Journaling, a Tool for Writers

I began writing a journal when I read Anais Nin’s Diaries years ago. I’d checked it out of the library and became fascinated with her account of her friendship with Henry and June Miller and other artists of the early part of the twentieth century. Before long I was hooked by that style of writing. I’d started keeping a diary, and on rare occasions when I could remember, I’d record my daily activities. Then I’d lock it; anyone who really wanted to see what I’d written could have easily opened the lock with a paper clip. However, after reading the Nin diaries, I soon found that the small white book I’d purchased was too confining. I needed to write down more than my daily mundane activities. So I purchased a large notebook and thus began my years of journaling.

I now have volumes including a travel journal, one when my son was a baby, a gardening journal in which I keep track of how my plants are doing and my main journal in which I include some of my everyday activities as well as how I feel about those events, describing them in detail. I write poems. I write about heartbreak and breakthroughs. I rant and rave, laugh and cry. My journal is cathartic. When I go back and read my entries from years ago, I can relive the experience, though that is not always pleasant. Sometimes I get mad or feel heartbreak all over again. But sometimes rereading my journal leads me to understand why things went the way they did, and I remember people and incidents I’ve long forgotten.

Keeping a journal is an invaluable tool for me as a writer because it lends authenticity to my stories. It keeps me from having writers block. I don’t need to search for ideas. I would suggest that every serious writer keep a journal. In it you could include detail descriptions of people, events, and places. Practice turning narration into dialogue. In revisiting your journal for material to use for your stories, you’ll see themes that can be used, conflicts which can be developed and resolutions to those conflicts, all the elements that can be used when writing fiction or non fiction. Most importantly, keeping a journal is good practice. Writers write. In my journal I don’t worry about anyone reading it. I don’t worry about correct grammar or punctuation or writing in complete sentences. Most of all, I don’t censor what I write, and because of this, my writing is much freer.

The Writing Life

Most writers know that writing is a solitary activity. On the one hand, when I write I need as few distractions as possible to get my thoughts in order, to hear the muse speak to me, and to block obstacles to creativity. (Well, maybe a little music.) On the other hand, I also need to participate in activities that will stimulate me, enhance my knowledge of my chosen field, and broaden my experience as a writer. That’s why I find occasionally attending workshops, conferences and participating in book festivals so stimulating. I get to network with other writers, professional and non-professional, exchange information, get feedback, and learn ways of marketing, and in addition, sell books if I’m lucky.

Retreats – provide ideal places to write. Poets and Writers list retreats, also Artists and Writers Colonies by Gail Hellund Bowler list retreats, residences and respites for the creative mind. I haven’t attended one yet but I have friends who have and their response has been encouraging.

Workshops and Seminars – learn ways to improve ones writing and expand knowledge as well as get answers to writing questions and maybe get feedback on writing projects. I facilitate a creative writing class at my local senior center and have taken classes in mystery writing and creative non-fiction at the community college in my area.

Book Festivals – See what others are doing to promote their books, participate in panel discussions and maybe get to recite a poem or two. Most importantly, meet the public as well as network with other authors. I recommend new authors attend at least one book festival. You might start out by attending one, not as a vendor but as part of the public. I’ve been a vendor at several book festivals; most recently, the Leimert Park Book Festival in L.A. Some may be rather expensive such as the L.A. Times Book Festival; however, going in with a few other authors can cut down on the expense.

Conferences – Network with other professionals and non-professionals. Learn current trends. Experience other genres. A few years ago I attended the AWP Associated Writers Program held in Vancouver. It was fantastic. I took in as many workshops and panel discussions in all genres as I could. I have also been to the Black Writers Online Reunion and Conference. There I had part of my manuscript read and received vital feedback. I learned tips on writing query letters, promoting and marketing my work.

Going to writers and artists’ retreats, attending workshops and seminars, participating in book festivals, and/or attending conferences can provide encouragement to a new writer and reenergize an experienced one.

