Monday, August 25, 2008

Journaling: Another Option

In 1999, when I began my first term in Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children program, the graduating class was preparing to receive their diplomas. I’m not sure if it was the Class of ‘99 or classes before them that began the tradition of presenting incoming students with journals during the graduation ceremony.

The books the outgoing class gave us are huge, magazine-sized--not the typical diary one easily can throw in a purse or backpack. The dark gray cover is decorated with a pen-and-ink drawing of a woodpecker. The bird had special meaning for the Class of ’99 and there was a story that went with the choice—though I don’t recall what it was. (Probably something about tenacity? Digging deep for the “meat” of a story?)

I remember being frightened by the prospect of filling that book. In the past, I’ve done a bit of diary writing, but it was mostly when I was in a bad mood and needed to vent privately. Some of my fellow grad students kept journals of story ideas. I didn’t want to do that. If I had an idea, I didn’t want to detour it into a journal and lose my momentum. I’d rather start a new manuscript. Other writers kept journals of writing exercises, character explorations, visual descriptions to use in future stories.

All nice, but not for me.

I finally found a way to keep the journal that would be useful for me. One of the requirements for the MFA program is to read professional articles and write a commentary on them. I found I liked the dissecting of ideas. I decided to keep up this study of other writers in my journal. Over the years, as I read articles in professional magazines or books about writing, I find certain sentences or paragraphs that I want to remember. I copy them into my journal:

“Writing is not psychology. We do not talk “about” feelings. Instead the writer feels and through her words awakens those feelings in the reader.”
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, p. 68

“I’ve learned to base my characters as much as possible on real people. There are ‘characters’ all around us, and there is really no need to embellish…The most interesting characters I’ve ever read about are ordinary people place in extraordinary situations and forced to react.”
David De Batto, “Breakthrough” The Writer, Feb. 2007

Sometimes, I keep the quotes simply for re-reading. Other times, I comment on them. When I’m finished, I don’t need to hang on to magazines full of ads or articles that don’t apply to me.

The process of writing down the words we read is a form of kinesthetic learning. Educators deal with this topic every day as they try to present lessons to children in a multitude of forms so that students who learn best visually, orally, or kinetically can process new information. We as writers can do the same for ourselves.

Try it. It sure beats having a mess of old magazines hanging around.

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