Many, if not most, writers draw on their personal journals when writing. Do you and, if so, how often and how much?
—Jesmia Avery, Minneapolis, Minnesota
I’m glad you have a journal question, Jesmia, because I think it’s relevant for a lot of writers and would-be writers. I don’t know if I’m an anomaly but I don’t actually keep a journal unless I’m traveling and even that is something I make myself do so I have a record of the new or unexpected things I see or experience. It’s usually just brief entries, not a daily log. If the trip I’m on is for research, I include anything I feel might have relevance for what I’m working on. It’s mostly note taking, but I do try to capture the landscape when it feels unique or particularly vivid. Or if I come across an unexpected event or hear something that strikes me, that goes into my travel notebook as well.
I’ve sometimes drawn on those notes for story details. A few such bits went into Suite Harmonic. There’s a comparison to mornings in Donegal when John Given is in camp at Davis Mills, Mississippi: “early December mornings that, to John, felt like dawns in the Blue Stacks when the valley lay beneath a skin of hoarfrost.” Brief as it is, it’s my sense of a spectacular scene I encountered when I was traveling down the North Atlantic coast. Kate’s early description of Michael McShane riding is based on my seeing horseback riders on an Inver Bay strand: “The spring before she’d come to America, she and John had taken a cart to Meenacahan and then all the way to Ballinreavy Strand. Michael had raced his horse for them. Far, far out on the tidal flats he’d gone, the horse’s feet splashing as he galloped. The sun shone through the streaky clouds and lit the water off in the distance. Kate had found it incredibly thrilling.”
Here are a couple of other examples. The Time Stamp description of Washington, DC in1972 comes from a roughly contemporary, early trip there. This part is pretty much straight from my notes on Lafayette Park, though given to Will Wheelock: “He could see the grass ahead of him, the statues dripping rain and, across the park, the ornamental massed fruit over the door of Decatur House. A chandelier gleamed brilliantly in the upstairs window.” A great deal of detail about Guadeloupe, though it’s a very small part of The Second Magician’s Tale, comes from a trip there. Virtually everything in the poems of “The China Album” comes from my travel notes to central China. But I think the only story that was ever based heavily on actual events recorded in a travel notebook is “Journeys in the Hidden World” in Watching Oksana. The story Laura tells her children is based on a family trip to Europe when my children were small.
Of course, quickly scratched observations in a travel notebook are different from the habit of keeping a journal of everyday life. Most of my note taking on life is just in my head. I’m always checking on what’s logged in there to assemble in new ways in a story. What do I know that can help me write something? What do I need to learn? I think there are two reasons for my steering away from keeping a journal. Probably the main one is that I don’t find my own life particularly interesting. I’m living it; that should be enough. The other reason is that I feel I have more than enough obligatory routine to cover in a day. Keeping written track of daily events would feel burdensome. It just doesn’t fit my personality. There are other ways of processing events and even recording them. I write a lot of emails, and maybe that counts, though I don’t draw on those for stories. They’re just part of a back and forth with other people.
Aside from the travel notebooks and research notes, I do rely on note taking when I’m working on a story, I always keep something handy to jot down ideas or scraps of dialogue or descriptions that come to me. It may be a piece of paper or a notebook that I keep by the bed at night or, more recently, my iPad, which has helped amazingly with the legibility issue. It means the story stays circulating in my brain if I’m ready to write ideas down as I think of them. More importantly, it keeps me from forgetting them.
I certainly don’t want these comments to seem like a criticism of keeping a journal. For writers who use them and rely on them, I think that’s great. You’re doing something that fits your personality as a writer, and you’re keeping yourself in the habit of writing and of observing. You’re also piling up resources. But for writers it doesn’t suit, I don’t think you should feel guilty or as if you’re wasting important experiences if you don’t keep a journal. Those experiences are still there to pop up in unexpected ways. It’s OK.