Journals & A Writing Exercise

I have a lovely writing journal.  It’s leather bound and has my name embossed in gold on the front.  I resisted such a journal for a long time, preferring to write in little throw-away notebooks.  However, the reason I love this one is that the pages themselves are refillable, so I can write as much nonsense as I like and not worry about it, since I can take the pages out and replace them, keeping the pretty cover.  If you’re interested, you can pick one up on this site.

But, aesthetics aside, let’s  look at what writers’ journals are and what they are not:

A journal is a place where you must give yourself permission to fail.

A journal is not necessarily elegant.

A journal is a place in which to experiment.

A journal is not for anyone’s eyes but yours.

A journal is a place where you can speak the unspeakable.

A journal is faithful, but does not like to be neglected.

A journal is for words, and drawing and quotes and lists and pasted-in photos and pressed flowers and insects and matchbooks and anything else you find interesting.

A journal can be a conversation between you and your deeper self/the God of your understanding/the parent or friend you wish you had.

Lots of journals from which to choose

Unless you are truly comfortable with the kind of leather journal I use (i.e. unless you can bring yourself to write crap on pretty paper), get rid of those beautiful leather-bound things that your well-meaning friends give you and which are far too lovely to mar with anything but pearls.  Buy yourself  a school exercise notebook.

As well as whatever journal you use for your actual journal-writing sessions, buy another little notebook that can fit in your pocket or your purse.

When you have an idea, jot it down – honor the art.  Don’t think you’ll remember ideas later – you won’t.  Especially that little flash of intuition you get just as you’re falling asleep at night and you’re SO sure you’ll be able to recall it in the morning.  Snort.  No you won’t.  Write it down.  The same thing for when you’re walking the dog, or in the shower (keep paper and pen handy on a nearby dry shelf).  Just don’t do it while driving — for obvious reasons.  Car crashes are not good for a writer’s day, or anyone else’s.

Here are some things you can try in your journal whenever you feel like it:

  1. write one page a day – and then try writing that same page without using the verb “to be.”  This will make you choose more interesting words.  For example, rather than saying – Bob is mean.  You might say – Bob frightens me.  More interesting.
  2. switch pronouns – use she or he instead of I.
  3.  one day, make a record of only nouns:  toothbrush, toilet paper, soap, towel, coffee cup, dog food, bus ticket…
  4. Keep track of your dreams, even if they’re only snippets or images, and make note of recurring symbols.  They might hold the key to your next novel or short story.

And, to get you started, try this exercise now:

In your journal, describe what your room looked like when you woke up this morning.  Make me feel how you felt merely through description.   Don’t say – I felt this or that –make me, as the reader, conclude what the atmosphere of the room is by the way you’ve described it, the images and the language you’ve chosen.  Example:   someone who wakes up filled with anxiety might describe their room thusly: “a pair of sharp-heeled shoes lay abandoned in the middle of the floor ready to trip me on the way to the bathroom.  A patch of paint peeled off the wall, which was surely only the beginning of a larger problem.  A pile of unpaid bills scattered across the desk.”

And whatever else you do today — keep writing! 


  1. Janet222 on July 15, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Thanks for another inpsiring essay. I’m going to follow your advice and put aside my beautiful leather-bound notebook and I’ll buy myself a school exercise notebook, and then dive in!

    • Lauren B. Davis on July 16, 2012 at 11:35 am

      Thanks, Janet222. The most important thing, of course, is to keep writing!

  2. Dawn on July 16, 2012 at 11:28 am

    Quite apart from the question of content, I find your decision to move to a looseleaf format journal interesting.

    I have scientific training, and as such, am prejudiced towards the notion of a bound notebook, where you most emphatically may NOT remove pages. In fact, you may not totally scratch out or in any way make illegible anything you have ever put in there. If you wish to strike something out, it must be done with a single line, so that the original text is still legible, and it should be annotated with some indication of why you struck it out, as well as the date of strikeout. In these days of electronic lab notebooks, these rules are VERY strictly enforced by software.

    All of this is primarily to keep the scientist honest, and essentially to provide a forensically defensible record of the experiment that can be presented as evidence to other scientists of why they should believe your conclusions. If you had the option to remove pages, you could hide all the experiments with results that support other conclusions.

    However, it is also a mechanism to keep the scientist from shooting themselves in the foot. “How’d I run the experiment last week so that it worked? Oh yeah…it’s on page 37. Oh yeah, and that stuff I crossed out – that’s the stuff that made the test tube blow up, so I’d better remember not to do it that way again.” It’s too easy to lose important data if sheets are removable.

    I think both of these benefits of a bound notebook have analogues in fiction writing. Properly maintained, the looseleaf sheets can do the same job as a bound notebook. However, it requires a certain discipline (which I am certain that you, Lauren, have – not so sure about me). Obviously no one wants to present their journal to other writers as evidence of what they’ve done, but sometimes we wish to hide stuff even from ourselves, and a looseleaf journal could make this tempting. And I don’t know about anybody else, but occasionally, when I go back to old stuff I’ve done, I go “Hmmm….that’s interesting. Funny I did that exactly at the same time as I wrote that other piece.”

