I met my dear friend Ann McLaughlin in 1998, at a writing group, and this group has been meeting ever since. People come and go from the group, but Ann and I have stayed. She read (and commented on) my A Year and a Day in draft form, and I read (and commented on) her novels, The House on Q Street and A Trial in Summer, currently out on submission. In the group, Ann is known for one of her favorite words: “shape.” She is skilled at shaping a story into a novel, at creating a pleasing whole, a beautiful arc, at taking the reader through a lovely journey. Here, she offers some thoughts on writers keeping journals, and I’m sure that if we were to be privy to these contents what would emerge would be another beautiful arc, the arc of a life well lived:
Virginia Woolf once said that an unrecorded day felt to her like a faucet left running. I know that feeling for I am a Journal Junkie and have kept journals most of my long life.
There are many kinds of journals and the reasons for writing them are as numerous as the people who keep them. Journal writing can be especially important to writers; writing in your journal can limber up the writing muscles, much as playing scales on the piano limbers the fingers. Journal writing can open a way around writing blocks and can provide you with material you may use later in published form. I was twelve when my family moved to Washington in World War II and kept a “war journal.” I pasted in pictures of FDR and Churchill, the British princesses in their Girl Guide uniforms and drew a diagram of an a Consolidated B-24 bomber.* When I wrote my novel, The House on Q Street, (John Daniel & Co., 2002), I returned to the material of that journal and to its serious, self-important mood.
The journal can also be a place where you write out immediate and/or troubling events. Katherine Mansfield, the New Zealand short story writer, referred to her journals as “my huge complaining diaries.” The fact is that journals are often gloomy reading, for journal writers are more likely to write during periods of trouble and confusion than in times of ease. But the process of writing out worries and indecisons often proves clarifying.
The need for privacy with your journal is real. You can buy journals that have locks and keys or just get in the habit of putting your journal in a safe place and making sure that the people you live with know that you will share your journal with them only when you are ready.
You can keep journals in many forms: spiral notebooks can be good for travel or bound notebooks. Many bookstores sell attractive journals. I keep my journal on my computer.
It is yours alone; no grades are given, no suggestions will come from pushy agents or critical colleagues. The journal is your intimate friend and can be with you wherever you go.
*Note from me: When I saw Ann give a reading from this book, she brought along this journal and passed it around to the crowd. An amazing document; I could have spent hours perusing the pages, but alas, the woman next to me had her grubby hand out, pushing for her turn.
About Ann McLaughlin: Ann McLaughlin, Ph.D., has published five novels: Lightning in July, The Balancing Pole, Sunset at Rosalie, Maiden Voyage, and The House on Q Street (all available through John Daniel & Company). She also reviews for several local publications and teaches at the Writer’s Center.