I want to post something, but nothing’s burning in my brain to be said — but that’s OK. I don’t want to be a writer who says something only when he feels there’s something to say. Not that I want to merely chit-chat, “shoot the breeze” as the saying goes (a rather violent saying, it just now strikes me), but rather, I guess I’m interested in reading things and/or writing things that aren’t necessarily meaning-driven, that aren’t little news stories, for example, and aren’t tidy lessons or little packaged epiphanies. I don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking I’ve always got Important Things That Must Be Said. I’ve even found myself in recent days waiting for inspiration to strike, which is something I wouldn’t allow my students to do. When they ask what to write about, I tell them to freewrite — get something written by putting down any and every idea that comes to mind. If there’s an idea in mind before I begin to write, that’s OK, but often, the ideas that come to mind before I sit to write aren’t as interesting as those that surprise me by coming along as I freewrite. So this post may not get directly to the (or to any) point, but then I’ve been thinking lately that making points may not be the point of writing. Perhaps the value of any text to a reader is that the text conveys the voice of a writer with whom we readers enjoy spending time — that, sure, we may like their ideas, images, theories, insights, stories, etc., but maybe the value in reading any writer’s work isn’t any of these things so much as that we just like how that writer’s brain/voice works. Something about their personality comes through the writing, and we might want to be friends with, or at least, be close enough to overhear, that writer. And I’ll venture this idea, though I’m not sure how much I actually agree with it: that I’d like to see fewer texts that have clear, decisive, settled opinions and ideas, and I’d prefer to read texts in which a writer works out one’s ideas, says things tentatively, seeking understanding rather than promoting one view, opinion, or definition of things that the writer seems certain about. (I say that I’d like to read things like that, but then, maybe I like the idea of that kind of text more than I’d actually like reading those texts in practice.)
Anyway, lately when I’ve gotten my fill of reading news, news analysis, commentary, and opinions — which things I find easy to read, but which do not really satisfy me — I’ve been going to the Pepys diary and seeing what fellow writer Sam did on this day in 1660-something. I like the permissiveness of the spelling, the window on a specific life lived in a different time (for one, he seems to dispatch his duties as a naval administrator in considerably less than eight hours each day), and just the writings about a life lived — his desires (such as they are), how he spent his hours, etc.
But I also like Pepys as a fellow diaries/journal-ist, as someone whose texts I can use as comparison to my own journals, which I’ve been keeping for 20 years as of last May, and I’ve been keeping them daily (skipping maybe only 4 or 5 days) for the last 8 years. These daily journals are a diary for me, but more than that, they are also the place where I record most of my ideas, impressions, theories; they are where I record the thoughts and ideas that come back to me as I write (in that sense, they are not a complete record of every single thing I do — they are a morning-after impression of the previous day’s highlights (and there’s something about sleeping first that helps sort out the highlights from the dross), and these are where I work out/through my questions about art, life, blah — it seems dull when I generalize about them. But these journals are something I feel an urge, a need to do — and I hesitate to use “need,” in that when I used to read artists describe themselves as “needing to create,” I felt like I wasn’t an artist because I didn’t feel that sense of need. And yet, as I got into a practice/habit of doing them, the journals did start to feel like something that I didn’t want to skip — perhaps because my mind tends towards the obsessive, but it really does help me feel better once I’ve gotten 3-4 pages done each morning before I go to work.
I started doing them as daily writing practice after getting the idea from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way (I have never actually read the rest of the book. It may be great; I don’t know. A man I consider a mentor once told me about taking what one needs from a practice and letting go of what doesn’t work for one. I found the “morning pages” practice so useful I’ve never gone back into her book — that’s not her fault, of course. But, for me, knowing when to shut out other people’s advice has been quite helpful.), and I have my high school creative writing students do some journaling at the beginning of each class period. After several years of assigning this, I’d say about half of my students find the open-ended (freewritten) journals extremely valuable, and the other half find them not helpful (though even those students generally have become more fluent in their writing). For me, these journals felt like a distraction from the Serious Writing I felt I should be doing, until not too long ago, when I realized that the writing I have been doing all along — writing that has felt natural, has been enjoyable for its own sake, and has not felt like work — IS actually the writing I should be doing. I discovered/eventually learned that the writing that is the most rewarding for me to do just because I enjoy doing it is the writing that I want to be doing. I didn’t need to make myself into a fiction writer if writing fiction felt like work to me, which all too often it did.
I’m getting abstract here, and I don’t want to. I guess I just wanted to talk about journals, and how I enjoy writing them, even if they never lead to any kind of published work. For years, I thought that the filled journals should become something I could publish, and I despaired that they were not more automatically suited for publishing. Maturity in this arrived slowly, when I realized that enjoying the act of writing mattered more to me than the external success of publishing. And realizing that has helped me, actually, enjoy reading my old journals more. I used to judge them harshly for not being Something More, but when I go back and look without judging, I’m often pleasantly surprised at what I read. There’s much more to say about the process of going back and reading my own journals (starting here).
For this post, let’s wrap up by bringing back Pepys as example and let’s say that I’m glad he wrote the journals he did — which journals he did not publish during his lifetime. All the same, I wish that he’d been a bit more introspective, a bit more thorough, in his commentaries. But the point is, and this is something I need to remind myself, it really doesn’t matter what I think of Pepys’ journals. He made them for himself. And it helps to remind myself that I don’t need to take Pepys, or Thoreau, or any other noted journal-ist as a model for my own journal-writing. It can be nice to think that there are models, examples, of people who’ve done what I do, and yet, at some point, I learned to let go of models, too.