What’s in your Journal

If you Google “writers and journals”, you find a rich source of articles and blogs, websites and forums all giving good advice and sound reasons for a writer to keep a journal. A few sites venture into the journals of famous writers, so I followed. What I found is these people are really keeping diaries. Is there a difference? I think so, but I thought I’d better check the authorities first. Merriam Webster defines diary as “a book in which you write down your personal experiences and thoughts each day” (just as I thought.) But when I enter “journal” hoping for a slightly different slant, this is what MW says: “a book in which you write down your personal experiences and thoughts” (damn!)

So when Susan Sontag writes in her diary, [t]he journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it, she’s right. Maybe I’m just caught up in a faux debate centered on the connotative elements of the two words.

To me all these definitions describe the “Dear Diary” vehicle (see above), in which tortured, confused, self-loathing, insecure, doubt-ridden , or angry writers create their own fantasy or reality, heaven or hell.  Take Andy Warhol for instance:

And Bianca was driving me crazy, saying how she’s researching my days in Pittsburgh for her book on Great Men, and she went on and on about how I broke the system, broke the system, broke the system, and I felt like saying, “Look, Bianca, I’m just here. I’m just a working person. How did I break the system?” God, she’s dumb. May 2, 1985

Now a journal, that’s another thing altogether. It’s a tool, a resource, a day planner (to use an eighties term), a place to jot down ideas, addresses, phone numbers, to do’s, inspirations, tasks accomplished. Here’s a journal:



Can you guess who this is? Scroll to the end.

So, what’s in my journal? Basically three things, notes relating to the thing(s) I’m writing like keeping many and various timelines straight, scenes that crop up in my head when I’m not with the computer (the journal is always with me, the Mac does not), and the largest number of entries are passages that others have written that grab me for the language, words or ideas. I share from Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin:

Brassiers and beer, whiskies and worsted; great words carved out of colored electricity and plastered along the walls of the Ku’damm. This was the theater-in-the-round of western prosperity; a great, gobbling, yelling, laughing stage crowded with fat ladies and dwarfs, marionettes on strings, fire-eaters, strong men and lots of escapologists.

It’s a description like this that inspires me as a writer. I digest, and regurgitate. This from the sequel to The Nibelungen Hoard:

Venice Beach, his assignment for 1993, was special. It had its own vibrations, images, and smells. It was a fairy tale land that danced to an endless, unique symphony, a work of art that blended the contributions of many performers; seagulls screeching as they wheeled and dived, sharp eyes searching for the discarded hotdog bun or tortilla chip, the joyful squeals of little children prancing in the sea and shouts of teenagers playing football and volleyball, the constant carnival clamor of the boardwalk behind him, and the distant throb of outboard motors as they towed parasailing clients in the green ocean outside the breaking waves; all this crystallized by the addictive cadence of the Pacific Ocean surf. It was a world of lollipop palm trees, brightly colored buildings, massive murals, lushly landscaped yards lined with spiky orange and blue birds-of-paradise, and bougainvillea spilling over fences in narrow alleys. Next to the ocean with its gentle offshore breezes Venice Beach was spared the polluted layer that lined the eastern horizon. It was a place where a guy could hide or mark time if he needed to. It was a drug, a dream, a wonderland that might suck that guy in and never let him go.

Another thing I like to write down in my journal are opening sentences, which are so important to me as a reader. Here from A.B. Guthrie’s These Thousand Hills:

These three old men would sit and smoke and let a word fall and pause to hear the echoes of it as if they owned all time to speak their little pieces in.

Time and place set in a sentence.

Of course some don’t do diaries or journals. So I’ll end this little blog with the words of Ray Bradbury:

“As soon as I get an idea, I write a short story, or I start a novel, or I do a poem. So I have no need for a notebook. I do keep files of ideas and stories that didn’t quite work a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago. I come back to them later and I look through the titles. It’s like a father bird coming with a worm. You look down at all these hungry little beaks — all these stories waiting to be finished — and you say to them, Which of you needs to be fed? Which of you needs to be finished today? And the story that yells the loudest, the idea that stands up and opens its mouth, is the one that gets fed. And I pull it out of the file and finish it within a few hours.”

Guess whose journal that was?  Kurt Cobain !




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