Category Archives: Writing

What I share when I publish my journal writings

My current journal notebook.

I don’t need to have a particular idea to write about in order to write just what comes to mind as I write. It’s OK, too, if ideas/topics do come to mind — and I’d like to keep these in a journal-context. I’m not sure how much I should say in my posts about how to read these posts of my journal writings — reading my journals just to spend a little time with me as I wrote, generally in a calm, reflective way. I’m thinking here how I read Sam Pepys’s journals sometimes during my lunch just to get out of the newsy/topical realm and get into the calm, life-goes-on, slice-of-life thing.

Sam Pepys didn’t publish his own journals. They would definitely be different, or at least there’d be a discrepancy between what he wrote and what he published, if he had published them while he lived. Why keep a journal, except for the experience of keeping a journal — which IS enough, of course. It can be kinda interesting to read the journal of someone known to you — family member, friend, etc., — like the family friend’s journal of his teen-aged road trip that I was shown a few years ago. Problem is that the main interest in such a document would be familial — because you knew the writer — rather than looking at the text itself, the text needing to justify itself — a task I face, since I have no descendants.

These journals are about the past, and the past is safe because it’s done, like how I drove myself into a new city, into Philadelphia, in 1996, at age 22, and it was scary then because I didn’t know that I would be safe, but now, no scares, because I did it and got home and it’s all done — closed off, secured in the past. It doesn’t have to be distant past – I’m feeling OK now about (my wife) M’s surgery because it went well — I know the outcome now, but I didn’t when I was writing on the 1st or early on 2nd of July. And of course, as I sit here and write today, as I write right now, I don’t know how things will go today, tomorrow, next year.

These journals are on a cusp of the future — I write now in safety about what happened yesterday, and I write now in concern for what may happen in near future, and that could be a kind of tension there. But I suspect that there’s never really much to do about the future, and when I’m writing, I’m usually pretty calm, not all that anxious about future nor grief-bound to the past. Even when I wrote about Papa’s death, it was the morning after, so I was over the immediate shock of it. It’s OK that I’m not writing at the immediate time after his death or writing immediately after whatever I did yesterday.

I read at Vox today an appreciation of L.A. Times food writer Gold, how he wrote about eating, not food, and how he wouldn’t take notes as he ate. He wanted to have the experience — 5 times at each restaurant — before he’d write, and then he’d try to share that experience with readers. That’s not really what I’m trying to do, share the experience from the past. The experience I’m wanting to share is the reflecting, the processing, the remembering, during the next morning — which will have a calmer tone than texts written moments after the heat of the experience.

These texts written at journaling time will have that calm, day-after, reflective aspect — and that’s kinda cool, because I don’t have to adopt some kind of persona. I am reflecting — there’s a transparency to my prose that way. I’m not writing years later to describe a scene thru haze of memory and nostalgia (like To Kill a Mockingbird, among so many other texts). My texts are without the artifice of persona, of trying to project a certain mood or tone or whatever — that’s the simplicity — but they’re also exactly what I want them to be: in time (not written years later but written each day, they’re time-capsules of what I thought on the day each was written) and also they are partial (I don’t try to write in that Voice of Authority that I can fall into, that voice I used as a reporter. When I sit and try to explain a topical (including historical) idea, I tend to adopt that distant, authoritative tone, and I think there’s a more natural tone — even enthusiasm — when I write text in my journaling voice). I like that my ideas are tentative, not final declarations, and I like that I show process, not just product. I like all these aspects of my journals, but I think today’s — what I’ve written above — might be the best way to explain what I’m wanting to do in publishing my journals.

From 24 July 2018 journal.

Message-Writing Versus Mind-Writing

In my personal writing, I’m not usually responding to existing texts (by reviewing books or responding to others’ arguments or making pointed allusions), and I’m also not usually making new texts that present an idealized, heightened reality or consciousness (such as poetry that uses language intensely, or novels that depict some mythic struggle). Instead, I’m usually trying to take my text-making into the world, writing about where I am and what I’m seeing, hearing, and thinking (examples here, here, and here).

