Friday, April 30, 2010


(Ignore the 1.'s below. This started out as a regular Friday Five post, but when the journal idea grew and grew, Blogger didn't want to give up its numbers.)

My agent-sister Linda Benson has a lovely post about journals, and I thought I would give it a go as well.

I didn't always keep a journal, but I always liked the idea of writing in them and feeling all writerly. As a kid, I would start them and then forget them. One, which I started during spring break in third or fourth grade, starts with a detailed and earnest catalog of all the seashells I found on the beach that day, and ends three pages later.

Those are the seashells, fyi - in between my brother, sister, and me.
(I'm the one in the blue nightgown.)

Then, during my senior year of high school, my homeroom teacher made me read Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and one of these (not sure which anymore) said that the best way to keep yourself writing was to make sure you always had a journal. Even if you didn't have time to write short stories constantly, or (gasp!) novels, you could put something down on paper and keep your creative juices moving around in the right way without the pressure.

I was quite taken with this idea. Suddenly, I became a dedicated journal carrier, and I haven't ever looked back. I don't know if they actually do help my writing, but they've become a necessity - part confessional, part travelogue, part chronicle of all the changes in my life (even crises that I eventually forget ever happened). I write almost daily, and on days I don't write in them, I feel flat and strange. Re-reading these journals are amazingly helpful when I want to draw on personal experience. I have a terrifically terrible memory, especially for hard times, so rereading my angst helps me recognize ALL of what I felt at that particular moment.

I'll finish my current journal probably in the next week, the same journal I started on the day I started this blog - Thursday, August 20, 2009. Just in case you're wondering why this is an accomplishment, take a look:
    It's mammoth (500 pages, I think). Here's a side view - each Post-it represents the start of a new month.

    Inside, the pages are lined like graph paper, so my handwriting ends up being neat and tiny. (This is important. I'm vain about my handwriting.)

    But it's not all filled with my own notes. Sometimes I cheat and tape in printouts of new discoveries I want to keep.

    For instance, here is J.K. Rowling's 2008 Harvard Commencement Address, "The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination." I had heard of this speech, but I hadn't seen or read it. (If you haven't, you SHOULD. She's self-deprecating and inspiring and generally full of awesome.) The handwriting on the side are my comments, ie. personal response.
Okay, I've also gotten smaller, skinnier, and more colorful journals and finished them happily in a few weeks. In fact, this particular kind of journal - which hails from a fancy Spanish stationer, and which I buy from my local chain bookstore - only gets toted around during certain times in my life.

The special events, the big changes, where I want to keep a record of all the transitions in one place, and I know that finishing it, I'm not the same girl-woman/writer/person I was when I began at page one. So far, I've started these behemoths only three times - the first week of studying at Oxford University during junior year of college, the summer after I graduated from college, and most recently, the day I left my job in New York and began life as a writer.

I don't think a lot is going to happen in the next week, so as I glance at the opening pages, I'll just share a few ways I've changed:
  1. I'm less terrified and more sure of myself and my path. When I left New York, I wasn't completely positive that I was doing the right thing. The only thing I was sure about was that I couldn't continue the way I was going. Now, the future feels a little less like stumbling in the dark and more like chasing the light at the end of the tunnel.

  2. I know a heck of a lot more about my current writing process, which includes revisions. The last novel I wrote before my current WIPs, I finished in August 2006, and revising those chapters was basically re-reading them for typos. Dedicating myself to turning a first draft into the best novel it can be is totally different. For one thing, it's a lot slower than I thought.

  3. Related to my speed, I am beginning to realize my limitations as a writer. Not so much the quality of my writing, which can only improve and improve, but the volume of work. As it turns out, I can't do everything. Which means, at some point, I'll have to learn to say no - even to myself.

  4. Leaving New York, I had this vision of myself, living alone in a small town and just knocking out huge chunks of work. Now that I made that vision a reality, I realize that it doesn't work. In short spurts, it's hugely productive - that's how I finished two manuscripts in a month. As a lifestyle, I end up tweeting and blogging about the weather, because that's the most exciting thing happening at the time. Living like that long-term (ie. longer than a few months) isn't going to work out.

  5. At first, I called changing my life an act of desperation, but desperation has turned into determination, a daily routine of stubbornness. I haven't yet figured out if this is an improvement or not. I'll let you know after the next journal.
(Wow, look at that - this ended up being a Friday Five after all. :-P)


Linda Benson said...

Wow, Shelby - those are great journals. And thick - you write a bunch! You will treasure those forever. And I think you've found one of the best reasons for journaling: self-knowledge. Somehow, talking to ourselves on paper helps us work out problems in our head and learn more about ourselves. It's funny how that is. Bravo!

Shelby Bach said...

Thanks, Linda!! Another reason I love journaling is how easy it is to keep track of how my thinking of characters/stories/manuscripts change and evolve over time (which I guess is an extension of self-knowledge :-P).