Dear Diary…

VirginiaWoolfFor a tutor, it’s interesting to see what issues and concerns students have in common, particularly when they first sign up to the OCA.

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.

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11 comments for “Dear Diary…

  1. 3 February 2014 at 11:55 am

    Interesting – Since handing in my last assessment submission I have begin to shoot a photo a day and this whole post’s reasons for writing every day resonates with my reasons to shoot an image a day.

  2. 3 February 2014 at 4:13 pm

    ‘Commonplace’ book. I hadn’t heard of that term before. I like it.

    • 6 February 2014 at 12:56 pm

      Yes, it’s lovely. We should all keep one by us at all times!

  3. 4 February 2014 at 7:50 am

    I also kept a teenage diary from age 13-15. It was written on scraps of paper and held together with ribbons. When we moved house i was terrified my parents would find it so i wrapped it in various plastic bags and deposited it in a street bin far from home. I was 15. I also regret that. However, I then kept a series of small diaries from age 18-20. These I still have. I very occasionally read them and have to say they are rather tedious- full of who I fancied and why I wanted to give up Medicine and go to Art College! There are some period gems in there, like accounts of exactly what I was wearing to a party.
    I hadn’t heard the term Commonplace book either. A writer I know always has several notebooks in her bag, one for each idea she is currently mulling over. As soon as something occurs to her she will whip the relevant book out and make a note. This took me by surprise when I was out with her once, but is no more disconcerting than someone answering their phone when in the middle of a conversation with you. I suppose these were her Commonplace books. She is now a successful ,children’s author!

    • 6 February 2014 at 12:58 pm

      All I can say is – and I am sure you know this – don’t throw those ‘tedious’ diaries away! You never know when they’ll come in handy. Would love to know who the author is… 🙂

  4. 6 February 2014 at 4:24 pm

    My Commonplace book, although just started, is really useful. I like the idea of a digital one…would you use Evernote?

  5. Nicholas Poulcherios.
    6 February 2014 at 11:37 pm

    1/ I use a small microfile note book and load- file- date and- new reload.;with a place for a pencil of a .0.7 or 0.9 lead ..I like it’s smooth feel on paper. 2/A small digital simple to use camera or camcorder to suit the situation.for. photoes colour or black and open space, or party occasion-for dialogue,voice, noise,music,sound.3/Pocket size Britannica. with Oxford Dictionaries/Thesaurus/Quotations…this is very useful-to me anyhow. 4/Get a feel of what you are going to write about such as,;.speed,,heat, mud,,soaked with rain,,feeding swans, pigeons. Bother about colour and shades in words,and use nature its landscape to paint verbally the writing. Stimulating the senses is also helpful to me to experiment by shutting my eyes and feel the darkness;;head phones to experience silence and and feel what it means to “feel” deafness, and make my notes,and impressions.
    Equally essential for me is a good Greek/English and English-Greek,to have word shades and colouring in vivid language.
    I practice this at school many years back,and it now has a very lasting effect almost a second nature to me . It is OK for me.

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