Yesterday at school, as I was writing my own poem as my creative writing students made theirs, I’d thought of an earlier poem of mine, and how it was good — it was special, it felt poetic — because it used language intensely. Poems could be thought of as having a certain intensity of language that one doesn’t hear in most daily conversations. That’s why poems are fun to read — they’re heightened, intense, just as stage plays and fiction show characters and situations that are more heightened and intense than daily life. And that’s the attraction — I enjoy O Brother and Jesus Christ Superstar and “The Raven” and Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird because these works show things that are stylized, that go beyond my common experience of reality. Even certain nonfictions, too, are heightened — breathless news stories, gloriously polished literary essays.

But I’ve also questioned the values of thinking of my own life in this heightened way — seeing my life and thinking it should be more dramatic or funny or whatever. I suppose one could try to live an intense life — one could cause drama, live outside the law, do drugs, hitchhike.

Literary works (and maybe art works generally?) that convey a sense of a world heightened, a reality made fantastic — this is generally considered a sign of “good” poems, fictions, and nonfictions. It’s a world that values artifice and revision-unto-perfection as a way of pushing texts away from real life.

It wasn’t that long ago that I questioned the need to revise — there’s a whole other value system, I’m learning, that values artifice less and spontaneity more — not improvisation, exactly, but particularity. How did a person (each person?) live? What did someone do and think at the time, from in the midst of the action, or soon after — It’s a value system in which the daily journal is preferred over the end-of-life memoir.

Literary texts are often judged by a standard of how heightened they are, how well a novel compresses life, or gets to the story. My objection to stories (such as here and here and here) has been that stories are artificial and arbitrary. Even when I make a story of some experience from within my lived life, that’s not a necessary story but merely one interpretation by my mind at that time.

In “good” texts, the writer is supposed to hide the effort required to make the text (as a Taylor Mali poem puts it: “I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.”) But if I’m writing as myself, about the particulars of my recent experience, I am going to discuss the work of writing — as Steinbeck kept a journal of his process of writing The Grapes of Wrath.

When someone writes an intense poem, others can sense the quality, perhaps intuitively — maybe because we are trained/acculturated, from an early age, to appreciate language and stories — and we must be trained to appreciate new art forms. And I feel the writings I’ve done from particular places and dates , these don’t feel as valuable. Maybe I need to train my readers to see the value (as no doubt people had to be trained or taught to appreciate Ulysses). I’ll sometimes read to my students segments from my journal writings done in particular places as if these segments depicted something intuitively funny. I’ll read a quote or something I think is funny or absurd, etc. — for example, the discussion of dog-mating in my writing done at Washington Square Park. That’s OK, but it reduces the rest of the freewrite to excess writing that could be cut. I told a student to edit some things out of her recent essay, as these things seemed unrelated to her essay’s thesis. But in a place-writing, in any particular writing-as-myself freewriting, there is no thesis to guide the writing, so there is no off-thesis material!

There’s no organizing principle but the writer’s mind, the writer’s consciousness. This is what I’ll refer to as mind-writing, as distinct from message-writing: a discrete text, containing its own introduction/beginning, conclusion/ending, message, and justification for that message being important or entertaining. The mind-writing doesn’t need or imply the existence of readers the way message-writing does. The mind-write doesn’t seek money or approval. It may seem standoffish but it’s independent. As a blurting of the writer’s mental voice onto paper, it’s actually more intimate than the message, which is prepared for — and may pander to — readers. The mind-write is just the author talking (and before I would publish one of these, I may edit out the parts I don’t want to share — which option I need to have in order to be open and honest during the writing — but I also don’t need to revise the mind-writing, so the text stays as close to what was originally written as possible).

