Q: I’d like to keep a journal, but I never know what to write in one. How do I start?
A: Perhaps Philip Lopate stated it best in his foreword to Writers and Their Notebooks: “No one can expect to write well who would not first take the risk of writing badly. The writer’s notebook is a safe place for such experiments to be undertaken.” Those blank pages are an opportunity to take risks and practice translating experience and emotion onto the page.
If you have an idea of what you’d like to write, but you
balk when you sit down to actually do it, the writer’s journal might help.
Approach the story or poem as an experiment; you might feel less pressure. You
may also find writing exercises helpful. Here are a few to get you started:
• Choose a favorite book. Close your eyes, open the book and
put your finger on the page. Begin a scene or a poem that begins with that sentence
• Make a list of objects you associate with yourself. Jot down
as many as possible. Choose one or several and begin writing on that topic.
This might take the form of a poem or a personal essay. You could even do this
for a fictional character instead of yourself and see where it leads you.
• Describe a place you know well. Use sensory and specific
detail to bring it to life. Add a character who has never been there before.
What happens? For nonfiction, this character might be you the first time you
discovered this place.
• Write from the perspective of a machine, a seasoning or a
body of water. Be specific. What would a robot notice? What would paprika want?
How would a puddle behave?
• Finally, here’s an exercise that has so many variables, it
can keep you busy for a long time. Divide a stack of note cards into three
piles. The more cards you have, the more combinations you can create. For one
pile, write a character trait on each card: enjoys snowboarding, generous,
unusually tall. For the second pile, write a setting on each card: dentist’s
office, meadow, haunted house. For the third pile, write an action on each
card: dismantled the holiday decorations, tossed the note in the lake, ate a
four-leaf clover. Shuffle each pile separately. For fiction, pick one card from
each pile so you have a character, setting and action. Write a scene that
includes all three. Perhaps the unusually tall character throws a note in the
lake before going to the haunted house. Or the generous character is in the
dentist’s office when she decides to eat the four-leaf clover. Explore
character motivation and how the three elements—character, setting and
action—influence one another. For nonfiction or poetry, choose one card from
two of the piles and write an essay or poem that draws a personal connection
between them. You may have to choose more than one pair to hit on a combination
that works, but don’t give up too easy. Part of the fun of this exercise is
finding unexpected connections.
Writing exercises are a great way to practice and grow, so
use them as a springboard for journaling. You may also find that the process of
regular writing invites ideas. Follow what intrigues you.