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Brittany: Unkeeping a Journal

Crossposted from my personal blog.

I’m the sort of writer whose ideas are in a constant state of percolation. I’ll be driving my mini-van, listening to the Wiggles, answering a constant stream of “whys” from the backseat, and all of a sudden a snippet of conversation will pop into my head, where it will sit until I’m in the grocery store, and I imagine a dialogue around that snippet of conversation, where it will sit until I’m in the middle of a debate with Tom about what to have for dinner, when the setting for the dialogue with the snippet of conversation will pop into my head. Then I’ll let it percolate some more while I work out all the sensory details and plot points. And then, when everything finally starts to come together in my own mind, I *try* to write it all down.

It’s not the most effective means of novel writing. Invariably, I lose my momentum halfway through and end up wracking my brain trying to remember what I’d been stewing over.

In this month’s Writer’s Digest, there’s an article that caught my attention about “unkeeping” a journal, and using it as a repository for all those snippets that fall into your head and end up lost to time. Since there are no rules, because technically, you aren’t *keeping* a journal, you can use it to play around with your writing, brainstorm out loud, and amuse yourself by transcribing the conversations around you, funny things children say, and any interesting stories that interest you. All excellent ideas.

Some of the suggestions didn’t really appeal to me. I’m not going to interview myself, pretending I’m a bestselling author, for example. And I don’t see the point in brainstorming titles for a children’s book about two dogs. But a couple of pages into the article, one of the suggestions really caught my eye.

It’s an exercise called Outrunning the Critic. What you’re supposed to do is write 100 short sentences about a character, central concept, or scene in a story, and write those sentences without lifting your pen from the paper. I read that and went, “Huh. I should try that.”

I had a scene percolating in my head — a very pivotal, very long scene that I didn’t want to start yet. It was just too daunting. It takes place at a square dance and it had already taken three hours of watching square dance and clogging videos on You Tube to get the first page of the scene started. But the boys were playing trains in the playroom, and they wanted me in there with them, so I grabbed my new journal, numbered the lines from 1 to 100 and jotted down thoughts as they came to me.

Even though there were times that John was leaping on me and literally swinging off my pen-wielding arm (in danger of getting his little eyes stabbed out, by the way, which I suppose is an occupational hazard when your mother is a novelist) I got my 100 short sentences written in pretty short order. It was surprising to see how truly fleshed out that portion of the chapter already was in my head, and how little I really needed to fill in.

Since I don’t like to “write” until the scene is complete in my head, but 100 sentences feels like a substantial amount of ideas for getting started, I was able to subvert that part of myself that says “Sorry. Not enough here to write it down.” The best part is, in transcribing those 100 sentences into the body of my text, I see it is a hugely substantial piece of writing after all. It didn’t feel like I was making progress because it was too easy, but even so, I was.

This is definitely a technique I’ll try again (there’s a lot of scene left to write, and I still dread writing it).

[Photo courtesy the8rgrl]

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. alexsondra #

    Thanks so much for this post. I too, love to let things percolate in my mind. Actually it’s something that just happens, not a true choice. What is a choice is taking the time to allow and observe the process. Sometimes I experience it so viscerally, that I can only describe it like creating word sculptures in my mind. With any luck, these “building blocks spill forth onto the page.

    Thanks for the suggestions.

    Also, visited your site yesterday, loved the photo. very joyous! I always wondered how our cute little munchkins would look inside a comfy cage.

    January 27, 2010
  2. I call this my 15 minute writing… and use any notebook I can find. With 2 younguns, it’s the only way I can write sometimes. Love this!

    January 27, 2010
  3. Kristine #

    I like the idea of the “non journal.” Back when the stores were having their back to school sales, I stocked up on a bunch of single notebooks for ten cents each. I use them to jot down notes and ramblings about my current project.

    I’ve tried to start a journal many times but failed every time. Something about the structure of having to write neat, purposeful entries in those beautiful journals stifled me. (I think that’s why I have the same problem with blogging.) But the notebooks are cheap enough that I don’t have to worry about being neat or philosophical…I can just ramble.

    January 27, 2010
  4. i’ve been stuck on the whole journal thing too. but reading this, i realize i actually do something similar. i used to have a fantastic memory….then along came twins. no i can’t remember squat. so if i want to remember something i have to write it down. my secretary laughs at my “memory filing system” on my desk, which consists of random sticky notes all over the place. i love it that way, because “checking something off my list” means throwing away one more sticky note….though i have to admit, i’ve starting looking at them now as possible collage backgrounds. out of the office, i keep a little notebook in my purse and when something pops in my head, i’ll write it down so i don’t forget. most often those types of things are just quotes i hear that i really like or some fabulous new quote that my brain creates. and my other “journal”….i am frequently calling myself and leaving myself messages…whether that’s calling home while at work and leaving me a message on our home system, or calling work from home and leaving myself a voicemail. glad things are coming together for you brittany!

    January 27, 2010
  5. to add to the leaving myself messages at home…i have to also call my dh and tell him not to play the answer machine, because if i don’t see that little number blinking, i don’t even remember to check the messages. 🙂

    January 27, 2010
  6. Brittany Vandeputte #

    I wrote a new blog post today on my personal blog ( about how a single idea snowballed into something much bigger after a conversation with a complete stranger in Wal-mart.

    January 27, 2010
  7. i love the feeling of constantly ‘being in the stream’ – i used to carry a little notebook/pad everywhere, before kids and jot things down as i went, too. i should really start that habit up again.

    January 28, 2010
  8. What awesome powers of concentration you’ve developed as a novelist mother!

    January 28, 2010
  9. It’s funny because like many of the other commenters, I have tried to keep a journal and all I find is that I have about 6 or 7 different unfinished journals. All in all, although I cannot be consistent about any one of them, I still treasure all my snippets and drawings and they always end up being useful in some way whether it ends up on my blog or in one of my art pieces.

    January 28, 2010

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