Writing has become very public these days. We write on Twitter and Facebook, on blogs and in emails. We work hard to write well, be clever, capture attention, and because we’re good at writing, we’re often successful.
It feels like writing, doesn’t it? That series of events, write-post-garner attention-repeat, feels just like the experience of writing some other piece of writing and getting it out in the world and capturing attention.
The problem is that offering every thought up for public consumption often drains them all of depth. Another problem is that those polished jewels you’ve tossed out to Twitter/etc have used up a bunch of creative energy you might have spent on your actual writing.
Obviously, none of us are going to give up public writing. It has become part of our lives. Here I am, writing a blog (and enjoying it, just so you know). This morning, I wrote a bunch of Facebook posts, and I’ll avidly check back to see if anyone has responded. That’s what we do now. That’s what I do.
If writing is important to you—and you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t—you should have a private writing practice as well as all that public work. Call it a journal. Call it a writer’s notebook. A diary. Lots of people are keeping bullet journals these days, and writing in them with their juicy fountain pens and special ink (my current favorite is Walden ink, with a Noodler’s Ahab Flex), which I think is a big plus—writing by hand is a way to access different pathways in the brain. Writing by hand is very personal, intimate, and creates a compelling emotional record over time.
The idea of a writer’s notebook has been with us for a long time. Mark Twain kept a notebook for most of his life, starting when he was twenty-one and couldn’t remember the instructions at a job. He eventually filled over 40 pocket notebooks,
“with observations of people he met, thoughts on religion and politics, drawings and sketches of what he saw on his travels, potential plots for books, and even ideas for inventions (he filed 3 patents during his lifetime). Many of his entries consist of the short, witty, pithy sentences he is famous for. He felt that if he did not write such things down as they came to his mind he would quickly forget them. He would also record little snippets in his notebooks of what had happened that day, such as what he had eaten and who he had seen. And finally, he wrote dirty jokes in the back of them.” (from The Pocket Notebooks of 20 Famous Men)
On LitHub, Dustin Illlingsworth said of writer’s notebooks:
“…what we find within their pages are wild, shapeless, violent things; elegant confessions and intricate codes; portraits of anguish; topographies of mind. Prayers, experiments, lists, rivalries, and rages are all at home here, interbred, inextricable from one another. A piece of petty gossip sits astride a transcendent realization. A proclamation of self-loathing becomes a paean to literary art. News of publication shares the page with the most banal errands imaginable.”
Just like life.
A writer’s notebook is meant to be everything, anything. A place to meander, to think, to wail and gnash teeth, to experiment and play. It’s a private log of your own life, whatever bits of it you want to set down. It’s meant to be about you.
In perhaps the best exploration of the subject, “On Keeping a Notebook,” from Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion writes,
“We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing…Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout.
“And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’”
(I love that she lived in my town once upon a time, that she went to my same school for second grade. We washed our hands at the same restroom sinks, many decades apart, but it links us. Maybe some of her writing magic lingered and soaked into my skin through some creative alchemy.)
That viewpoint of ourselves, looking at the world through our own eyes and recording whatever we see, whatever we feel, leads to voice, the one and only thing that belongs to one and only us.
In a world increasingly public, that feels urgently important. If you’re always posing for the world, polishing clever sound bites, taking the elegant selfie, how can you know what you feel, or where you feel it, or how it burns, if you are not perfect? How can you experience your own rabid jealousy or howling broken-heartedness or sour pettiness?
If you don’t know it, feel it, see it and taste it, how will you write it into a character?
I challenge you to start a writing practice, or get back to one if you’ve drifted away. [Read more…]