Journal Your Way to Authentic Detail

My mom gave me my first diary when I was nine years old, a birthday present that promised immortality for my brilliant observations of the world. It had a bubble gum pink vinyl cover with a picture of a teenager sitting on the floor, her body folded into a V, legs scissoring in the air, toes pointed like a ballerina’s. She held a black telephone handset in one hand (yes, we’re talking very old school here) and wrapped the serpentine cord around the other. Her pony tail flipped out in a curl. I could never figure out who she was talking to, but it was certainly someone more popular than I.

There I was, an awkward little kid with widely spaced teeth too big for my face, ears jutting like trowels from my head, jealous of a cartoon character of a girl as realistically drawn as Wonder Woman. Besides the beauty queen on the cover of my diary, one of the other things I loved was the silver lock at the edge of the pages and the two keys that would keep my words private, my inner world a secret from my prying public. As if.

The problem I had with my new diary was the same problem that faced the whole class. I had a dearth of words to write, an anemic bunch of experiences to record. My first entry reflected my life. I got up, got dressed, walked to school, sat in class and studied, stopped off at Perry’s store where my dime bought a package of chocolate Tastykakes, walked home, and went to bed after dinner and some TV time. At nine, my middle class life was predictably boring. The most interesting parts were also those I could not record because no lock would keep mom’s nosy eyes out of the pages of my diary, and no teenage cartoon coquette could heft a shield strong enough to protect my thoughts. My intuition kept me silent.

I suspect many little girls would have sensed our deepest thoughts should be kept to ourselves and never written, even in a lockable diary. The conflicts we had with our families and the worries we had about ourselves were not for public sharing. Mom might have given me a diary but she didn’t really want me to write what I thought about my world. Eventually the boring sameness that I could safely record each day even bored me. It wasn’t interesting to write or read, so I quit.

Decades later I wish I had that pink diary. I’m certain there were a few descriptions I’d love to have at hand, maybe the way the wax paper wrapper had to be gently pried from my Tastykakes to preserve the frosting, or the sound of cracking ice as I stepped onto a frozen puddle and skidded a few inches. Perhaps I recorded the yellow sky that arched over our house because wherever I looked, the blue of artists’ paintings never showed up over Trenton. Maybe I wrote about the parades that marched down Parkway Avenue, passing our corner on their way to glory. The itch of my wool skirts, the way my baby sister cooed at me, that my little brother learned jujitsu moves. I don’t know. All I do know is that I gave up trying to write in my diary. Someplace between my surrendered pencil and our family’s move first to Hawaii and then to California, the pink diary didn’t make it. Probably got tossed in a bin, another worthless token too expensive to cart from place to place.

My current journal is likely similar to one you might keep. I write on my computer, the pages protected by a password locked in a virtual file marked “Journal.” Not an original undertaking but an easy one for me to access. I can keyboard write even when the aches in my hands won’t put up with marking an inky scrawl. A close friend writes in leather bound journals using a code she created years ago. She’s diligent in recording her thoughts and vigilant in maintaining her privacy. Another friend writes in well crafted Moleskin books that will keep for decades, filling a dozen or so every year.

As a writer, the value of keeping a diary or journal is the rich description of experiences I might be wise enough to record. Journaling can be a window into authentic details I might otherwise have forgotten but can now include in my current story. The black landline telephone drawn on the cover of my pink diary is no longer a common device. Readers might have no idea what I’m writing about from personal encounter in the 1950s, but hopefully my words, culled from remembering the cover of a diary long gone, convey an image they can envision. Journals can provide detailed passages about the incidents and items that make stories ring true. They are sometimes an incentive to write. If I have trouble kick starting my writing muse, I can look to my journal as an opportunity to write every day. I get to write about anything that inspires or incites me, and about every common thing I want to record.

I might call it a diary; you might prefer the word journal. It’s writing it that’s most important. It may prove to be the source of an authentic voice, a description of an article that makes my story ring true. Readers will crow about how I, brilliant writer, drop them into the middle of my story and keep them in suspense as they read the genuine details that assure them I really know what I’m talking about. And that’s just where I want them to be, no locks or keys keeping them at bay. Just a reader and my book, tight as a teenage girl and her phone.