Several years ago, I read part of a writing-advice book that said aspiring writers should not write journals, as these are too self-indulgent, but should write letters, as these are written to a reader. At the time, that advice felt right, as if this advice were from the only correct perspective on how to write. But now I’m better at seeing the arbitrariness of judgments, or, let’s say that judgments made by comparing any particular piece of writing to a certain standard aren’t arbitrary, because judgments made in accordance with standards are necessary — what’s arbitrary is accepting any particular standard.

Mind-writings aren’t trying to impress readers or make a case that they’re important or that they have a “good point” to make. But when I have a message, I gotta explain why the message is important/valuable, or how entertaining my movie or novel is. I don’t need to hype my mind-writing — the most I could say to advocate someone read a piece of my mind-writing would be, I guess, “spend some time with my mind” — which doesn’t make any promises to improve anyone else’s life.

I have posted to this blog texts that I think make “a good point” — heck, even this post now, which appeared largely in this form in my journal this morning, is making a point, spreading a message. But my criteria of what’s valuable are, as explained above, arbitrary. I do sometimes tell my students certain ideas or methods that I think will help them as writers — and I don’t think my advice is bad, though I know it may not be what each of my student-writers needs to hear.

But I find it kinda cool that it’s possible to step aside from the normal standards by which we judge most creative writings. I now see that I’ve tended to judge my own journal-writings (mind-writings) by message-writing standards, so in considering this distinction, I’ve freed myself to see my mind-writings on their own terms. I can see that I don’t need to make points, or to boil down my writings to summary messages. I don’t need to argue for my ideas or defend ideas against others’ argument. I’ve felt that was right for a long time without understanding why that was OK.

But if I’m not writing to anyone else, why would anyone else read my mind-writings? I’m not sure, though I still feel there’s value in reading them, even if I’m not sure what that value would be. My answer at this point: People could read my mind-writings to get a sense of what it’s like to be alive in a particular time and place as a particular writer, a particular mind in this world of particulars. I’d love to find the mind-writings of those who lived as settlers in my home state 200 years ago, for example — and hear what it was to walk through unplowed prairie or ride a stage coach. And I hope to find journal-writings done by these people. When I’ve read some of Thoreau’s journal, the writing there seems so much more intimate and up-to-date — like he’s a real, relatable person — than he seems through Walden.

And even if readers don’t find mind-writings all that compelling, I will keep writing them because, well, it’s a fun part of being alive.

Let decaying dogs lie: Some stories are better not told

Marley and Me is a 2005 book by John Grogan about his poorly behaved dog, and how it becomes part of his family and how it dies. It later became a movie in 2008.

In 2010, John Grogan wrote in Parade magazine that when Marley “died in 2003, I buried him on the edge of the woods at the house where we then lived,” and then, when he moved to a new house, he dug up the dog he’d buried “five years earlier.”

Grogan writes, “we found his remains—still neatly packaged in the heavy black plastic we had buried him in—and carefully lifted them out of the ground. ‘You didn’t think we’d forget you, did you?’ I said aloud.”

He’d worried that “exhuming our beloved bad boy sounded like the kind of behavior I normally attribute to ‘those nutty dog people,'” but as a sort of nutty dog person myself, I think this goes a little beyond the pale. I didn’t dig up my beloved dirt-bound canine when we moved a few years ago — dead is dead. I imagine that after five years, Marley was decomposed down to bones, or maybe, wrapped in plastic, Marley was a stinking, rotting cadaver.

I’d first read this a few years back, and in recent weeks it came to mind as I was telling my students that Marley and Me was a sweet and sad movie that ended with a dog’s death, as a lot of stories about beloved dogs seem to end. And then I told my students how creepy it was that the dog was dug up after five years of putrefaction. (A video of that in the DVD extras would surely change the tone of the movie.) So I’m posting this “he really did that?” story here to remind students to think about what stories of themselves they’d really want out in the public.

