Reading Old Journals…Yikes!

A few weeks ago I dragged a box of old journals from my closet. I started my first diary in elementary school. It had a padlock on it so nosy siblings couldn’t peek. They could have just ripped the binding off the darn thing, of course, but they never thought to do that. I don’t know what happened to that early diary. I wish I had it now to see what my 9-year-old self thought was important enough to record. I suspect it was stuff like “Michael W. stuck his tongue out at me today when Mrs. N. was writing on the blackboard,” or “That kid Joe R. seems really nice. I bet he’ll marry my little sister 20 years from now.”

The earliest journals in my possession are from the mid-1980s when I was in college. But I didn’t pick up steam until after I graduated in 1986. From then on my journals record things like:

  • The loneliness I felt after leaving all my friends behind and returning from the happy bubble of college life
  • My growing dissatisfaction in a 9-to-5 job that just wasn’t me
  • Countless dates with “bad boys” who weren’t interested in serious relationships. Duh!
  • My fickle nature
  • My dreams and wishes for the future
  • The plans to realize those dreams and wishes
  • The actual steps I took
  • The successes and setbacks I experienced

Some of the entries are truly heartbreaking. They transport me back to pain I don’t even remember. I may as well be reading a stranger’s journal because I don’t recognize the empty person behind the words. But then, with the flip of a page, the tone changes and I’m going on and on about becoming a rock star. Yeah right! That band I was in with John, Richie, and Vito in high school obviously went right to my head.

A few journals later and I feel exhausted after reading about the hard work it took to start my business. And then, there’s the ridiculous: I’ve obsessed over my weight my entire adult life, but with the exception of a short period of time leading up to my pregnancy and for a short time after giving birth, my weight has not varied by more than 5-10 pounds. How do I know this? Because I recorded it. I could have refrained from worrying and had the same result. The best part of reading my old journals is the exhilaration of seeing dreams and wishes from one year become reality in subsequent years. Progress.

I also love revisiting the quotes I captured from books I was reading at the time or other sources.

From one of my favorite books Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman:

 “All I am certain of is this: that it is quite necessary for me to know that there is someone who is deeply devoted to me as a person, and who also has the capacity and the depth of understanding to share, vicariously, the sometimes crushing burden of creative effort.” Rachel Carson

From Dinah Mulock, “Friendship”:

“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are—chaff and grain together—certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.”

From Alex Noble:

“Oh, the miraculous energy that flows between two people who care enough…to take the risks of…responding with the whole heart.”

My New Year’s Resolutions for 1996 were taken directly from Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe:

Health enough to make work a pleasure,
Wealth enough to support your needs,
Strength enough to battle with difficulties and overcome them,
Grace enough to toil until good is accomplished,
Charity enough to see good in your neighbor,
Love enough to move you to be useful and helpful to others,
Faith enough to make real the things of God,
Hope enough to remove all anxious fears concerning the future.

In 1997, I began my journal with “My Symphony of Life” by William Henry Channing:

To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion.
To be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly; to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart; to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common. This will be my Symphony.

That same year, I was plagued by chronic back pain. The following passage by John Adams caught my eye. It was written three days before his death and reassured me that even as our physical bodies break down, our spirits can continue to thrive:

“The house in which John Adams lives is falling down. The roof leaks badly. The foundation is crumbling. The shingles are dropping like raindrops, and the windows let the frigid air through like screens. In spite of all this, however, John Adams is doing just fine, thank you.”

Reading old journals reminds me of who I was and who I wanted to become. Moment by moment, we make decisions that lead to changes that are sometimes barely perceptible in our lives. Yet years later, in hindsight, we realize how far we’ve come or how far we’ve veered off our intended course. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But when an alternate path does not result in fulfillment, it’s time to make adjustments and become aware of how we lost our way.

When I put the last journal back into the box and pushed it all back into the closet, I was feeling refreshed and ready to start daydreaming about what I want to do in the second half of my life.