Planned Obsolescence

The other day when I tried to use my printer, it said, “check your color cartridge.”  I had recently installed a brand new color cartridge in it.  I followed the instructions, but it continued to tell me to check the color cartridge.  I figured maybe it meant the black cartridge so I installed a new black cartridge.  No matter, the instructions wouldn’t go away.  I unplugged the printer and plugged it in again.  Slowly the printer began to print.  I’ve noticed this happening more and more frequently.  The printer would take minutes to print out a page, sometimes not completing the job at all.  I was fed up.  “How long have I had this printer?” I wondered.  It didn’t seem that long ago when it was brand new.  I was elated with its many features.  Unlike my old printer that only printed, this one copied and scanned in black and white as well as color.  Five years had passed since I’d replaced my old printer with this one.  Because having a working printer is essential to my work, I went out and bought a new one.  What to do with the old one?  I asked myself.  Toss it in the garbage bin like rotten meat? I envisioned my printer setting on a mountain of trash to become part of a landfill.  Sell it to some unsuspecting soul at a yard sale or on eBay with glowing reports extolling its special features? 
Come to think of it, lately objects I bought not that long ago like my garbage disposal, steam cleaner, and my computer have all quit on me.  Is this a conspiracy? I wondered.  In all fairness, when I checked to see how long ago I purchased these items, it had been a little over five years ago.  Is this how long something you’ve paid good money for suppose to last?  I’ve heard the term “planned obsolescence;” however, I wasn’t conscious as to the real effect until I noticed it happening to me.  I know I have to replace these and other items such as my cell phone and camera, as they are important to me.  Keeping up with the changes in technology is one thing, and it is an expensive endeavor.  Having things intentionally built to break down is another.  I realize I can’t do anything about this.
However, I do have options as to how to dispose of things that no longer work. I could toss, sell, or recycle. I can recycle the computer and the printer, but what to do with the steam cleaner and the garbage disposal? Once upon a time some things could be repaired, but today there are few places to have things repaired.  For me it’s difficult to toss into the garbage something that looks as good as the day I bought it, the only problem is that it simply doesn’t work.  It’s easy to see how some people become hoarders.  Today it becomes a battle of keeping up with a changing society where new gadgets become old within a short period of time.  Things that use to last break down much sooner. Granted, sometimes those new gadgets make life a bit easier.  However, the problem still remains, what to do with something that is no longer useful? Another option is to give the items to charity, like Goodwill, Veteran’s groups or thrift shops with the hope that they can repair them and resell.  It’s good to know I have options. Contributing to a landfill will be my last choice.

A New Day

Before the year ended, I decided to visit my friend Mattie to get some of her words of wisdom along with her black-eyed peas, collard greens and hot apple cider.  She was in her kitchen cooking up her traditional New Year’s meal. 
“Whew, this year flew by,” I said settling down at her kitchen table, my stomach starting to growl in response to the delicious smells coming from the pots on her stove.
“It sure has, faster than a hummingbird in a garden of flowers. I’m grateful that I made it this far,” she responded. At eighty, Mattie is in tip-top shape. She watches what she eats, exercises, and does all the right things. I told her so. “I hope I look and feel as good as you do when I get your age.”
“Other than a little arthritis and other aches and pains that come with age, I feel fine. Looking forward to a new year.” 
“The end of the year always makes me sad when I think of all the people who have died and the things I didn’t get done,” I said, “problems that weren’t resolved, relationships broken up. December was hectic. Rush, rush, rush was the order of the day. I was so busy shopping for the right gifts, keeping up with all that was expected of me. Now that the celebrations are over, I feel a sense of loss, a let down. Mostly though, I think about growing older.”
“Honey, I understand how you feel,” she said. “The holidays are emotionally draining for some. For those who have families, it can be both joyous and frustrating at the same time because of all the expectations. For those who are alone or who have lost loved ones, it can be a depressing time.”
She handed me a plate and told me to help myself to the pots of food. Wiping her hands on her apron, she filled her plate and sat down beside me. After taking a bite of food she said, “I look forward to each new year.  Each year I say to myself, ‘I’m gonna make this the best year of my life.’”
“And does it get better?” I asked.
“There are up’s and down’s. But I don’t let the down’s knock me out,” she said with a laugh. “I remind myself of the “Serenity Prayer” ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ I try not to repeat the same mistakes.  I know that my life is fuller when I step out on faith, reach out to others, take care of my health, and look forward each day to learning something new.”
“Amen,” I said, and reached for another biscuit. After the rain, the sun was coming.  I could see this was a new day and I was looking forward to the challenge.

