I’ve just finished Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal and I feel invigorated by Alexandra Johnson’s ideas. Although much of her advice is targeted to people who have never kept a journal or to people struggling with the idea of writing a memoir, I found much good advice for any writer.
First, some disclosure: I have not always kept journals. When I was a teenager, I started several diaries, never writing beyond the first few pages. As Alexandra points out in her book, we often feel that we have nothing to say. I know I had things to say, even at that age, but I felt that nothing inside me was worth putting down on paper. Like many teenagers, my self-image was not very positive.
For many years I would purchase pretty blank books in shops, leaf through the pages lovingly, then place them on a shelf where they sat until I gave them away – wondering why I had bought them in the first place. I desperately wanted to give voice to something, but I didn’t know what or how.
I went away to college. I met a man. I got married. Ten years later, I got divorced. At age 34 I found myself alone, unhappy and wondering what the hell I should do next. My therapist challenged me: If you want to be a writer, why aren’t you writing? Good question. I bought a spiral bound journal and began.
Among my inky whinings and wordy histrionics, I managed to write some not-bad poetry. And I felt I was improving. I made a pilgrimage to New Hampshire to the Frost Place Poetry Festival and workshopped for the first time with strangers and well-known (in the poetry world) authors. The director of the festival reminded us to cherish the feeling of living and working in a community of writers and take that back into the “real” world – a place where poetry was not exactly a highly valued art.
So where, exactly, does that leave me? In the absence of another life crisis, where do I find inspiration for my writing? What do I write in my journal?
- Thoughts about the day
- Rants about the office
- Fragments that might become poetry
- First lines
- Notes about the book I’m reading
“To write about one’s life is to live it twice,” says author Patricia Hampl. And so I record snippets of my life and others’ lives, hoping to use the material someday. Leaving a Trace is full of ways to mine and shape one’s journal material. Here are just a couple of Alexandra’s ideas:
- Write a page, then ask who is missing from the scene. The missing person or element is often the “hot spot.”
- Write a one-page autobiographical statement. Do it in the third person to distance yourself from it emotionally.
I especially like that last one, although for the purposes of poetry I transform it into “Write a one-sentence autobiography.” That’s your first line.
“She was a lonely child.”
Sit and think about your line for a few minutes, then write a draft of a poem.
She was a lonely child, living
on a farm, a mile from
the nearest neighbor,
none close in temperament
or age. She became a bookish
child, escaping to far-off
lands where friends formed brave
companies, questing after treasure
or magic or the restoration of
empire. Where is my fellowship?
she wondered. Why have I been
exiled among the corn, the beans?
Hmmm… Now what do I title it?