Do any of you keep journals? What do you find most valuable about the practice? Do tell. 🙂

Top 13: My Favorite Writing Things

If you think ballplayers and crazed sports fans, with their amulets and gestures and habits all meant to bring about a win, are the only superstitious people in the world, think again. Writers can be just as quirky when engaging in their sport. And so I present a baker’s dozen of my favorite writing things, in no particular order.

 1. Men’s cashmere sweater

This is my go-to, get-in-the-mood wear when it’s time to write and the season is autumn, winter, or early spring. It was love at first sight when I found this baby in a pigeon-poop-covered sealed box at the back of a warehouse. Yes, I know, disgusting. But inside were dozens of men’s cashmere sweaters individually packaged in plastic. No avian bird flu for me. This was my favorite, and definitely not because of the thick horizontal band falling at exactly hip level. Egads! No, the reason I love this sweater is because it is 100% cashmere, made in Scotland, and thick and comfy, unlike those cashmere sweaters in the department store that feel like you’re wearing expensive tissue paper. When I slip into its luxurious softness, I let out a contented Kashmir bleat and my Muse instantly appears for some cuddle time.

 2. Bic 4-color pens

With a click of one of the colored levers, I’m instantly transported back to fourth grade. Sophisticated? No. But it’s surprisingly smooth and long-lasting for a simple ball-point pen and does a great job for first drafts. Up until recently, I did all novel writing by hand. There’s definitely a creativity channel that runs from brain to fingers. Typing directly into a computer was how I wrote user manuals in my day job, but when it was time for novels, I needed the creative flow of handwriting. I use only the black and blue inks for my first drafts. The red and green inks are reserved for editing, but that’s the subject of a future Top List.

 3. College-ruled spiral notebook

When you’re writing first drafts by hand, you need a cooperative writing surface. That’s why a bound notebook or journal is never going to work for me. I need to flip pages quickly and not fight with a book that wants to constantly close on me. A spiral notebook lets me get the job done. But it has to be college-ruled. Wide-ruled spirals throw off my equilibrium and make me tense. I’m weird that way. Perforated pages are preferred. Yes, sometimes they rip out of the notebook when I don’t want them to, but when I do intentionally rip them out, there are neither messy edges nor bits of paper to get stuck to my nice cashmere sweater.

 4. Post-it flags

When I’m in the flow, in that sweet spot of writing momentum, I don’t want to risk stopping to look something up. So, I write through the missing information with just a quick bracketed note to self [get info] and stick a colored flag on the page as a reminder to do research later when the Muse has left me for the day.

 

 5. Baby name book

There are no more babies in my future, but I keep my baby name book close by. It’s a great tool for coming up with character names. Yeah, yeah, I know, you can look this stuff up on the internet. But I still enjoy the feel of a book in my hands. And I just don’t like to be plugged in all the time.

 

 

 

 

 6. AlphaSmart Neo

The day finally arrived when I got fed up writing novels by hand and typing them into my computer in long, tedious sessions, unable to always read my chicken scratch. But there was no way I wanted to sit under a hot laptop for hours at a time, distracted by email and other internet activities. It doesn’t take much to get my hamsters overexcited and headed in all the wrong directions. Imagine my joy when I discovered the AlphaSmart Neo. Originally created for schoolchildren and teachers, it is smaller than a laptop, less than 2 pounds, has a full-size keyboard, does not emit heat, and works for 700 hours on 3 AA batteries. My laptop gives me about 2. The screen is visible in bright sunlight, though it is primitive. There are no fonts to choose from, and it displays only three to six lines of text at a time (I set it to four). But this is actually a good thing. It makes it virtually impossible to edit as you write. And we all know that editing while writing leads to writer constipation. It keeps you in the forward flow of writing, and no matter how much your internal critic (read: AntiChrist, fallen Muse, etc.) shouts at you, you can’t give in to him.

