Writing Tip: The Beauty of Journalling

I don’t know if there is any more important tip I can offer than this. It has been nothing short of pivotal in my evolution as a writer.

Every day, for nearly 20 years, I have written in my journal. I say every day and that’s not much of an exaggeration. There have been only a handful of times in all these years that I have not been able to write three pages. On vacation, during an emergency situation or when I can’t get the alone time I need, I might get in one or two pages. I rarely have missed more than two days in a row. On those occasions when I have not been able to make to the journal, I have felt it palpably. So I don’t let that feeling happen if I can help it. Perhaps one might say I’m addicted to journalling. If you are around me when I have missed a day, you will likely ask me what’s wrong.

Taught by two of my favorite writing teachers, Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron, I think it’s a safe addiction. Natalie sees it as writing practice, Julia calls them morning pages. Natalie’s are more directly for writers, whereas Julia’s cover artists of every stripe.

Natalie’s instructions are just to fill up a notebook a month with anything. She explains her process, “In my notebooks I don’t bother with the side margin or the one at the top. I fill the whole page. I am not writing anymore for a teacher or for school. I am writing for myself first and don’t have to stay within my limits, not even margins. This gives me a psychological freedom and permission. And when my writing is on and I’m really cooking, I usually forget about punctuation, spelling, etc. I also notice that my handwriting changes. It becomes larger and looser.”

Julia’s description is thus, “Put simply, the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of consciousness. They might also, more ingloriously, be called brain drain, since that is one of their main functions.” She goes on to say, “There is no wrong way to do morning pages. These daily meanderings are not meant be art. Or even writing . . . Pages are meant to be, simply the act of moving the hand across the page and writing down whatever comes to mind. Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included.”

Here’s my take on it – Find a quiet space and time to sit down and write, by hand, as Julia prescribes, 3 full pages every day. As per Natalie’s instructions, I use cheap coil bound notebooks (usually around a dollar a piece). You can write anything at all. I have given you some starters below. Just whatever is traipsing through your mind at the time. Remember that there are no limits.

I need a good 45 minutes to properly do it. Tea is incorporated in my routine. I will add a half a page of gratitudes (or fill in for my three, if need be.) I am willing to get up earlier to have that time. But for most people, a good ½ hour should do it.

Choose a regular time that fits into your schedule. I believe both teachers prefer that they be done in the morning, first thing. That’s worked for me. But I think the discipline is more important than the time. If it’s easy for you to do, you’ll be more likely to do it. Stick to that assigned time for as many days as you can. Experts often advise three weeks to develop a new habit. If you miss a day, take it up again the next. Once it’s habit, you’ll be into it like I am. You won’t want to miss a day.

I find a good way to begin is to talk about how you feel. If you struggle with emotions, you can try the twitch in your knee or the tension in your arm. Best-selling author Cheryl Richardson offers some questions to get you going: (I keep this list with my pens so I have it if I get stuck.)
This morning I feel –
I’m always (or I have been) daydreaming about –
My nagging inner voice keeps telling me –
The thoughts that roll around in my heard are –
My soul longs to –
What I’m most afraid of is –
What I’m most grateful for is –
My inner critic tells me –
You can make up your own.  If you prefer, go for something more practical like three things I wish to do today, or three ways I’d like to improve or change how I feel, maybe three things I’d like to give away today.

The daily practice of journalling has created a ballast in my life. No matter where my life takes me, how many hours I work, how much money I have, how I feel, I always have my journal (or some paper) and a pen with me. I take it on vacation and get up a little earlier so I have quiet time with the journal. I am always happier for it and feel it keeps me grounded.

Journalling helped me find my voice ~ whether my writing works or not, touches you or not, I strive to make it true to My Voice. (My voice, maybe, on its best behavior.) That came from journalling endlessly in any voice, with any words in whatever order.

Oh how I love using the journal for fleshing out and experimenting with dialog and scenes! I have had to copy many pages out of my journal where I just got into it and it flowed so well, I had to lift the whole thing. Journalling is also a fine venue for getting to know characters and playing out scenes with different endings.

In journalling there is no one looking over your shoulder, no one waiting to judge it. You can try on ideas about why you do things or how you could do them better. It’s a wide open playground.

Journalling has provided an amazing mirror for me. It is where I can examine all my thoughts – good and bad. To muse on how I feel and what I think about this and that, provides a wonderful outlet. I can have a fight with my best friend for whatever it was she did to me. I can yell and scream and ask, how could she do such a thing! All without upsetting a hair on her head. And truthfully, when I’m done spewing in the journal,  I’m rarely left with those negative feelings. Very often, being able to release  all the nasties, I come around to understanding and forgiveness. I see things from a fresh perspective.

