Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Journal Your Inner Character

For fiction writers, the journal is a complicated subject. Moments spent documenting one's own life can be viewed as a selfish joy, a way of procrastinating on "serious" work for publication. It can also serve as a portal to the inner self, a way of examining the human experience. From established authors, I have heard both sides. I once knew a poet who felt that spending hours and hours on a journal was a waste of time. Another author once wrote that journaling detracted from the creative energy she needed for her fiction. On the flip side, a very literary couple I know keeps dream journals. They write down all they can remember from their dreams. They've said that at first, it's hard to remember much, but the more you access these memories and write them down the more accessible they become. It's as if you can train the mind to remember those elusive thoughts which are normally relegated to the dustbin of waking.

I'm afraid I've never tried a dream journal, and the journals that I have kept of life have never been as regular or as thorough as I would like. Before I took writing seriously, journaling was an occasional aside to myself, usually a way to gripe on paper about the girls (or lack of girls) in my life. As I became a better student of writing, it annoyed me that my journal entries were so vacuous. Occasionally I made attempts to go "in-depth" with a particular subject - a family concern, for instance, or a memory that I very much wanted to cherish dozens of years in the future.

Unfortunately, desire plays a strange game with motivation. Generally, I've found that a truly vivid memory tends to burn itself into my consciousness, and the "lesser" memories tend to drift under the surface of my waking thoughts. This sounds normal enough, at least until I go back and read the journal entries. A particularly telling article was an essay I once for the one journalism class I took. "Why I Write," it was titled - even now, I can't remember having written it. I can tell it must have been late at night, though, and under a deadline - it has the sound and feel of a journal entry. The entire article revolves around the girl I "loved" at the time, a friend of mine who lived five states away and who I mostly knew through e-mail. "Why I Write," it was titled, as if her distance and our e-mails would be enough to explain why I put fingers to keyboard every day. But reading this essay again last week, I discovered a depth of feeling that I had forgotten regarding this friend. It's been years now since she and I last talked or e-mailed - we barely knew each other. But for a few months my junior year, she was the headline of my life, the front-page story of the day, the reason I looked forward to waking up and the reason I never wanted to go to sleep.

Am I proud of my journal entries? Not particularly. Are they honest? Sure. Do they reveal the inner depths of my character? Most days I hope not. But these brief records of life - of my personal life - reveal the richness of the human experience. They rest like slow-release time capsules, waiting for those brief moments when I have a chance to leaf through and read about the person I once was, the person I've always been. The details are always so mundane that I forgot them, but they were pivotal enough to write.

So now, as I contemplate another night of typing fiction or typing a journal entry, I have to reflect on what journal entries have actually done for my writing. I like to think that I am a creative writer, that the thoughts I put on the page are unique and uniquely mine. But the source of these thoughts is unclear. Are they subconscious meanderings, the deep waves hidden far beneath the surface? Or are they the steady breeze of the ocean air sending laughter like ripples across the bay? I have my guesses, and so do the psychologists, but no one truly knows the source of great writing. No one can bottle it, there is no formula, and selling your soul works only until the director calls "cut!"

So when you reach a point in your fiction writing that you cannot write more, a moment when you don’t know what your protagonist should do or think, it might be time for a journal entry. The words might not seem important, and you might never share them, but those words are your life. They are the front-page story of your day. And if you want to write stirring fiction, the kind of work that truly explores that hidden continent the human mind, then what better foreign correspondent will you find than your journal?

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