 7. Manuscript template & List of Scenes table

After a day of writing on the AlphaSmart Neo, I plug into the PC and upload my work directly into my manuscript template, which is set up with all the formatting that agents and editors require for submissions. It allows me to gauge where I’m at, calculate word counts, and determine if my plot pacing is in line with the intended length of the book. I also couldn’t exist without my list of scenes. This is an ever-changing table, which numbers the scenes, outlines each in a few sentences, and lists its purpose. It keeps me on track, points out inconsistencies, and ensures all scenes move the plot along. It also allows me to jump to a future scene when writing the current one just isn’t doing it for me.

 

8. Beautiful journals

When I’m feeling introspective and need to get thoughts down on paper, a spiral notebook will just not do. It’s time to break out the quality journal. The cover needs to call out to me. One of my favorites was a journal I found in Florence with its colorful swirls and gold details. I prefer ecru-colored paper, no shine, with a bit of texture. I’d show you the insides of my journals, but I’ve already written in them and I’d have to kill you. If you don’t keep a journal, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Writing down a problem or idea instantly releases some of the pressure and allows your mind to simmer in the background. I have solved many a problem this way. Similarly, when insomnia strikes because the neon To Do list in my brain won’t stop flashing, I grab my bedside journal and transfer that mental list to paper. My mind no longer needs to exert itself to remember. Within minutes, I am relaxed and ready to doze off. That same bedside journal also records dreams and inspiration that comes in the middle of the night. (A battery operated book light helps in the recording of these nocturnal notes.)

9. Fountain pens

A fountain pen is much too messy for writing first drafts of novels and a bit too precious. But nothing is better for that moment of journaling you give yourself. It sets the tone. “This is important. This is me time.” They come in so many gorgeous designs. You can have several to match your moods. There are different nibs for just the right flow of ink. I prefer medium. There are numerous ink colors to choose from. You can use ink cartridges, or for an authentic touch, fill your pen from an ink pot. It’s all part of the ritual of getting ready to write your soul on paper. Check out the selection at Levenger.

 

10. Tray of tea and cookies

For morning writing, a huge cup of coffee from the local store is all I need. I’ll sip on it for hours until it has turned lukewarm. But for afternoons, a bracing cup of tea served up in style with some cookies keeps the energy flowing. Harney and Sons offers some of my favorite teas and accessories. My pal, Richard Lamb, laughs and says I’m more English than he is when it comes to making tea. He calls it “playing with my chemistry set.” Listen up, people, a tea bag in a mug of tepid water is not tea. You should be ashamed of yourself, Rich. You’re an embarrassment to your country. 😛

 

11. A walk

There is nothing more inspiring, creativity producing, and calming than a walk out in nature. I typically walk the same route every day. I’ve mapped out the mileage and I know the route like the back of my hand. So I don’t have to think about any of that. Instead, I notice how that same route changes day by day because Mother Nature is a prolific creator. That inspires me to create as well. Since I don’t have to concentrate on where I’m walking, I can simmer on the direction my novel is taking. I am ALWAYS in a better place mentally after a walk or run, and my body is better off, too.

 

12. The right chair

Unlike tech writing, during which I need to be sitting upright in a chair with lumbar support, creative writing requires a more relaxed, slightly reclined posture. I am unable to write at my desktop PC. It sucks the creativity out of me. In the late spring, summer, and early autumn, I sit in a lounge chair out front so I can stare into the sky and dream in between bursts of writing. When the weather gets too cold for comfort, I sit on the sofa in my living room. It has a Duncan Phyfe, early Empire look to it (and I’m not talking about Star Wars 😐 ) with rolled arms that give just enough back support. No overly mushy cushions to drown in, and that’s a good thing for me. My front window and skylights let nature in when the weather prevents me from writing outside. I’m sitting here now. See me through the window? [waving]

 

13. Lap desk

These hands are registered with the…no, only kidding. But I’d like to steer clear of carpal tunnel syndrome. My handy dandy lap desk is the perfect base for my Alphasmart Neo. It allows me to comfortably type and supports my wrists with a bean-bag roll. You can’t be creative if you’re uncomfortable. Though this isn’t an exciting edition to my list, it is a very necessary one. And what do you expect, the 13th in a baker’s dozen is free.

There you have it. Please feel free to share your favorite things whether you’re a writer or not.