"...I write ... [in my Journal of a Novel] consistently because I know that later on, it will help me through whatever bad time I may encounter in the process."
—Elizabeth George in Write Away
Over the course of the last ten years, I’ve written six novels, two novellas, and hundreds of short stories. Even considering that many of those works are utter tripe that shall never see the light of day, their mere completion is a triumph. I’ve seen the hulking beasts that stand between every writer and the end of our stories. Procrastination. Discouragement. Fear. Disorganization. Boredom. Burnout. I’ve seen them, and I’ve conquered them.
Yep, I’ve licked all those nasty buggers. So, if you’re one of those lucky humans who happen to be in favor of logical thinking, your next thought would likely be that, having conquered all these foul beasts, I now stand a victor on the field of every novel, every story. Nothing stands between me and “The End.” I have seen the enemy, and I have conquered him.
However, if you happen to be one of those even luckier humans who inhabit that sometimes less-than-logical mind of a writer, you probably already know that such is not the truth. The enemies of a writer are never vanquished. They lurk in the shadowy background, breathing down our collars as we hunch over our keyboards. Sometimes we type furiously, trying to escape the monster’s breath. And sometimes we freeze solid, every thought in our brains fleeing. The fact that anyone ever manages to complete a story is a victory in itself. Forget good literature; completed literature is the writer’s greatest conquest.
Still, you’d think the battle would get easier as time goes on. You’d think that, as I sit down to work on my seventh novel, the road ahead would be vastly clearer compared to that same road of years past when I wrote Novel #1. Not so, unfortunately. If anything, the monsters breathe harder with every passing “The End.” The happy carelessness of my first novel is long gone. Back then, I had nothing to prove, nothing to surpass. No pressure.
No matter how much I’ve researched my settings, interviewed my characters, hammered out my plot points, my fingers always type that first draft like a blind man stumbling in a junkyard. While writing Behold the Dawn, a historical novel of the 3rd Crusade (see “Current Projects” in sidebar), I have the distinct memory of staring, blank-eyed, at the computer screen and thinking, I’ve lost it. Whatever talent I had for this just flew out the window! I can’t make this story work. I don’t remember ever struggling through this mire with previous stories! What’s going on here?!
It was about this same time that I read mystery diva Elizabeth George’s stellar tome Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life. Of all her gems of writerly wisdom, the one I remember most is her description of her “Journal of a Novel,” styled thus after John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden letters.” After explaining other intricacies of her daily writing routine, George comments that:
“...I pick up my Journal of a Novel for the last novel that I wrote. For the last three or four novels, I’ve copied John Steinbeck’s activity from East of Eden, and I’ve begun every day by writing in a journal, sometimes about the writing I’m doing, sometimes about what’s on my mind at the moment. So for each novel I now write, I create a new journal entry, but before I do that, I read a day in the last Journal of a Novel for the previous novel. This allows me to see that, whatever I might be experiencing at the moment, I have experienced it and survived it before.
“Once I’ve done that reading, I create my journal entry for the new Journal of a Novel, the one I’m creating as I write the current book. This may be a single paragraph; it may be a page or two. But I write it consistently because I know that later on, it will help me through whatever bad time I may encounter in the process.”
I picked up on George’s habit around the same time I began Behold. I wrote faithfully in my battered mulberry notebook, generally recording only two or three paragraphs a day. My opening words summed up the journal’s purpose: 1-11-05: “I’ve decided to keep a journal of my writing. I don’t have time to go into any depth, but just enough to maybe help me later on.”
Sometimes I recorded my word count for the previous day, sometimes I recorded my frustrations (4-5-05: “My writing of late seems to be regressing back into the flabby”; 5-30-05: “Well, here we go—another day of plugging along.”), sometimes I celebrated my triumphs (2-1-05: “Wee! I had a great writing session yesterday”; 7-13-05: “Oh, I’m loving this! This is why I slog through the bad days to reach the pieces that just sing!”), sometimes I would jot down instructions to myself (1-25-05: “I don’t know how many times I’ve read that the writers who take risks are the writers who break boundaries and write the best and most memorable stories”; 10-25-05: “Music is so important to my writing process. More than almost anything else, Behold has taught me that if I don’t have a strong enough soundtrack, I’m probably going to struggle.”), and always I grounded myself and focused my thoughts on the writing session to come.
I didn’t, however, discover the journal’s true power until two years later, when I began writing my (temporarily shelved) novel The Rain Still Falls, a story of World War II’s Battle of Britain. I continued my journaling with this new project, and, just as George suggested, I returned daily to Behold’s journal to read an entry.
Almost immediately after typing the words “Chapter One” in this new story, I fell headlong into the old fears and naysayings. I can’t do this! I stink! Everything good I wrote up to now was just luck! Peculiarly enough, I found myself reading almost the very same words in my journal of Behold. In fact, one day I scribbled down “I hate beginnings!” in my Rain journal, only to flip to the corresponding entry in the Behold journal and find the very same words staring up at me. I laughed. And I was comforted.
The writing journal was tangible proof that this wasn’t the first time I’d been through all these canyons of frustration and doubt. I’d been in the pit of despair, I’d fought my way out, and I’d even emerged with one of my best stories. I could do this. I’d done it before, after all.
Now, two years later, journaling has become a vital part of my writing routine. As notebook after notebook fills with my untidy black scrawl, all I have to do is look at them piled on my desk to know that I’ve faced these same monsters many times before. I have conquered them before, and I will conquer them again.