Kalgon, Take Me Away

The other day my friend Lula dropped in to see me. The last time she visited I was stressed out, at my wits end; problems with family, too many bills, and too little money with which to pay those bills. “On top of everything else,” I said, “I’ve spent too much time watching TV and listening to the news. Wars, drugs, political intrigue, the economy, you name it. The world’s going to hell in a hand basket!”  Suddenly I stopped ranting and noticed that Lula seemed more relaxed than ever. I commented on her serene countenance. “What’s your secret?  How come you look so calm and relaxed.” She just smiled and sipped her tea. “Let me pass along a little advice I got from my older female acquaintances,” she said.

“First of all, I realized there was nothing I could do to save the world or right society’s wrongs. Then I looked at my bills and found they weren’t as much as I thought they were. I could deal with them in my own time. Finally, I went out and bought a box of Kalgon, turned off the TV and the telephone locked the bathroom door, climbed in the bathtub, and let Kalgon take me away.”

“And that took away your stress?” I asked.  “For a while it did. I discovered if I didn’t treat myself occasionally, no one else would. You see, it’s important to take time out for yourself,” she said. “Get away from family and your normal routine if only for an hour. Everybody needs to recharge his or her batteries.”

“Sounds like a lot of time and money,” I said.
“It depends on what you choose. It doesn’t have to cost that much. Here’s a few things you can do.

  • Get a manicure and/or a pedicure if you’ve never had one before.
  • Give yourself a facial. My mother use to mix together oatmeal and water, and leave it on her face until it dried. My aunt would beat up a raw egg and spread it on her face. They had the smoothest complexion. Or you can purchase all sorts of facial scrubs and masks in a jar.
  • Go for a walk in the park. You can’t beat going for a walk as a stress reliever. I’m not talking about walking as exercise. I mean a leisurely stroll in the morning or midday, stopping to “smell the roses.”
  • Go to the beach if it’s not too far away. I did just that the other day. I decided the night before that I was going to the beach in the morning. I packed my beach chair, a snack, my ipod, and a good book and spent the day at the beach. It was refreshing.
  • If you can afford it, get a massage. Look around for some place not too expensive and treat yourself. You don’t have to be rich to pamper yourself like a queen.”
The afternoon went by too quickly. After she left, I went to the grocery store and bought some bath salts. That evening I filled up the bathtub, lit a few fragrant candles, put on some good music and climbed into the tub for a good soak. Problems can wait. Tonight is for me.  Oh, how easy it is to forget about or put aside our needs.

Six Things I Bequeath to You

My friend Mattie wanted me to pass along this bit of wisdom to all her young females who are just starting out on life’s journey.  She calls it “Six things I bequeath to you”

  • I leave you my six-inch high heel shoes, the ones that made my feet scream at me as I strolled across the floor looking cute, trying to hide the pain that stabbed with each step. Despite the podiatrists’ warnings, they are now back in style.

  • I leave you my mini skirts that rose up whenever I sat down revealing parts of my body better left hidden. Try having a serious conversation with a man when his eyes are drawn not to your face, but to your legs.

  • I leave you my push-up bras. Same reason as above.

  • My false eyelashes that made me look like a lovesick cow. It was hard to keep them on my eyelids. Maybe today the glue is better. I lost one once and wondered why people looked at me strangely.

  • I leave you my children during their teenage years when they become creatures from another planet. What they put me through during their hormonal changes I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. When I’m in my dotage and they’ve grown into loving, respectful, and responsible adults, I’ll take them back

  • I leave you my cheating husbands and lovers. No details please, suffice it to say, you can have them.

I no longer worry about what others think of me. I welcome my spreading waistline, my graying locks, my droopy breasts, my failing eyesight and my growing wisdom. I welcome comfortable shoes, elastic-band sweat pants, oversize tee shirts and invisibility.

“Only six things?” I asked Mattie.    “When I think of more, I’ll let you know.”