Don’t Waste Words

December 1, 2010

I’ve been reading through past journals (I have many, many volumes of them) to cull scenes/insights I might have written that I can use in my book-in-progress.  I promise myself that I’ll do this about midway through a book-in-progress.  But, because I’m like most of us writers, I don’t always get around to doing what I know I need to do for my process.

Today, I was reading my October 2003-May 2004 journal.  I was keeping it while I was beginning my work on my moving book (On Moving).  And I came across this entry:

That we try to make the homes of our adulthoods into palaces of perfection to rewrite the difficult past.  How houses are the sites of our gravest, most difficult hours, yet how we sanctify the idea of home, so that, when we move from our first home, we tell ourselves that, by creating a new home, we can eradicate all the difficulties we experienced there. . . . The idea of how private the home is.  How it is the most inaccessible of spaces, which, on the one hand, provides privacy, and on the other hand – at least for children like me – is a socially acceptable kind of penal colony.  Good to get these thoughts down, which I shall surely use.

But I didn’t use these words in my book.  Instead, I rewrote practically the same ideas, the same sentiments, but in other words, when I was working on the book.  The passage I quote above, and many, many more, I could have plucked for the taking, if only I’d taken the time to read my own words.

I often do.  I often dig into my journals to look for material.  But I just as frequently don’t.  And I’m suggesting that I – we – need to learn from my mistake.

Because it’s been my experience that many writers – I’m thinking of one writer in particular now – write more freely, more to the point, more authentically in our process journals/daily entry journals than we do we sit in front of the computer and churn out what we think is prose fit for public consumption.  Which, quite often – not always, but quite often – is stuffy and not who we really are on the page.

I insist that the writers I work with use their journals as gold mines.  That they don’t just write journal, that they reread their journals looking for nuggets that can become scenes, commentary, reflections.  I’ve discovered that when we are near the beginning of a work, and when we write journal about it, that we know a great deal about the work that we then forget in the process of writing the work.  So we need to go back to the ideas we had at a work’s inception if we are to plumb the depths of our material.

I think as our work gets closer and closer to being finished, we have the tendency to write safer and safer.  We have the tendency to think, “Oh my goodness, someone is going to see this, I must put my best foot forward.”  And, for me at least, thinking like this puts a straitjacket on my prose and I start thinking about the reception of my prose, rather than “letting it rip” and then worrying about cleaning it up later.

And so, dipping into the journals we keep as we write can help us to “keep it real.”  Because, as we begin to work, we are keenly in touch with our material at a very visceral, rather than intellectual level.  As we work, our head tends to get into the act.  And that, at least to me, spells disaster.  (And I should know – I’ve spent the better part of six months shifting the voice of the work I’m writing after it moved away from the guts of the work to a very “smart” but horrifyingly stodgy draft.)

Let’s not waste the words we write in our journals.  I don’t mean that we should turn every entry into a piece, but that we should be alert to what’s there that we can use.   I know that Julia Cameron advocates not reading morning pages; she says to just write, and not read what we write.  But as a professional writer, I don’t think that way.  I think that everything a writer writes is potentially useful, and that we have to make time in our writing day, every so often, to go back and read what we’re written down.

We need to read about the pieces or the books we wanted to write but haven’t yet written.  Why dream a new book when we’ve dreamed dozens already?  In fact, in reading my journal, I discovered/remembered that in 2003 I’d decided not to write a book that I was researching in order to write On Moving. I’d forgotten that completely.  I’d taken scores of notes.  It just didn’t seem the right subject for me at the time.  I scribbled insights, organization, tons of moments to write about.  And, upon rereading, I began to think that when I finish writing the book I’m now writing, it might be time to take up the book I put down.

Literary history is filled with stories of writers who have put down works only to pick them up again years later and to bring them to a fruition that they hadn’t dreamed possible earlier.  Many times, as writers, we’re working far in advance of the work we can/want to do.  I think of this as being like scout who are sent out in advance of a politicians going to a particular place.  They figure out what’s what; they get a sense of the place; they figure out what needs to be done.  Then the politician comes and learns what the advance team knows.  As writers, we’re often our own advance team, working where we are, but scouting far ahead of where we are – at the same time.

So, I want to remind myself to honor my earlier words; to see if I can use them; to mine my journal; to see what nuggets are there.

Most writers I know work hard.  Many writers I know work harder than they should.  I don’t mean that we should be sloppy and evade the work we need to do.  I mean that sometimes we work at things that we’ve already worked at and that we can sometimes save ourselves time.  Sometimes writers think they have to start from scratch every single day, and we pen many different versions of the same scene instead of nailing down that scene through revision.  I know: I’m sitting with twelve versions of a scene for the book I’m writing.

