Today’s guest post is by author and writing coach Catharine Bramkamp.
As writers we often start our day scrubbing in one kind of a journal or another. But did you know that journaling with intention can create your first steps to better work?
There are as many iterations of journaling as there are writers. Julia Cameron calls her journaling work “morning pages.” Natalie Goldberg calls first-thing writing her “ten minute write.” You can call it unconscious or spontaneous writing, or you can call it channeling the muse or just bitching on the page to avoid bitching to loved ones.
You can call it anything you like, but journaling will deliver new ways to capture old thoughts. And the first way to accomplish this is to write without stopping so your subconscious can take over your editor.
In my journaling classes, I ask students to write for ten minutes. What they discover is a decided divide between minute five and minute six. At minute six the writing switched from surface observations to deeper ideas and surprising thoughts. One student started writing about her parents, one started chronicling her recovery process. One asked how many minutes should a person spend on discussing his feelings.
What is so radical or even magical about writing for ten minutes without stopping?
Ten minutes spent writing in a journal may feel trivial and unserious, but the work will most certainly lead to something bigger and interesting. The way to leverage this kind of writing is to be intentional about the time and the effort.
How can you discover and build on the creative ideas that will emerge after a free form, crazy, uninhibited ten minutes of scribbling?
Obviously, write for ten minutes.
Don’t leave the journal just yet.
Review what you just wrote.
Did something interesting surface?
- crazy, odd sentences
- two lines of a poem
- three lines of a song
- words that are really images
Give those words and themes some air. Either that minute, or the next day, take that new idea and use it as the prompt for another ten minutes of writing.
Journaling will extract you from a sticky plot mess.
Journal about your book. Ask questions like, what am I trying to say here, what kind of themes do I want to bring forward? Create a chain of questions and answers, statements and responses. From that, and within that, you will discover a solution.
Journaling can break up writer’s block faster than a losing Jenga move.
The best way to use a journal for writer’s block is just that—use your journaling time to knock pieces out of the block.
If you are blocked, set the book or project aside. Switch up the goals and deadlines. Make a commitment to write for ten or twenty minutes a day in your journal. That’s all.
Journal extensively about the failure to write. Complain. Gripe about the plot and the characters Ask existential questions about the real meaning of publications and fame.
Now write about what you really want to say. What is it about the novel that has you stumped? Write your way out of the quicksand of despair.
Journaling helps gain insights into your characters.
If we are lucky, our characters will run away from us. They will insist on agency, they will have their own vision—all we need to do is keep up. And when we are not lucky, the characters are all flat paper dolls we listlessly rearrange on a blank page.
Use your journaling time to write up what your character wants to say. Give him or her an opportunity to talk to you or to another character. Where do they want to be? What is their own hero’s journey? What do they want?
Write as if none of it will appear in the novel. Which is often true—none of it will appear in the novel—but the character will suddenly have more life, more to say, and a better more interesting way to express it.
Journaling can kickstart a stalled plot.
If you are a consummate outliner and have already mapped out every plot point of your emerging book, I congratulate you. But not every novelist plots out every scene before writing her book. Sometimes a writer climbs into her book and suddenly has no way out. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, and when she does see light, it’s an oncoming train.
Journal about that frustration. Write up a whole essay about your book. Create a PR page about your book. If you were being interviewed on a podcast, what would you say about it? If you had to describe your story, what words would you use?
Write all that down and see if it doesn’t help give you a clearer Google-map view of your novel’s terrain so you can finally see the path leading out of the woods.
Journaling helps wrangle scenes.
No matter how hard you flog, morale still doesn’t improve? Take that problematic scene and transfer it over to your journal. Sometimes a change of venue helps. Sometimes disassembling the scene helps.
Write for a few minutes about the scene as if you were a five-year-old describing what you just witnessed. “There was this man and he, like, you know, crossed the street but no one knew why? Right? And then he ran, but who did he run from? No, wait, he was chasing someone, but no one knew who or why. The man was wearing blue shoes.”
After wrestling with a specific problematic scene for ten or twenty minutes, do give yourself permission to conclude that, as much as you try, the scene just doesn’t fit into the novel. Go ahead and set it aside. That too is progress.
Journaling helps you switch it up.
We all respond to a change of pace, a new venue. If you write one way, journal another way. I mostly type, so when I’m stuck, I journal by hand. The handwriting and the switch to a different format helps shake up my head and invites the muse to talk to me differently.
Warning: journaling is habit-forming.
The more frequently we journal, the better we can become at anything.
Do you want to get better at an activity? You can journal about how that will feel, why you want to do it, what you will do today to achieve your goals.
Want your muse to show up on time? Record your early morning thoughts at the same time every day, and she will start showing up in surprising and satisfying ways.
Journaling can help us achieve our goals, work out our very real writing challenges, and nurture our creative souls.
Grab an old notebook and give it a try for a week. See if life doesn’t improve.
Catharine Bramkamp is a successful writing coach bringing her clients from idea to published book and beyond. She has written 17 novels and 3 books on writing. Her poetry appears in over a dozen anthologies. For more on how to get started, take Catharine’s Teachable course HERE. Learn more about Catharine at her website HERE.