I don’t mean to tell Grogan how to feel or what to do with his dog’s long-dead carcass, but I do think that maybe telling this story makes him seem a little more ghoulish than average “nutty dog people.”

Saying things can influence other people

It’s B.S. to declare things, like, for example, those people who declare they’re not gonna eat meat any more, or they’re gonna bike to work every day. But the attraction to doing this — I’ve felt it — is in having something bold to say. To make such a declaration is an act of artifice, of course; you don’t need to declare something like this — you can just do it. But I’m also thinking of all those writers who do stunts — The Year of Living Biblically guy, the Paper Lion project.

And this brings me back to the point about everyday living. Why not describe the normal world around you? Let’s find the words, the forms, that will convey this — the beauty of a calm world, the non-magical thereness, which is itself kinda magical, of every real thing in your there-place: the wood of the table I’m writing on, each scratch and worn spot and stain (there’s now a strawberry-colored circle-stain, apparently from where I set a tea cup on a pink Post-It note).

I put on my Byronfest “SECURITY” t-shirt and I thought of the lady at my Pensacola hotel pool who shouted “security” as a joke, but in her accent it sounded like “seh-KYER-tee,” and I thought that it’s not just that she said it that’s funny — it’s that it was really happening around me — and readers won’t have that sense if I, as I did in my 3rd hour creative writing class last Wednesday, merely repeat what I heard. I need to convey to readers something else, maybe that I was there in that real palace on an average day, and suddenly this weird event breaks thru my expectations, breaks thru my consciousness, draws my attention, disrupts my calm mind filled with expectations. And the world is so often interrupting/disrupting.

And now in these two paragraphs above, I’ve created a spectrum, a pair of opposites, a paradox, or something. I’ve talked about wanting to convey the (how to name it: the calm magic? the blunt thereness?) of the things around me, and I’ve also talked about the disruptions of these expectations. But these aren’t actually opposites at all but versions of the same thing — things that are real, are really happening, near me. That’s a terribly dull, vague way to say this exciting thing (this type of writing that excites me, anyway). I’m trying to convey to readers who aren’t present what’s so amazing about here and now — maybe what’s really amazing is my mindset when I’m looking and writing [see here and here for examples], and that mindset would not be shared by the person reading my words. That reader would be in an abstraction (words, ideas) mindset while reading, not looking around himself/herself.

All I can do thru ideas is point out that one could be looking around. Write a text where you say “stop reading this text! Take five minutes — a full five — to look around you! Then come back later” — a text that points away from the text. It’s possible to do that, sure, but it’s dull as a text?

It’s easier to say anything than do it. Saying’s still valuable, of course, as it can influence others. I write to an audience of people like myself — like my younger self. But my younger self would eventually go on to learn these things anyway (as I have done just today). Well, if I give a leg up, then that next young person could surpass my learning, and that’s kinda the goal, I guess. Each teacher, each creative artist, would, if being honest, like his/her followers (audience) to surpass his/her accomplishments? Else it’s just an ego wish to be loved.

I thought this morning, while doing my daily back-stretches, that it doesn’t matter exactly how many reps I do. It’s not like if I count to 15, then suddenly my body is triggered to, say, do some reset of all bones and muscles to perfect alignment, like resetting a computer to get back to a clean slate.

Words — no physical thing in the world responds to words. There’s no “open sesame” or “abracadabra” (though I guess there’s starting to be — you can talk to your Siri, your Echo, and it’ll do some things for you) by which things react. Words only work on other consciousnesses — people, dogs, and computers, which, OK, are not exactly conscious, but they approximate consciousness when they respond to voice commands or to keystrokes, for that matter. Printers do things in physical world when we press keys — so do computerized cutters, robots — maybe that’s not conscious awareness but it’s a form of consciousness?

Of course, conscious beings don’t need to be told what to do, either. Responding to verbal commands is only one of our handy features.