I once worked with a writer who was brilliant in her journal, and staid and ordinary on the page.  I suggested to her, in conference, that she use her journal as the basis for her work.  “But that would be cheating,” she said.  “My journal is my journal, and my work is my work.”  Extreme as this might sound, I think that this is the tack many of us take.  If there’s a hard way, we’ll take it.  If we’ve written it, with ease, in our journal, we won’t use it.  Instead, we’ll sit at our computers, or in front of a blank sheet of paper, and sweat the words out that we’ve written, in some other form, before in our journals.

So, from now on, I’m going to try not to waste my words, to treat the words I’ve already written with reverence.  And I suggest you do the same.



8 Responses to “Don’t Waste Words”

  1. Julie Raynor Says:

    Such valuable material you’re churning out here. And, for me, another timely post with two books underway and a third gestating that will also benefit from journals, many of which were written under your mentorship. I’m grateful for your wisdom and generosity. Yours, Julie

  2. Jason Perry Says:

    I’m currently reading The Bob Dylan chronicles;he creates scenes and a sense of time by mentioning literature he read and songs he knew. I noticed that the literature and songs he mentions aren’t influential on the era that he is in. He simply describes them, but i feel that for trivial evidence in writing a journal can help save time. For instance he mentions reading Milton and the depth of his writing. Taking notes on other literary works is helping me fill intellectual gaps that my writing may lack, yet I am having trouble keeping it from sounding artificial.

  3. Jennifer Cruz Says:

    “My journal is my journal, and my work is my work.” This perfectly explains how I feel about my journal and my work. I honestly never thought you could use the journal material because it was so raw. My journals have a very “I am home and safe” attitude where I write very similar to my every day vernacular. This post turned on the light bulb. I’m going back to review some older journals tonight. Thanks for another great post.

  4. Gi'Ana Walker Says:

    This is great advice. Writers can get so much raw material from their journals. I remember a time where I was working on a piece and realized that part of the subject was previously recorded in my journal. It gave me a fresh view of the memory as well as details that I had forgotten. As you say journals are writer’s gold. They hold confirmation or further explanation for whatever a writer could be working on. Using your journal magnifies your writing possibilities.

  5. Denise Palacios Says:

    When adding the long awaited shaping and finalizing of my final memoir, I found that there were “holes in the narrative.” Little secrets of revelations, moments of insight. These were the moments that my intimate writings were priceless. I looked through my old diaries, and found these forgotten emotions of a former self, a younger self. And then, the realization of the individual growth can evoke new material that will fit into the writing. Journal writing is my safety net, where every thought is permissible, delicious secrets are revealed. What they are to me are precious truths that can be omitted, yet are crucial to the authenticity of the writer’s work.

  6. William Bradley Says:

    Journaling has been a hug part of my process. In a journal I usually put what I mean to say in the piece itself. I hide all of the “secrets” in the journal and when I put enough time between writing a piece and writing in the journal to start letting bits of the journal seep in.

  7. ashley Leavitt Says:

    I often find the milk and honey of a text are hidden in the incidentals of everyday life and everyday language: A note written to a lover on a cocktail napkin pushed across the table on a first date, a text message notifying a friend that, in my haste to see them, I forgot to pack their favorite jeans they lent you because I really want to keep them an extra week, my father’s notes scribbled across a court notice for a custody hearing, an itemized list of things to bring on my trip to Europe, and the like. I keep all kinds of scraps like this and in a folder, or stick them to a piece of paper and scribble notes around them. My journal is my scrapbook. A place I feel free to express whatever I want about the events that shape my experience in a totally unfiltered way. Sometimes they get lost for months, years. Most often, like fine wine or art, they are more valuable to me with time, or after someone’s death, a broken friendship. Stitched together they reveal glimpses into the story of my life, of the people I love, hate, or otherwise would not remember, in a way that I may have interpreted differently at the time. I keep people’s letter. Sometimes I photocopy a letter I write to someone. Letters to me, are a kind of intimate interactive journal that describes and records my life, the correspondent’s life, and our relationship.

    I wholehearted agree that carrying a small notebook is essential to capturing gauzy thoughts and lighting bright insights that might otherwise be lost forever. Too, I use a multicolored pen to distinguish between insight, creative thought, memory and observation. Otherwise, I tend to forget which source inspired my notes. I sometimes grab bits of conversation from passersby or a friend’s witty remark, or a note to self, and use it later.

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