Keeping a Writing Journal

A good writer must do two things every day: read a little and write a little. Today we’ll discuss the writing a little and why my writing this blog is worthwhile. It takes time to sit down every week and type up a few thoughts on my research, but that in and of itself is very much a part of the research and writing process.

61+nU4R9iuL._SX448_BO1,204,203,200_Over the summer I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. A runaway success for the South Dakota Historical Society Press, Pioneer Girl was a hot commodity following its first run in 2014. Readers waited anxiously for months for more copies to arrive. Bookstores could not keep them on the shelves. Even in July, eight months after its initial release, Andy at Jacksonville’s Our Town Books had to order me a copy – after I’d seen plenty of copies on the shelf the week before.

Wilder fans, like myself, have this collective and dire need to dig further and learn more. Truth be told, Pioneer Girl is not an especially thrilling read. The annotations, however, are like walking through a historical wonderland. They provide insights into Wilder’s process of transforming her life into fiction and how her interactions with editors and readers shaped the Little House series. I was wholly entranced.

I was also struck by the fact that this manuscript, so hotly debated for decades, is just now seeing the light of day. It just shows us that we (as a society) have a real problem with rough drafts. They should be secreted away in junk drawers, or better yet, disposed of quietly once the writer moves on. As Hill points out in her excellent introductory essay:

“Few writers would agree to share their rough drafts with the reading public. A first draft is an experiment, an attempt to capture the essence of a story on paper. It is raw material, designed to be pruned or expanded, revised or even abandoned during a writer’s attempt to find a story and give it shape, voice, and meaning.”

 – Pamela Smith Hill, “‘Will It Come to Anything?’: The Story of Pioneer Girl,” in Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Pamela Smith Hill, ed. (Pierre, SD: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), lvi.

Writers are vulnerable. Showing off your first draft is akin to walking around outside naked. Most published writers will tell you they suffer from “fraud syndrome,” or that gnawing feeling that you’ve somehow fooled everyone. We tend to get caught up in unrealistic expectations for perfection while secretly harboring fears that we’ll be ruthlessly exposed for who we really are. And first drafts are the ground zero of who we really are.

On the other hand, the Pioneer Girl phenomenon shows us that who we really are is what everyone wants to know about.

Writing can be intimidating. So often we focus on the finished product, assuming that whatever we put to paper should be the final word. Our English teachers taught us about first, second, and third drafts, but even then we’re missing the point. Good writing isn’t just about revising and editing, it’s about embracing the larger process of thinking through problems and finding the right words to describe the solutions.

I’ve discussed the novelty of this blog as part of my writing life because this is the first time I’ve taken my research process to the public. Journaling about my writing, however, is a very old practice that I’ve engaged for decades. This means taking between 10 and 30 minutes to just write whatever is in your head. No judgement, no stopping for grammatical errors, no fact-checking. Just stream-of-consciousness thoughts on a given topic. This is not a new idea. Most writers do this. What you end up with is a lot like a sculptor’s model before they chip away at the marble. More than a draft, seeing your words on paper allows you to make sense of your ideas. As historian Lynn Hunt once wrote (in the best how-to essay on historical writing):

Something ineffable happens when you write down a thought. You think something you did not know you could or would think and it leads you to another thought almost unbidden.

From Lynn Hunt, “How Writing Leads to Thinking,” Perspectives (February 2010).

All that self-doubt and perfectionism is more a product of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems swimming in our heads. Journaling allows us to break those problems down into smaller chunks and tackle them one at a time. Hunt tells us that writing leads us to think. A writing journal will not yield great writing, but it will generate vital stepping stones in a writer’s journey.

Sometimes before hitting the “publish” button on this blog I worry about who will read this (if anyone), and what they will think, but writing about writing is an important first step. Taking it to a blog allows me to put ideas out there and tell my audience this is who I really am.

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