Nonfic: Writing fiction/poetry vs. journaling

A note on my writing life: Every day I wake up early so that I can walk my dog, make some tea, and write 3 or more pages of longhand journals before work or other activities. I’ve been doing this, following Julia Cameron’s suggestion in The Artist’s Way, for the last eight years, and it really seems to have helped me in a lot of ways. It has made it much easier for me to listen to my inner voice, my mental narrator, the source of my words, and get those words onto paper. (I don’t mean “listen to my inner voice” metaphorically—it is so much like dictation that I find myself sometimes misspelling words based on their sounds, like “won” instead of “one.”) Writing these journals has also satisfied my compulsion to record my experiences, as one would in a diary, but these journals are also more than that: they are where I write down, and thereby ease, my worries, fears, hopes, etc. I often find myself talking myself out of harsh judgments and dumb opinions during these journals. I also use these journals as a kind of self-dialogue in a philosophical vein—in them, I theorize about my interpersonal experiences, my teaching, my writing practice. But it’s hard to describe how visceral and urgent and open this daily writing session is. I love it when I have brand new insights, ideas, or theories during this writing, and these new things happen maybe a couple times a week.

During the day, if I have an idea come to mind, or if I overhear some strange or wonderful sentence, or even if I just read something I want to refer to later, I’ll write these things down on what I call my “pocket page,” a three-hole-punched piece of standard-sized paper folded twice each length so it fits easily in my shirt or pants pocket. (Credit where due: I learned this system from a writing seminar taught by author John Gile.) I generally fill one of these pages every couple of days, and then these go into a binder.  I used to carry a pocket-sized notebook, but after filling a hundred-sixty of those, I switched to this pocket page system, and I have found it easier to refer back to these binders than to the pocket notebooks.

My job as a teacher includes classes in creative writing, and it’s during these classes that most of my fiction and poetry writing occurs. I’ll assign students a writing exercise and I’ll do it as they do it, so afterwards I can read my work to them, “modeling” (in teacher jargon) the type of writing I’d like them to try. I also just like taking the time during the school day to be creative.

Now here’s the thing: Over the last 20 years, I’ve tended to find my journal writing to be more satisfying and more important than writing poetry and fiction. Journals are what I continued to write, and these are things that I do just because I enjoy doing them, I enjoy the process of doing them. For most of the last 20 years, I have thought that I should write poetry and especially fiction, because that seemed to be What Real Writers Wrote, but I never seemed to write much fiction. What I wrote was the nonfiction of my journals. Only in recent years did I start to think that I could stop telling myself I should be writing fiction, and that it was OK to be what I already was, a nonfiction journal-writer, and that my real self was the self I had already made myself to be. I already was a writer, just not the kind of writer I had thought I should be.

What a relief to realize that, comically enough. After years of thinking I was a sort of failure because I wasn’t good enough at something I didn’t really seem to like to do, I could see myself as a success at doing what I was already doing and what I enjoyed doing.

That acceptance itself was an idea that came to me, I suspect, because I was writing journals and because doing the journal-writing was a form of mental practice that sharpened my thinking and perhaps made my own thinking processes more apparent to me. The more I write journals, the better I seem to become at writing journals, yes (I never really have writer’s block—I tell my students I don’t think it exists), but also the better I seem to become at conceptualizing, analyzing, and becoming aware of my own thinking.

And the goofy part of this is that I think my growth as a nonfiction writer and thinker has also helped me become more comfortable in teaching and writing poetry and fiction, and I’ve begun in recent years to enjoy writing fiction and poetry, too.

But I enjoy writing fiction and poetry for different reasons, I realized this week, than I enjoy writing my journals. Writing fiction and poetry for me is play. I write fiction and poetry to have fun, to through ideas and images and word sounds out into the world. I feel a distance between me the writer and the fiction and poetry that gets written, such that I don’t feel I have to mean anything in my fiction and poems. My poems and stories don’t have to represent the heights and depths of me as a person. I can throw stuff out and see if it sticks, see if it’s interesting, and if it doesn’t seem so interesting, that’s fine.  I don’t generally have a plan or an outcome in mind when I start to write poems or fiction; I want to be surprised as I go.

My journal-writing is sometimes funny or weird, but I pretty much mean all of it. It’s me on paper—I can’t separate myself from what’s written in my journals. I may change feelings and ideas from day to day, of course, but what’s there on the page is what I felt and thought at the time. My journals may be silly, but they’re me, Matt, and they are very often serious in tone. In writing journals, I tend to want to understand, to conceptualize, to draw distinctions and question those distinctions. I don’t really want to preach or advocate what’s in the journals—in fact, the journals aren’t really meant for any other readers at all. They’re more like a conversation I’m having with myself. (In that way, they’re hard to excerpt.) I usually have too many things to say, directly, as quickly as possible, to get around to word-play or to pure (fiction) imagination. The journals are where I talk about my world, even as I’m aware that the world may not be as I see and understand it, of course (that too is something I’ve become more aware of by doing my journals). I’ve even thought that my journals are a kind of seminar for me. I’m learning from myself, which would sound weird, except that I often feel I’m tapping into, I’m opening up my mind to, some deeper sense of wisdom. Whether that’s my unconscious or subconscious mind, I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter how a neurologist would name it, but I have often had the experience of thinking and writing things that I had not intended or planned or even known about before I started to write.

So my journal-writing, which is central to my writing practice, had seemed serious, but I’ve also written poems and fictions that seemed silly, fun, absurd, not serious at all. I’ve at times thought that I should choose one way of being a writer over the other, but the insight of this morning’s journal was that I don’t need to choose. Both styles of writing can be two sides of me as an artist. I have created a distinction between fiction/poetry and nonfiction journals here, and yet I know that that that distinction itself isn’t real, per se. Why shouldn’t a writer have many sides? These don’t all need to be revealed in every piece of writing.

So I plan to keep putting a variety of things on this blog—the more things I try to write, the more I create, the more I seem to see a wider, more gorgeously complex reality with unknowable immensities of possibility.

4 responses to “Nonfic: Writing fiction/poetry vs. journaling

  1. Interesting to follow your “path” in this piece. I can see that about the aspect of “play” with fiction and poetry versus the journal. One thing that I’m not clear on, though, is where revision fits into your writing. It seems that revision is a large part of writing and it doesn’t sound like you revise your journals. So are they shapeless and in need of revision to be an enjoyable piece for the reader to engage with? Or do they manage to come out in a form you think the reader would like to read in some quantity?

  2. OOh, does that make me a muse? I like that role. I’ll be looking for it!

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