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Journal writing

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By Lisa Kenwright

Diaries and Journals

Inspired by the request from the Frome Society for Local Study for volunteers to keep records during Lockdown, I wanted to share my thoughts on one of my favourite writing habits, keeping a diary or journal. I know a lot of you will do this already but if not, here are a few ideas to inspire you.

I have kept a few different types of diary myself over the years and have just started a new one for the duration. I am not finding it easy to write at the moment, but simply recording my day is at least getting me to my computer to produce something and sometimes, not every day, it has led to a longer piece. So if you are struggling for subjects to write about, why not give it a go.

At its most basic a diary simply records the events of the day, every day. And that is what sets a diary apart from a journal, you write it every day, even the days you don’t have much to write. Traditional history tended to record the wars and great events but diarists such as Pepys and Evelyn also wrote about their everyday life, what they ate, what they wore, who they talked to, what pubs they went to, the ordinary details that we don’t realise even need recording. Today these two diaries are amongst our most important historical sources for the late 17th century.

Of course most of us are not historians and you might not be taking part in a Mass Observation type project, but you can still use your own diaries to inform your writing. If you think you will be writing an autobiography one day, a diary will fill in so many details that you will forget. You may well be able to remember the great events, the births, the deaths, the first day at school, the driving test. But will you remember what you were wearing that day, how your house was decorated, what music was playing, what you ate, what films you saw? It will probably be possible, many years hence, to find out when Boris Johnson announced the lockdown, maybe see a film clip, but will you remember what you did in response, how you felt, who was with you? These are the details that will bring your writing to life and put you and your experience into the centre of the picture. Imagine yourself 20 years from now finding what you have written – won’t you be so glad you did? Won’t you wish you started it 20 years ago?

Even a ‘just the facts’ diary will be useful but of course you can add so much more. As writers we should be constantly looking for inspiration, anything you experience could be the beginnings of a story or novel or project or could feed into the imagery or authenticity of your writing. Your responses to the day’s events, your hopes and fears, an image you have seen, a moment in the garden, an overheard conversation… Noting dreams can also be a productive source of ideas, but be sure to write them down as soon as you wake as you will forget them very quickly.

I write my diary on a computer and every now and again I reread it, highlighting ideas I want to take further and use in my writing, perhaps copying the text over to a new file where I can take it in whatever direction, far away from the original diary entry. I have found in the past this is one of the most certain ways to get me writing regularly. The more I write down even random thoughts, the more I want to write, the more material I have to write, the more I HAVE to write.

Diaries of course are not just meant for our future selves, whether for research or inspiration. They can help us in the now. There is a lot of research on diary keeping for wellbeing and they are often used for therapy. If you take a few minutes a day to note how you feel, what you are doing to feel better, writing out your frustrations about your life and what your hopes and dreams are, it can help you take control of those emotions and find ways to improve your situation. There are only so many times you can write the same list of dreams, or the same list of complaints, before you have to start to do something about them.

Taking this one stage further brings me to my another example of daily writings. There are several popular methods for writers that include a form of free writing every day to fire up our imaginations. Examples would be The Artists Way by Julia Cameron, which is intended to help anyone re-find their creativity whatever their art form, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which is specifically aimed at writers. In The Artists Way Cameron suggests you write three pages, Goldberg says write for 20 minutes, but they both have the same aim. To free write for a set time without stopping, anything and everything that comes into your head, even if you are stuck on one thought for the whole time. The idea is that it empties your mind of the niggles of everyday life, the gripes, the burdens, the things you have to get done before you can allow yourself to write and the thoughts that stop you being creative. Having offloaded all of that baggage, you can engage your true writer’s imagination and start to work on your planned project. I have done this a lot, and you do end up with a lot of notebooks filled with nonsense. In my case a lot of it along the lines of ‘I am writing in the kitchen I am writing in the kitchen it is cold, it is cold, it is cold…’ but once you have done it for a while it is amazing how quickly you get rid of the nonsense and start producing truly creative writing that can be developed further.

You could of course also include other types of journals, either in the same document or separately. You might find a Reading Journal particularly useful if you are suddenly able to read lots of books during the lockdown. I know I struggle to remember the details of a book I have read two or three books down the line. As well as acting as a memory aid, it will be good practice in writing a synopsis for when you have to do one for your own work, the first step in getting published of course. And you can also practice your criticism skills. Every piece of writing you read teaches you something about writing, whether it demonstrates good practice or what to avoid, what genres you personally like or dislike and so on. Make notes for each piece or book, even if it is just a quick summary of your reaction. All of it will feed into your own writing.

Finally you might want to record your daily permitted jaunts out for exercise, or perhaps a nature diary noting what animals and plants you see when and the march of the seasons with your reactions to them. Many poets are inspired this way.

So I hope I have inspired you to write something every day, in whatever form whether it is typed or carefully written in a beautifully bound journal. As practice, to provide material for autobiography, data for a historical study of the town in the 20s, or for well-being, it will all help make you a better writer.

© Lisa Kenwright 2020

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