 

 

 

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A Change in Perspective

logs

Logs in my yard

Continuing on from my post last week in which I suggested we should try taking a look around us and just write a scene with whatever pops into view first, I have another simple experiment we can do to try to kick start our creativity for 2015. I have used this strategy a lot, actually, when I want to brainstorm or try to generate new ideas.

The concept is simple:

  1. Find an object in your yard, in the room, in the parking lot, or wherever you might be.  Note what it is.  For example, I’m currently looking at a round slice from a tree that was cut down.
  2. Now, in your mind or on paper, think of this object as we perceive it today and describe it and how it is used, where it came from, what it smells like, tastes like, feels like, etc.
  3. Next… say “What if…” and look at the object from a different angle.  For example, my round slice of tree could be stood on end and now it looks like a wooden wheel.  What if this wooden wheel had been part of an early vehicle? Who rode in that vehicle? What was the ride like? What did the passengers in the vehicle talk about?  Where did this wheel take them?
  4. Repeat step 3.  What if my slice of tree was actually a pedestal from the Town Center and had a history of people standing upon it and delivering famous speeches? What if it was one of many tables at a neutral meeting place where peace treaties, political alliances and other major decisions were negotiated?  What if secret messages were encoded in the rings, like some sort of wooden record?

You can do this with anything.  Take any ordinary object and change your perspective on it.  You can use your camera and take a picture of an object, then pull that picture into photo editing software and change the colors, the backgrounds, the contrast.  Invert the colors or apply a sepia filter to it (or both).  Perhaps rotate it 90 degrees in one direction or another.  When you change the perspective, even just a little bit, the whole object becomes new and different. What new stories will you tell about an old, ordinary thing?

Logs with colors inverted

Logs with colors inverted

Logs with inverted colors and a sepia filter

Logs with inverted colors and a sepia filter

Dreaming about words

Do you dream about words?  I do.  A lot!

I find most of my conscious dreaming occurs early in the morning, often an hour or two before the alarm clock is scheduled to ring.  More often than not I’m semi-conscious and fully aware I’m experiencing a dream.  That’s when the fun begins!

dream

If I’m being attacked by creatures, I’ll simply levitate from danger or conjure a video-game style blast that propels from my palms toward the target.  Or, if it’s a more mundane dream, I’ll take crazy risks I would never do in real life, like offering marriage proposals to perfect strangers or asking my friends uncomfortable questions.  I find when I take charge of my dreams, the video-clip playing in my brain freezes for an instant–the characters stumble–and then begin to follow my in-line script edits.

Aside from ordinary scenario-based dreams, the past few months words and sentences have appeared more frequently in my dreams.  For example, I’ll be facing a sign or holding a note, and I’ll have the feeling of what it is I’m looking at.  But then I’ll make it a point to focus on the word arrangement, and that’s where things turn to gibberish.

Earlier in the week I dreamt I was reading a couple sentences written on a whiteboard at work.  My feeling told me it was work-related and completely logical.  It was a solution to work-related problem.  But then I’d focus my attention on the words and it would read something like this:

“Today juxtaposition of the crematorium alfalfa generation.”

In my dreams I can’t read words as easily as I do in real life.  Instead, I’m forced to take a three-second pause between words to focus and comprehend.  Literally, the vision shows a word coming into focus, and often it’s not the word I expected.

Last night was different. I wrote a beautiful poem in my dreams – or so it seemed at the time.  Having realized I was mid-dream, I carefully started to read and re-read the poem to determine whether or not the arrangement of words made sense.  They did.  The shape of the poem was beautiful.  The meaning was beautiful.  No edits were required.

As expected, by the time I woke up this morning I couldn’t even remember the subject-matter or a keyword within the poem, which has me questioning whether the poem ever really existed to begin with!

I like writing about dreams.  Though I don’t keep a notebook by my bed, in the past I’ve had dreams so inspiring I’d actually climb out of bed and head to the computer to write down some key notes and feelings.  I find just the act of spending a few conscious minutes thinking about the dream was enough to cement the story idea in my head.

Have you experienced anything like this?  How often are you inspired to write about dreams?  Do you keep a notebook by your bed?  Have you ever used it?  Are you haunted by a past dream that you’ll eventually write?