THE STORY BEHIND the STORY:
JOURNALING the JOURNEY while YOU WRITE
We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
Margaret Aslanis-Nystrom, her children, her mother, and I celebrated a second Thanksgiving together nearly three years ago. The food and fellowship was delightful and life-affirming. During our visit, Margaret gave me two journals: gifts which have changed my writing life. At the time I was in the midst of composing the prequel to my first novel, Winston and Ophelia (A Love Story for Men). I was so jazzed by her thoughtfulness I ended up doing something I’d never done before: using one of them to journal my experience writing the novel.
These tokens, given in love, and out of friendship, created a new opportunity for me. Journaling my journey creating a major work of fiction has become a valued staple of my writing regimen. I record my thoughts, feelings, and progress as intimately as I record the rhythm of my life in my diary. I cannot claim this exercise helps hone my expository authorship skills for when it comes to matters of the heart, freedom of expression takes precedence over good grammar. Literary journaling provides me with a vehicle for:
- Analytically assessing my writing.
- Evaluating content.
- Recording observations.
- Critiquing my style.
- Expanding working outlines.
Aside from email and text messages, oh, and personal letters, whenever I develop content, I do it in long hand. Composing a novel this way is profoundly rich and soul-satisfying. Journaling enables me to express my reactions, while documenting and discussing discoveries, and lessons learned. I’ve gained insight into my craft and have come face-to-face with my strengths and weaknesses. Journaling has made me aware of the effects of distractions and the impact of extended periods of time away from the manuscript.
Maintaining a literary journal on my belletristic efforts – and right now I have two journals in progress – endues and emboldens me. I’ve found the courage to own and appreciate what pours forth from my imagination in partnership with the Universe. I have a safe place in which to engage in conversations with myself. Journaling the journey has led to a more nuanced understanding of my approach to literary expression. It encourages forging both substantive and empathic relationships with my characters, and their stories. It guides me in discerning the trajectory of the evolution of my plots. The act of journaling feels like a familiar hand gently leading me into the wellspring of my own heart, unlocking doors to the revelations shaping my literary voice. Journaling the progress of my peregrination into fantasy-fueled writing is not a leisurely stroll down carefully laid out paths meandering through enchanted gardens lushly populated with shrubbery, flowers of every genus, or wrought iron benches artfully situated under large shade trees. It’s a pilgrimage charted for me by the Universe. Every twist, turn, hill, plateau, and valley is there to lift, stretch, provoke, inspire, edify, and tease. The junctures are reminders of where I’ve been juxtaposed against twin forks in the road, one offering opportunity, the other, a U-turn. Journaling is meant to ferret out the essence of the narratives living inside me. Each entry invigorates and nourishes my desire to be a more eloquent raconteur. I am an author of the Black Diaspora and as such I am keenly aware of the obstacles I face just getting my work out to a larger audience. It took journaling the journey to articulate and illuminate this truth while unlocking the shackles which bound my innate yearning. At the same time, it freed me to mine the depths of my consciousness and write authentically.
I’m revising a novel and I’m chronicling this quest. I’m recording my thoughts, feelings, and discoveries while I write. I’ve never done this before. I wrote my second novel five years ago and within a few months of completing it, I began working on my first manuscript again. I loved every moment of the creative process but didn’t take time to deliberately document my observations on a regular basis. I keep a diary. I started when I was fourteen and stopped after graduating from college. I took it up again thirty years ago and have written entries most every day since then. What I’m doing now is distinctly different. As I work on finishing my next literary offering, a gift from a friend has added another dimension to this divinely-inspired undertaking.
The masterpiece I was creating when Margaret gave me the journals grew out of my second novel. One of the characters – and he’s a minor player in this narrative – made clear he wanted his story told. I valiantly resisted his persistent presence, telling myself I was content to merely let him, and his coterie, exist in my imagination. As far as I am concerned, I was succeeding.
