Comments 16

Writers and Their Journals

There are various ways to keep a journal, and a variety of reasons why a writer must keep one.

Poet, essayist and playwright Shiela Bender poignantly remembers a day during Ron Carlson’s writer’s workshop in the summer of 1994. It was the day when Carlson went around the room and asked each person to describe the his/her writing journal. On her turn, Bender had to confess that she kept a box where “scraps of paper on which I have written things – bank deposit slips, napkins, other people’s business cards, other stuff.” When asked how she uses the box, Bender replied that she goes through it every now and then when she’s in between projects or when she’s stuck on something she’s doing.

Bender thought that she had made a fool of herself, after divulging her unconventional way of journaling. Months later, Bender decided to explore the concept of writer’s working journals and invited Carlson to participate. To her surprise, Carlson shared that his method was to keep scraps of paper on which he had scribbled things.

Journals serve a variety of purposes. Some writers include fragments from their journals in their books. For poet James Bertolino, his journals are an active source for his writing. But aside from that, the journal offers him freedom to write: “No matter what the approach or style, the important thing is when I’m alone with my journal I feel free to write absolutely anything that comes to mind, no matter how bizarre or tasteless.”

Writer Omar S. Castaneda has published three books and like Bender, keeps scraps of napkins, clippings, full-page notes and other bits and pieces where he had scribbled something in one box. But he also prepares a project notebook that contains photos, interviews, descriptions and all other things that may come useful for the book he is working on. He began special project notebooks as early as 1980 while working on his first novel, Cunuman. He says he has “stopped feeling guilty for not having a journal and have had the good fortune to use my notebooks in unexpected ways.”

For Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the journal is a sort of sounding board, “For me the journal is a threshing ground, a place to wrestle with writing ideas that refuse to take satisfactory shape.” Divakaruni’s journal entries are brief, tortured and are filled with many question marks.

Janice Eidus feels that journal keeping is not an act of creating art. Her advice to other journal keepers is to “write freely, without self-censorship. Write as you need to, in whatever form you choose to at any given time…for most of us who keep journals in whatever form, there’s no need to search for the perfect metaphor, the perfect title…”

Robert Hellenga keeps in mind what Dorothea Brande wrote in her book Becoming a Writer. Hellenga says he had been trying to follow Brande’s advice, which are: write regularly, write a lot, and write without stopping so that the inner critic won’t have a chance to interfere.

Robert Hemley doesn’t write in his journal everyday, but his journals contain potential material for his stories: “Whatever fascinates me or at least holds my attention… I write in my journal. These are the kernels for my stories…”

Brenda Hillman says that her journals are very precious tools that provide images which she may later on be able to use in her poems. The journal is also a blank tablet for ideas where she makes long lists of titles and ideas for poems. And it also provides her with the assurance of a sacred space.

The journal provides instant gratification to writer David Mas Masumoto. He enjoys seeing his thoughts put into words and the sense of accomplishment he gets after a good writing session. Every now and then a journal entry provides material for a first draft for a manuscript. This is what happened when he found an old photograph of his uncle’s funeral after World War II. The first line that he wrote in his journal about the photograph became the first line of his first book, Snapshot, 1944.

photo credit: Notes via photopin (license)


  1. Wow! How great to hear the perspective of so many different writers! I have a journal where I write about my life, then I have my current hardback journal where I write lists and inspirations and questions, etc. I do like to keep a separate notebook for each novel I work on. Either that or a binder, depending on what kind of materials I’ll be using.


    • Yes, it does help to know how what other writers are doing. I have several journals myself. Good luck with your novels. Thanks for dropping by.


      • Kitty says

        Hi! I have been trying to reach you as I would like to inquire if you’re still practicing Reiki. Hoping for your response. Thank you.


  2. Thanks! After reading this, I feel much better about my rather chaotic method of jotting down ideas.

    And thanks also for your fun contribution to this week’s Limerick-Off!


  3. Pingback: Why Writers Keep Journals | Writing on the Pages of Life

  4. I do so much of my writing in journal form. Always the prologue of he story and the synopsis for each chapter at the very least. There is nothing like seeing the ink flow onto the painter. It is as if your soul being painted onto a canvas.


  5. Reblogged this on More than commonplace and commented:
    Great to learn about different ways people have to arrange their thoughts. You learn as much about yourself, your style of work and your habits of thinking from the process of notetaking itself as you do from whatever information you decide to put on the paper.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I keep a journal-commonplace book – sketchbook and it informs my fine art – it also is a place where I keep my recipes and generally think about life as it flows. I enjoy living life with a book and pen in hand!


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