Why I normally tell stories is because the story relates something unexpected happening. So why would I tell something that’s not surprising? Well, maybe to establish a baseline? or to be calm, convey calm? I’m not sure.

Creativity is like stretching

A creative experience is like a stretching session: if it’s not a big of a challenge, you’re not doing it right, not getting anything out of it.

Having new ideas is fun

It’s possible to leave behind one’s old ideas and have new ones, see the world anew, and it’s fun to do this!

This is the message I have to share with the world: It’s fun to create! It’s deeply satisfying! It shows the world to you in new ways — it reveals new aspects of the world. It shows that there’s more to the world than we know. It has shown me that ideas are not the truth — ideas I thought were real I now see as arbitrary. A lot of my new worldview has come from creative experiences.

It’s a wonderfully simple message! But it’s one that was a long time in coming to me, perhaps because so much of our culture is now provided by and accessed through commercial means — bookstores, art galleries, TV, movies, magazines — all these commercial forums — and we see art as having the purposes of getting us fame and money (or career).

Maybe my message, what I model to the world, is that I like my life even without getting published! I’m not perfect, not the only model to follow, but my way of living — which includes the daily creative act of freewriting my journals — is pretty fun and interesting and worth trying.

I don’t want to define myself as someone who writes about only a certain topic, or who writes in a habitual style or tone. I want to share my work style, my process, and then go on to create my own particular things. I want to demonstrate creativity in its least-restrictive form, which is that I’m not trying to make any product to sell. If you, as an artist, decide that you’re gonna make something for someone else, you’re already limiting your creativity — you’re abstracting whom your audience is from your limited experiences with other people, with the result that you’re condescending to others, assuming to know what others want or need. And then there’s the problem of there not being really all that many ideas within the range of tellable stories — whereas in my writing, I go well beyond stories. I may be limited by words, by thinkable thoughts — not all experiences can be easily described — but I can look at words as merely a medium, as the tools I use to have the creative experiences I enjoy.

The types of texts that get published — novels, nonfiction reports, celebrity interviews — are so narrow compared to all the types of texts there are, including diaries, conversations between non-famous people, descriptions of regular life, real places. There’s the bias toward the spectacular that seems to leave regular lived life in real places largely unexplored.

Kerouac’s On the Road is a book that captivated me when I read it at age 19 — I think I understood it as instructive, that I could perhaps view my life as he viewed his. But now I see that book was the telling not about Kerouac’s regular life but about his vacations, essentially — he wrote his scroll as a story told to impress and/or amuse others. What remains is the challenge of how to live daily life in a rewarding way.

So what interests me now is escaping narrow definitions of what life is or could or should be and instead dipping my toes into the unknown, into what’s beyond the definitions. I want to have my own ideas, do my own thinking, and if I never feel like advocating my ideas to others, that’s fine — maybe I can advocate my process!

Everything I publish might be read as an exuberance — defined in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate 11th as, in part, “joyously unrestrained and enthusiastic,” “plentiful.” I’d never thought of myself as exuberant before — maybe this is just a positive spin on the “intense” adjective others have used to describe me.

Over time, I do come to new ideas that seem to solve my problems, increase my understanding.

And when I publish, I don’t need to have everything nailed down and tidy. I don’t have to fret whether I seem a respectable, authoritative-type voice. I don’t need to post — my experience is already had; I’ve already had the joy and satisfaction of the earlier journal-writing session! So publish whatever! I don’t need to publish — there’s some good freedom. And once I’ve realized that, it gets easier to publish!

 

Posting Exuberantly

I thought this today: I’d like to share here on the blog ideas that pop into my mind, but not because I think the ideas themselves are all that valuable. Some of these ideas may be useful, at some times, to some people, but what I’d really like to show is how cool it feels to be open to new ideas and how rewarding it feels to practice creativity daily (mostly in the act of freewriting my journals). I don’t want to formulate some argument in support of these feelings — I think I may just post exuberantly.