In Conversations with God, which I like to quote heavily, God tells us that the purpose of life is to remember who you are and discover who you choose to be. In the journal, as you write day after day, you come to know who you are. It becomes a wide open field to stretch your mind around who you’d like to be. The journal provides a safe haven to be as honest as you can.

You can have amazing discoveries when you journal. You never know what might happen. People you haven’t thought about in years can pop up. Or a poem will spring out on the page in front of you. You don’t have to stop and wonder if it’s good enough. You’re just journalling. And what a forum for dreaming it is! In the journal you can imagine how things could be.  If only ~  and a few sentences allowed to flow in this direction might reveal untapped hopes and desires. There is much to find in this treasure chest!

If you can, read them back. Julia Cameron advises this. Give it eight weeks, she says and then take a look at what you wrote. I admit, I’m not good at that. But when I  stop to do it, I find all kinds of things: insightful passages, incredible ideas, and illustrative narrative. If I were to mine them more often, I’d have a lot of material I could use elsewhere.

Journalling is worth the time. It can add up quickly. (I have so many coil notebooks I could build a separate dwelling!) It is seriously good writing practice. When you journal regularly you can develop writing chops, sharpen critical thinking, build descriptive skills, and open new vistas . . . and find yourself at the same time!

I believe the more you know yourself, the truer and more honest your writing will be.

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Playing with Words

As an every day writer, we have the distinct joy of being able to play with words. We know and relish the subtle differences between words like unique, distinctive, and singular.

Words make a difference, no matter what you’re writing. The words you choose, the alliteration you decide to decant, the combinations you mix or leave out, all set a tone and a mood.

The words you use regularly say something about you. In writing they can be seen as lazy patterns of speech. From a certain point of view, on occasion, for instance, the key is . . . we all have our repetitive phrases and it can add flavor to writing, and reveal something of the author. But we need to be careful that we don’t overuse them as if we were talking. It may be time to whip out the Thesaurus and play with different words to find another way to say it. Choose your words more carefully and tweak them until they say just what you are truly after. Don’t rely on the same old words.

The words you choose to talk about your life can have a profound affect on how you feel. We can play with those words, too. You don’t have to deny the situation to tell it using slightly different words. Think about how you describe your life. Which words are you choosing?

Instead of always saying you’re so busy, see if you can vary that to, “I’m doing a lot of what I enjoy.” Or maybe “My days are filled with lots of great activity!” Words can change a mind from confused to befuddled, making things feel a little more manageable. You can add  more zest to any situation. It was great! Instead of it was fine. Or be more specific: It was mind-bendingly boring, instead of “yeah, it was okay.”  Pay attention to the words you use when talking and play with them.  See how you can change the shades of your life.

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Writing Tip: Try Different Story-Telling Devices

In this week’s Rants and Raves post, I talked about a movie called 2 Days in the Valley. They used a device I’d call “Swirling Spheres.” It’s kind of a spin-off of the merry band, like in the Hobbit stories. Instead it develops several disparate groups.

In the movie, they began telling the story of the first group of people, the pivotal characters and jumped into the action. And then the scene switched to someone else who appeared to be totally unrelated to the first story.  Scene change and onto another story. Paths crossed, revealing connections and eventually all the characters came crashing together. Big things happen when you combine all the threads. Explosions, romance, murder or fun!

Try this:
Come up with a random selection of characters – from fiction, history, your life, characters you’ve created, people you’ve interviewed, or would like to, even people involved in a situation. Try for 6 or 8 that you know something about (or think you do). Do a brief sketch of each one and figure out how they’re all related. Then toss them together and experiment with what might happen! As if Charlie Chan or Sherlock Holmes had gathered all the suspects in the same room and invited them to share their stories. See what they have to say. You could get some insights for a fresh angle on a story or the first draft of a new one.

If you’re lost for ideas, try combining a few topics and see what comes out. Watch 2 Days in the Valley or Big Trouble. I hear Robert Altman uses this device in many of his movies, too. I’m sure there are plenty of examples in literature.

You might try simply combining two two things that don’t usually go together like ducks and the Empire State Building. What about Steely Dan and a coffee shop? This can give you a story-telling vehicle, as well as an angle.

Keep your eyes open when reading or watching for the structure, the bones of the story. How did they tell it? There are many options out there.  Use them liberally. One of my favorite devices is when you start at one point, go hither and yon and end up in the same place, bringing the story back around. The television Lovejoy stories were often like that.

There’s also the device I used this week of taking the concept from the movie for a review and working it into a writing post. I also shook it out as a means of combining social networking connections for On Business. And talked about the wonderful things that can come from bringing energies together On the Path.

Collect your own favorites.

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Where Do you Slant?

Recently, I saw a documentary called “GasLand,” about the effects of natural gas extraction. In fact, I wrote about it this week in Rants and Raves. I believe what I heard and it shook me. It had the desired effect on me. In large part due to the slant it took.