    Of course, all of this is moot for me because nowadays I do all my work on a laptop, without those electronic lab notebook controls, so there is absolutely nothing to stop me from cheating 🙂 I try to resist the temptation, and lately when I write notes and commentary to myself, I try to remember to put in the date, but I will be the first to admit that I routinely shoot myself in the foot. What’d I write last week? I think it sounded better that way, but I didn’t think so yesterday and I changed it, and now I don’t remember how it was. There are lots of ways to address this, but they all require a certain discipline.

    • Lauren B. Davis on July 16, 2012 at 11:34 am

      LOVE the way your mind works, Dawn!

  3. Leslie on July 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    I’ve always found it easier to write in a spiral bound notebook than one of those fancy journals – I probably have at least 10 of those sitting empty somewhere in my house because I can’t think of anything “awesome” enough to fill them. I think one of them I use for collecting quotes I like.

    My current writing notebook (I hesitate to call it a journal – not sure why) is a purple spiral notebook with a pocket in the front (unfortunately, the bottom of the pocket burst open a couple days ago when I failed to zip my backpack properly and everything came tumbling out). It has notes from panels I’ve attended at conventions (with notes in the margins about things that might apply to my stories, or things that particularly strike my imagination), random thoughts that occur to me, story ideas, scenes that I had to write NOW, notes from books I’m reading for research (again with notes as to how I might apply such things in my stories in the margins or bracketed), and responses to writing prompts during writing group (at least up until I started carrying my laptop to writers’ group meetings). I’m really bad at dating things, though I can estimate the time period generally by where notes fall in relation to the MISCON (our local sci-fi/fantasy convention) notes.

    I also have a small notebook that I try to remember to carry with me (which I’m pretty good about) and write interesting things that occur to me or snippets of interesting overheard conversations, etc, in (which I’m less good about).

    The comment about the scientific notebooks is a very interesting perspective that hadn’t occurred to me before. I’m such a pack-rat that I tend to save EVERYTHING, because you never know when it might be useful again, so I don’t think I’d be tempted to cheat and get rid of things with the loose leaf. I love the idea of the loose-leaf for moving things around and recombining things – but I can imagine this might be a more useful approach for a fiction writer than a scientist. My fear of loose-leaf would be losing things – but then, I do that anyway, because I have notes everywhere – my big notebook, my little notebook, random e-mails I send myself, and my computer (word processing documents and Scrivener).

    I’ve been using Scrivener for about a year now, and I really like that for bringing all my random thoughts together, but I still like using a notebook at times also. There’s the obvious reason that I may not always have my laptop with me (and I have yet to acquire any of those electronic devices one does carry everywhere – like a smart phone), but also, my mind sometimes works better on paper, and I really like to spend my lunch hour in a sunny place, which is less conducive using a laptop. 🙂

    I really like the idea of journaling and I’m definitely going to have to try out your suggestions. I’m not sure any of those things I just talked about that I do qualify, although it seems like some of them are included in your description of what a journal is for, so maybe I can call my purple notebook a writing journal after all. 🙂

    • Lauren B. Davis on July 20, 2012 at 6:09 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Leslie. You know, another great idea for those damn fancy notebooks is a vocabulary notebook. Keeping a list of interesting words is a wonderful way to keep your writer’s mind honed. And they needn’t be big, unusual words, but rather words you like the sounds of — like ‘trinket’, which I think is a wonderful word.

      Delighted to hear you carry a notebook with you. Excellent. I also find that for some things, my creative mind enjoys a good piece of paper.

      Above all — no matter what you call that in which you’re writing — the most important thing is that you keep doing it.

      • Leslie on July 26, 2012 at 3:28 pm

        That’s a great idea for the fancy notebooks! I’ll have to try it out.

        • Lauren B. Davis on July 26, 2012 at 3:45 pm

          Let me know how it works for you. My entry today is “griseous’ — streaked or mixed with grey. Just sounds like that sort of day, doesn’t it?

  4. Keeping a Journal | Feisty Red Hair on August 18, 2012 at 10:21 am

    […] a great blog post written by Lauren B. Davis on her blog, entitled “Journals & A Writing Exercise.” It’s what got me thinking this morning about my ongoing love affair with journals. […]

  5. Carmen on September 29, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Lovely blog. I’ve kept journals erratically throughout my life and, to keep from prying eyes at the time, often secured them in such well hidden nooks and crannies I would forgot where I put them, only to discover them years later (tucked in random boxes of dusty books and outdated clothes). Most are barely half filled but their content never fails to bemuse me. The memories of small but powerful moments in my children’s lives, my own cathartic expressions of anger, loss, gratitude, discovery. Of course, I just hide them again once I’m done.

    • Lauren B. Davis on September 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm

      Thanks, Carmen. It’s fascinating looking back at our past selves, isn’t it?

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