Tag Archives: Cameron

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.

Nonfic: Freewriting: What to post when there’s nothing to post

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.