With the lack of response from the people responsible, the slant of GasLand naturally fell to the people who are suffering to tell the story. There are other ways it could’ve been told, both in context and content. It could have come from the angle of a message: Did we not learn from the experience of the Dust Bowl? Mess with the Earth and she will strike back. We may emotionally tell how fracking has impacted our own life. It could’ve been an in depth, scientific study of how hydraulic fracturing works. Or, told from the perspective of the oil and natural gas companies, we would have seen a very different film. Same story, told in different ways.

As writers, we can decide where we stand as we tell our stories. A slant allows you to narrow your vision into a specific topic or angle. (It’s all about light, isn’t it?) When you choose a slant for whatever you’re writing, you make a choice about where you stand and from what perspective you will write. This helps focus your work. So you know before you start where you are going. It gives you a homing signal to aim for as you write. This can help your odds of delivering the right message and your piece having the desired effect.

In life, we can use this slant to choose how we will view the changing situations in front of us. To get clearer on what it is we believe about something. Decide where we stand. How we see things can have a huge impact on our enjoyment of life. We can choose to see things as bleak or as hopeful.

Now might be a good time to define the positive slant. It is a way of seeing the best in any given circumstance. Not always easy to do. I seem to naturally topple into a much darker point of view. It takes effort to change my position. Taking the positive slant does not deny the facts on the ground, nor is it strictly putting a positive spin on what is not. It’s merely slanting it, using a loving filter, shining a softer light. Seeing all the refractions and finding how it can be used to move forward, to help do things in a more positive, life-affirming way.

In writing, the slant can be every which way. But it is up to the writer to figure where the piece will be written from. If you start seeing it from the left side and then jump to the right you will confuse your readers. Make sure it is your perspective and not the one you think you should have. If it’s authentic and consistent, in the end you will write a tighter piece.

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Writing Tip: Listen to Your Words

Good writing owes much of its worth to the sound and order of the words.  One may think that odd since so much of writing is experienced in silence.

If the words roll off your tongue, they will run the same way through the reader’s mind.  You can hear the voice of good writers, even if you’ve never heard them speak.  You instinctively know you are in the hands of someone who is passionate about what they’ve written. The writer has taken the time to listen to the sound of her words.

Words have effect.  They evoke images. They create feelings. You might use the word bright, when brilliant or flashing might have more sparkle.

Writing has a rhythm.  Too many sentences.  And you jar your reader.  Too many long, meandering sentences, containing several points might well put  him to sleep. It’s not a good idea to ask your reader to do too much work.  You want him to stay engaged in what you’re saying.  Isn’t that the point, after all?

Let’s face it.  Readers are fickle.  They can afford to be.  There is so much to pick from out there!  If you want to keep her reading, make it pleasant to be in your writing.

You can use the sounds and rhythms to make a point.  And mean it!  Or you can string them along with your flowing and visceral descriptions.  You can convey all kinds of emotions by the words you choose and the way you lay them down.

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Revising Your Stories

As every day writers we have a lot of power.  We regularly make things come out the way we want them to. Especially in fiction, but also in non.  Whatever you write, you decide what it will say.  It is your call what the piece of writing will accomplish and how you wish to get there.

We can, no matter what our skill or experience as a storyteller, re tell our own stories.  Make them come out the way we want them to.

Say you have submitted your work to a publisher or agent (client or employer).  We all know how this can turn out: you either hear nothing or that they are “not interested at this time.”

At this point, there is a choice we can make about the story we wish to tell about this.  Sure, you can march on about how your work stinks and no one will ever want to read it.  Or sit staring with a dazed expression, asking why.  Maybe they even told you why which might have hurt even more, left you feeling more confused.

As an every day writer, however, you can see that there are different ways this story can be told.  The facts of the matter are what they are. It would be fun to write the story where the publisher says, “Your book is wonderful!  We can’t wait to have it.”  But there’s no need to deny reality.  You can start from where you are, with the truth of the situation.

What if you decided to change the next chapter to read about how you feel inspired because you wouldn’t really be a writer if you didn’t go through rejection?  You might go on to explain that’s just one person’s opinion.  There are many other people in the world.  You can still believe in what you’ve written.  You can finish the story of how the next publisher took you on and your publishing career was launched!

So get busy and rewrite your stories.  As an every day writer, you can do this 15 minute  exercise easily. Sit with your first reaction to the situation (whatever it may be).   And then see if you can change the scene.  Write, “How else could I see this?  Is there another way to describe this?”  True, it is about finding the positive slant.  But why not?  Doesn’t it feel better?

This works for all kinds of situations.  A lover leaving, an opportunity missed, or the food you ordered not being as good as you expected, the show being cancelled.  Give yourself a few minutes to write through your anger or disappointment and come out with a fresher perspective.

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