Valuable Tools: Old-fashioned Journaling

Journal? I grumbled. Me?

I was stuck. My subplots were knots where I needed lines. But how could I get going again? An answer haunted my mind: Journal! That familiar tool? How about a magic wand instead?

Of course, I knew journaling’s benefits. Writing theorist Peter Elbow has long promoted prewriting exercises like brainstorming or listing. These approaches do for us what we, from northern climates, do to our car on a winter’s day: we run the engine while in park. And though our car only sits in one place in those few moments, something important happens.

Another expert, Dr. James Pennebaker, cites research that connects physical health with expressive writing, i.e. journaling. And creativity guru Julia Cameron compares morning pages—again journaling—to a spiritual alignment.

Me journal? For figuring subplots? I eyed my resistance. “You should journal every day,” a voice said. Fingers had wagged at me over journaling, and now shame cooled my desire.

Bah-hum-bug.

I overrode my resistance, though, and reached for a pen. I dug out my long-neglected notebook and wrote one paragraph.

Something within me loosened. An idea arrived and brought along an idea’s best friend, energy. The knot slipped loose. I opened my manuscript document and wrote.

Excerpted from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care (2019)

 

Gold Stars & Other Fine Rewards

Miss Sorenson had me at “Hello, class. Welcome to fourth grade.” She was kind, not like that other one, who had once rapped my knuckles at recess. Even more importantly to my nine-year-old values were Miss Sorenson’s suede pumps. These pumps were the color of a purple crayon.

Her glamour fascinated me. But Miss Sorenson motivated me another way: her glittering gold stars. Like many teachers, she topped good homework with a five-point sticker. Was her approach original? No. Thousands of elementary teachers place gold stars on noteworthy assignments. Why? Because it works. Think B.F. Skinner.

This spring, I purchased a packet of gold stars from Spring Grove Variety. Now these stars glimmer on scene cards that hold good writing and on book titles I’ve read for class. Each time I award myself a star, positive memory surges through me. Fourth grade accomplishments. Miss Sorenson. Those purple suede shoes. Well done, I think. You did it!

My reward system isn’t limited, however, to literal gold stars. An ice cream cone, a walk, a day off will do. Giving me a gold star helps quiet the Critic’s voice and keeps me heartened. I achieved my goal. And I notice.

And what will be my gold star for getting a book contract? I have no doubt. Purple suede shoes.

Excerpted from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care (2019)

 

The Famous Brian Doyle and His Masterful Word Play

His hands fluttered. The Pacific Northwest writer—middle height and slight with a feathered do from the 90s—was about to address the MFA students who had filled Captain Whidbey’s Inn. I worried. Could this nervous guy do it? I was to learn: boy, could he. Here was no ordinary writer. This was Brian Doyle.

Doyle, who succumbed to brain cancer last year, knew how to speak. He knew how to write, too. Doyle upped the standard of university magazines and anthologies with his whimsical insights. He was, after all, the master of word play.

For example, his stunning lyrical essay, “Joyas Voladoras,” teaches me. It teaches me the value of a wandering structure minus the enumerated transitions indoctrinated into us by English professors everywhere (like me).

What first reads like a nature article on the wonders of hummingbirds soon moves to its focus:  hearts. The blue whale heart—the largest heart—is explored, and then the human heart. All along in his meandering musings, he’s showing me word play.

Take this sentence about the blue whale: “[The baby blue whale] is waaaaay bigger than your car. It drinks a hundred gallons of milk from its mama every day and gains two hundred pounds a day, and when it is seven or eight years old it endures an unimaginable puberty and then it essentially disappears from human ken, for next to nothing is known of the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs and arts of the blue whale.”

Did you see Doyle’s word play? “Waaaaay,” “mama,” “unimaginable puberty” and so on. We won’t even mention that the sentence held 70 words, which breaks William Zinsser’s readability caution by about 50 words.

So, Doyle offers a gem while breaking composition rules, spelling rules, readability rules. And I love it! (Just don’t tell my students.)

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