Sunday, September 28, 2008

One Million Words

I’ve kept journals for years. In a roughly twenty year production, I estimate that I’ve written a million words in these journals. That’s fifty thousand words per year, or the length of one modest book per year. Compared to some well-known journal writers, mine might be considered a meager output. But the big question is, just what have I been writing about?

Writing, as much as it is about discipline, is perhaps more so about habit. Keeping a journal provides a ready source within which to get the ink flowing. I suspect this is why journal keeping smacks of self-regard, that such navel gazing is considered useless...that there is something both anachronistic and self-indulgent about keeping a journal. No matter, isn’t this what any writing essentially is--the projection of one’s ego?

Keeping a journal implies you are trying to be completely honest with yourself, as it provides a place to explore difficult ideas in an exposed form. I can find documentation on almost any major event in my life from the last eighteen or so years, depending on how frank or involved in documenting it I was at the time (or how legibly I wrote--it often requires a cryptologist to read these things). The lion’s share of a journal’s function is reflective, the inquiry into motives, actions and results. The writing aspires to a lack of self-consciousness. If the preconceived idea that these journals were to be published was a possibility, some of that honesty would be compromised perhaps, or couched, and it would cease to serve it’s introspective, ultimately (personal) archeological function.

I consider this journal writing meditative time that more often than not leads to my “real” writing. Maybe journaling functions like foreplay to the actual writing, what becomes fiction.

In recent years, I’ve gotten away from confession that dominate long periods of my earliest journals. Now I primarily use a journal as a documentation of my writing, to prod myself on the fiction. That and the occasional philosophical or psychological insight. In a journal I can work through problems in writing and imagine I am somewhat more clear about them. This also offers me the benefit of learning from the past when I re-read them later--a testing of hypotheses. My writing is my brutal pact with creativity, and journal writing offers a suggestion that I can get down to bedrock, that I can come away with self-knowledge.

I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s War Diaries: Notebooks from a Phoney War 1939-1940 with the voyeuristic notion that I am reading Sartre’s innermost, honest thoughts. Sartre, at various points, is so bold in his voice and his observations, that it is clear that he expected greatness. This voice impresses me, probably because it is projecting a kind of confidence and authority that I want to emulate.

This also highlights the line between the private writer and the public one. Sartre, while reading Andre Gide’s journals, writes a critique of them that revolves around Gide’s unwillingness to bear up his personal life. “His diary is essentially a tool for recovering possession of himself. Consequently, more the witness and instrument of tensions than of relaxations.” In other words, Gide avoids discussing his day to day life, from which Sartre sees in Gide’s journals, a kind of denial: “To allow Gide to write any old thing, when he doesn’t feel in the mood for work [...]” As Sartre says of his own writing, “this journal is a calling into question of myself.”

But even Sartre is circumspect enough to avoid delving too deeply into personal matters (other than occasional references to “the Beaver,” aka Simone DeBeauvoir, and their circle)--he does it only in the most superficial manner. And, as Gide’s journals were published, so too, eventually, were Sartre’s. He claims, “I’m not an important person nor do I meet important people[...]”. Yet Sartre, for all his dissembling, strikes me as fully aware, at the age of 34, of where he was going.

I suspect this literary journal-keeping self-consciousness in the French says reams about their value of the self-created mind and why their philosophical and literary traditions are much more expansive (it could be argued) than our own. Theirs seems a passion for digging about in the intellect and culling with impunity. I would guess most American writers are much more clearly directed, or dedicated to writing beyond ourselves (the confessional memoir--which is more about exposing others in the aims of self-revelation), because our publishing model is nakedly consumer oriented. The life of the mind is not populist; it is rather considered, if anything, elitist.

With the expediency of on-line publishing, the journal as a written form may become a thing of the past. The blog can give any writer of any obscurity the instant possibility of voyeuristic fame; confession or chest-thumping seems to outweigh genuine insight in this venue. Not for me -- what comes up here rarely resembles anything that’s in my dog-eared journals.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Self-Protective Layers

I’m convinced one cure for bad fiction is to write more fiction (hopefully, with the goal to become a better fiction writer). It is from reading widely that I can often see what does not work in fiction. To make a generalization: I know it when I see it. To recognize it is when to take evasive action. The prescription I’ve found is often to invent for the sake of itself. This is to break through ones own self-protective layers (or the received protective layers?). We say things one way because we don’t imagine it any other way. Or we are looking too hard at the way it really was.

There is nothing wrong with writing from life. On the other hand, I don’t believe that you should only “write what you know.” Trying for verisimilitude doesn’t get you very far when you’ve stopped seeing. There is a Buddhist precept that says: truth comes through seeing. This might handily explain the show don’t tell mantra, and may be the problem of writing from life: you’ve got to get the details right... But I say channel something new, not the thing you’ve been thinking about for thirty years, or two years. Or two months.

After all, no one tells your story. You are the only one who can. Why not challenge yourself to think outside of the (imagined) book, outside of yourself. Remove yourself from the equation; if need be, attempt to imitate someone if you want. Just imitate someone very good.

Here is my prescription for stripping away some of those self-protective layers, if only because this is how one can begin to explore and write from somewhere that is vast, compelling and unique:

1. Find the subjects that interest you most. Explore them, constantly. Seek them out.

2. Cultivate the time to write every week. And more, whenever you can.

3. Write the best of what you write.

4. Let the work be what it wants to be.

5. Read a lot. You will not become a writer if you can’t name at least five books that you love and have read more than once.

6. Be open to new writers. Take the time to read and evaluate for yourself if something is worth all the praise that might be lauded upon it. If you read enough, you’ll become very discerning about what is good and what isn’t. To you. And you’ll come to know what you like.

7. Be willing to risk--put your work out there. Just don’t let negative criticism defeat you or detract you from your goals.

8. When you have gained the confidence in your work, always try to write with the idea that you are writing for publication. This instills the idea that you will commit your words to being clear, concise, and powerful. And to resonate with your ideal reader, whoever they may be.