My gifts posed a delicate dilemma: how should I use them? Through the mystery of the presence of the Universe, my attention was directed toward my literary efforts. I thought one of the journals could function as an extension of the working outline I’d already developed for the prequel. This brilliant idea burned hotly – for roughly five minutes. I’d love to claim I had an epiphany, an AHA! moment, or some other surreal encounter with the Universe, but I didn’t. One day the outline morphed into a journal and as the entries increased I realized I was onto something new and different, something special.
I love the belles letters I’m creating and journaling is the sweet spot – without question! I’m in touch with my feelings regarding my work and the revelations keep blowin’ my mind! Maintaining a journal about the experience of writing a novel is as surfeiting as writing the narrative. Take a peek at these excerpts from both journals:
“…The unfolding of a narrative can be full of surprises – if the inditer allows the Universe to have its say. Yesterday was one of those days for me…
Lia has a job! It’s not the one I thought she’d get. Once again – when I began writing this passage, it unfolded differently from the story in my head and my heart. Of course it makes for a better story…
…During dinner on Saturday night his [Teddy’s] cousin expresses a negative view of Teddy’s decision to have a vasectomy which spawns a discussion on birth control from the male perspective…”
“…I spent about six hours writing…I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I used portions of this journal in a lecture…I’ve learned more about literary writing…There were surprises I couldn’t anticipate – or didn’t. Oh how this novel is unfolding…I see the difference in my output – as with the first two novels, when I give my work my undivided attention, the Universe opens up and the floodgates parted. Yesterday’s material was fresh and poured forth. Energy matters as well…”
“I tried working on my MS last night but found I was too tired to think…”
It took keeping a journal of the journey to help me appreciate when I’m functioning optimally, and when I’m not.
“I started revising, editing, and rewriting Chapter ___ yesterday. I read the entire chapter before I started working on it. There’s plenty of good stuff in it which needs to be deepened, explained, rounded out, so I’ve been doing that. I tend to leave too much out – which is then fun to revisit and rectify.”
“I’m thrilled, elated, happy, and excited to finally be working on the novel and preparing it for release. It feels good to be engaged with something other than Anna May or [my prequel]. This is the beginning…”
“I started working on chapter ______ yesterday. I’m actually re-writing it – or at least the first third. There were so many gaps in my original narrative, and so many opportunities to tell the story I couldn’t allow what I had written to stand – and there were some inconsistencies which needed clarification to strengthen internal consistency. I am now able to devote attention to this MS and that’s what it has needed – my undivided attention.”
What might journaling your literary journey reveal? And how could those disclosures affect your writing? It certainly wasn’t on my mind when Margaret endowed me with her humble offering. Her generosity has empowered me…I am more familiar with how my original drafts evolve and what they look like. As much as I love writing, very little of the original composition remains untouched. Reading and absorbing my initial draft in its roughest iteration strongly influences the roles of finishing, polishing, and refining.
During the final phase of preparing my current literary offering, Anna May and the Preacher: A Collection of Short Stories, I often felt frustrated with the attention to detail it required. I got sick of looking at my MS. I could not wait to get the final final draft off my plate! Journaling would have eased my mind and provided me with an outlet for venting. I can only speculate on the possibilities, which is ultimately a fruitless endeavor. I’ll do better working smart instead of hard as I move closer to crossing the finish line with my current novel. I look forward to journaling the journey all the way through to publication.
Chronicling the evolution of this saga reveals, over, and over again, why journaling is so personally meaningful. My reactions aren’t emotions I intentionally sought out. This journey chose me – this path opened up to ME, and the pull is something I can scarcely put into words. Belletrists, chroniclers, novelists, inditers: if you’re thinking about taking aim at journaling your literary journey, purchase journals suited to writing. Choose items with covers you find charming, attractive, or inspirational – use something you’ll appreciate writing in. Alternatively, be creative and assemble your own diary. Write an introduction. Yes! Discuss your decision and feel free to allow your conscious mind to take you wherever you need to go. Remember, it’s your journey. Enjoy the odyssey!