or meaning in daily human encounters.
When I turned thirteen, with my Hello Kitty diary long-since filled and put away, my pleasure in journal writing morphed into a deep need. As I grew into adolescence and young adulthood, my journal was my go-to resource for unraveling complicated emotions and figuring out what I believed in. In any crisis, I could solve my dilemma with a pen and paper if I wrote long enough.
Although I wrote regularly in my journal, I never considered myself a writer.
I went to college, became a lawyer, got married, and became a mother. I kept a journal throughout, a companion to record factual milestones and emotional journeys alike.
What I didn’t know was that writing a journal was preparing me to someday write my novel. Here’s how:
In the most basic way, writing a journal means you are writing. The more time you spend writing, the more likely you are to have an idea that turns into a story. While I was writing about my life as a mom with two little boys, I began making things up. I decided to follow that strand, and that is how my novel was conceived.
Just as significantly, writing a journal is like playing “scales” – essential practice that conditions you to observe the world and its inhabitants, to notice people and things, to pay attention to details. I wrote about people I watched while I sat at a café – like a little boy who trailed behind his older sister and her friends who were engaged in an intense conversation, while he remained happily oblivious to the complicated travails of the other sex. Or I wrote about the setting and sounds around me – the fluttering of shadows on a garden path; the neighbor’s kids shrieking in their plastic pool.
Writing in my journal was also an opportunity to reflect on my inner life, which prepared me to create three-dimensional characters, to get inside their thoughts, to imagine what animated them. What they loved. What they feared.
Journal writing was also practice expressing myself lyrically, playing with words and images. I wrote for an audience of one (or so I thought, until my sister confessed to reading one volume), and had license to please only myself. To this day, I know if I’ve written something good by how it makes me feel, the tingle test.
Writing a journal pegs images to your subconscious. There are things in my debut novel that were in my journal twenty years ago. Small things, like an elderly couple crossing the street holding hands. Or big things, like the quiet resilience of a homeless young mother I met while volunteering, and the talks we had about parenting toddlers. She became a major character in my novel.
There are no rules with journal writing. It is yours. Paper or digital. Or both. Daily or weekly or haphazardly. I have gone weeks or months without writing in a journal. When I was a new mom, I set a goal of writing once a week for thirty minutes, and still didn’t meet it. I confess that I have not been writing a journal for several months while I have obsessed over the launch of my novel. Not coincidentally, my observation muscles have atrophied.
As the novel takes on its own life, I will eagerly resume my journal writing, jotting notes and ideas and observations in longhand on paper. Sometimes I remember to keep a notebook with me, other times I settle for scraps I find in my purse, dry cleaning receipts or flyers from schools. The more I write, the more I awake to awe and beauty in the world around me, the more I want to write, and the more rich material for my fiction. In the most fundamental way, journal writing and fiction share a sameness – the emotional search for what is true and meaningful, a desire to express authentic experience, and to understand our small place in the world.
Do you keep a journal or diary? Do you have journals or diaries left from your childhood or younger self? What part does current journaling or past diaries or journals play in your fiction writing?