I wrote yesterday that journaling doesn’t help me with the craft of writing. In journals, I ramble without intention and am not proud of what I write. But I’m starting to question if that’s true, that it doesn’t help me improve.
Let me back up a minute. I’ve been debating how I wanted to continue my writing practice — in notebooks or on a screen? During 2018 I wrote my diary in on my laptop. It was quick and easy for a while. But ultimately it wasn’t satisfying. I missed the feel of ink flowing from the tip of the pen, of the side of my hand moving across paper, and I missed the humanness that handwriting communicates. What it really comes down to, though, is that I loathed pulling out a computer when I wanted to write. I craved the minimalism of pen and paper: simple tools, portable, nothing electronic needed.
The day after Christmas, I bought myself a gift. I braved Barnes & Noble on December 26 to purchase a large, classic Moleskine with a buttery soft cover in reef blue (to remind me of Florida, where I bought it). I’ve been writing in 59¢ composition books for years now, and I wanted something special. I wanted a lined notebook that lays flat, with lines that aren’t a blobby, thick, watery blue but are a sharp, fine, crisp dark grey. I wanted the lines to be spaced close enough together to waste no space — to maximize the number of words I can fit on each page — and far enough apart that I can write comfortably without having to cramp my hand to write teensy tiny. My new journal’s pages round at the corners, and it has a ribbon place marker and an elastic band to keep the paper sheets secure on breezy decks, on car seats when the windows are down, and in the various bags I carry it around in.
The problem with physical writing pages is they pile up. I’ve got a trunk filled with my diaries from age 8 to 28, then a book shelf with journals and composition books from 28 to 44. I almost threw them all out once, but I couldn’t do it. So there they sit. And now I have another one, in reef blue.
We are continually trying to minimize in our life as we think about living in a much smaller space one day. I keep wondering what I’m going to do with these paper pages. When I made the decision to buy a new notebook, I also had the genius idea that I will transcribe all of my diaries onto my computer. This idea is genius for two reasons: 1) I can get rid of the physical books and 2) I’ll actually read the words I wrote when I was 13, 18, 26, 35.
I gotta tell you, it’s pretty slow going. Now that I’ve started, I’m not really convinced it’s a genius idea. It’s taken me about 3 hours to get from age 8 to age 13. That may not seem like much time, but during those ages I wrote sporadically (the diary was stuck closed for a year, then again for another year), and most of the entries are 1-2 sentences. Thinking about the pages and pages I wrote every day when I was in college makes me doubt this plan. This could take me the rest of my life.
But. As I read and transcribe, I’m watching my writing improve. The number of misspelled words is decreasing. In January of 1986 (age 11), I correct “by” to “bye” when saying farewell to my diary in each entry. Somewhere around age 11 or 12, I begin to use punctuation properly, like placing a comma before “too.” At age 12 I introduce dialogue.
Maybe journaling does help improve writing. I’m not writing full, polished pieces in a journal. I’m not carefully selecting concrete nouns and verbs, I’m not paying attention to appealing to the senses. But it is practice. And practice prepares us for when inspiration strikes.
It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.
— Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea