The question I’ve been asked about the most, by the new creative writing students, is what they should be putting in their writing journals and their commonplace books.
Some students have taken to this aspect of the course easily, and others have found it slightly baffling. I can understand the reluctance to spend time on this, rather than ‘real’ writing. But let me urge you to push concerns aside and practice keeping a daily diary. I’ll explain.
There are all sorts of benefits to keeping a journal. The most obvious, perhaps, is that it gets you into the habit of writing. The discipline of having to write every day is something that sometimes takes new creative practitioners by surprise, but it is an important one that will benefit anyone who goes on to make a career out of words.
An often-used analogy is that it is rather like exercising a muscle – as useful as a daily walk for keeping the writing in trim. According to Virginia Woolf, even though the style of her diaries was ‘rough and random’, the act of it ‘loosens the ligaments’. (From her entry of 20 April 1919, in Selected Diaries. See more in this Brainpickings article).
This is true. But it is so much more than that. The rawness of a journal entry, written (usually) in the knowledge that it is for the diarist’s eyes only, is something that can prove useful material for any writer. Time smoothes over our emotional responses to any events, and the ability to go back and re-read how it truly felt at the time is a wonderful resource.
I speak from experience. Like many teenagers, I kept an embarrassingly over-wrought account of my daily life from the age of 13 to 18. But in an act of symbolism and incredible short-sightedness, when I left home, I put every single volume in the bin.
I would pay more to retrieve those awkward teenage ramblings than I would for a Shakespeare First Folio. There would be so much in there that I have forgotten, not to mention the kind of period detail that would take me years to research.
And what of the commonplace book? It’s a term that is new to many students. I suggest they think of it rather like a scrapbook, in which any and every stray thought, image and scrap of inspiration can safely go. (Like the diary, these can also be compiled digitally). Writers who keep commonplace books are regularly surprised at how often they go back to mine these little stores of ideas.
And if you are still not convinced of their usefulness, read Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, in which bookish character Klaus regularly refers to his commonplace book – and count how many times it saves the heroes’ lives.