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Week Two: Private Writing

June 8, 2015


Each week, I’m breaking my entry into parts.  Approach them as you like.  I’ll be posting some of my responses throughout the coming week, and I encourage you to do the same.

I’m going to approach Chapter Three out of order, starting by gathering some ideas about ourselves and what is important to us in our writing. First, though, I do suggest you consider some kind of journal for our project these next few weeks if you haven’t already begun one. Think about what kind of journaling works best—dated pages? lined? blank? Or would you rather keep an online journal?

Part I: While many writers at least attempt to keep journals, some do it religiously and others abandon them not long after New Year’s Resolutions. In fact, keeping a journal may be one of those ill-kept resolutions.

When do you tend to keep a journal?
Are you a January journalist?
Do you write more when you’re happy or when you’re sad?

Try for the next few weeks to journal. Pick a regular time. Write down the date and time on each entry.

Think physical properties: Do you prefer a diary with dated entries? lined blank books? Unlined with room to doodle? What size? Do you prefer to journal online? Have you considered 3×5 cards (similar to the system used by the “Sidetracked Sisters” in The Happiness File)?

Part II: Let’s start with some lists.

  1. Make a list of all of your roles in life. For example, I’m a wife, mother, daughter, sister, grandmother, friend, teacher, poet, amateur musician, photographer, scrapbooker. Now add the ones you’ve been in the past.
  2. Make a list (and keep it going) of the things you know a lot about. On page 51, some of McClanahan’s examples may get you thinking in some different ways.
  3. Make a list of truth-telling statements (which you may choose never to share if you like). Begin each “The truth is….”
  4. What are your fears? What breaks your heart? Make a list of the things that keep you awake at night.


Part III. Let’s play with some of the items we discovered in Part II. Start to focus a little, using some suggestions in the chapter:

  1. Imagine you had one year to live. What would be most important to accomplish? What would you feel driven to write?
  2. Look at your list of roles in life and write a letter from one to another. As a grandmother, I might write a letter to my former self as a brand new mother. As a college students, I could write a letter to my future self, the college teacher, asking me to remember what it was like to be in the classroom.
  3. If you could only write about one subject, what would it be?
  4. If it’s true that everyone has one story to tell, what is yours?

Part IV: Since we’re focusing this week on “Private Writing,” keep in mind that this can take many shapes—journals, confessions, unsent letters, first drafts you hope to turn into poems or stories.

Our reasons for private writing varies too. Sometimes we write for catharsis, for healing; sometimes we simply want to keep a record of life experiences. Even private writing can be intended to share later, in some form or another.

Journals can allow us to create another self—maybe a future self as audience. (When I taught high school, I had my seniors write a letter to their future selves, ideally ten years later. I try to find out when the ten-year reunions are scheduled and send the letters. I won’t be finished until at least 2017. Some of my last seniors said they put five dollar bills in their letters in case they’re broke in ten years.)

If you’ve come across your own writing from the past, you know the memory jog, sometimes the embarrassment. You are yourself, but you’re a different self. The future you is an ideal imaginary reader.

Part V: Giving ourselves a place to play.

I am reading through Gretchin Rubin’s book The Happiness Project this year, and I just finished the May chapter on “Play.” She discussed the the productivity and personal usefulness of play. In that vein, remember that writing doesn’t HAVE to be anything. Journal writing shouldn’t be a chore. What kind of play gives you satisfaction? doodling, jokes, word play?

No matter what genre you prefer, poetry is a fun place to play with language—yours or others. She mentions “Jabberwocky”; what poems do you recall as being sheer fun? Why? A few of my favorite examples:

John Greenleaf Whitter, “Skipper Ireson’s Ride”

John Updike, “Recital”

May Swenson, “A Nosty Fright”

When I taught poetry to high school students and college freshmen, I always enjoyed discussing euphony and cacophony—good sounds and unpleasant sounds. With just a little prompting, most realized they had favorite sounding words—lullaby, memory, mellifluous, fluttering. Other words have harsh sounds—like all those old Germanic words—all hard consonants. A poet friend this week pointed out that the word pulchritudinous, which means beautiful doesn’t sound beautiful at all.

Make a list of words you like, not just for their meaning but for other sensory effects.

Part VI: As you continue to write this week:

Set goals: turn abstract emotions and feelings into concrete nouns and specific verbs.

Make a date with your journal—in whatever form you choose.

Keep your own writing goals in mind as your journal. If you are planning on a work of fiction, you might not be writing about the details of your day, but you might instead write down pieces of conversation you overhear, descriptions of people who remind you of your characters. What are they wearing?

If you plan to write poetry, you may choose to include details you remember from the past or from stories you’ve heard. You may observe details in the natural world around you. Think—and journal—using all five senses!

If you want to write memoir, then you may focus on recording the events of your day-to-day life, along with dreams or memories.

Consider writing for a future audience. Think of how you would feel to discover a journal left behind by a great grand parent. Now imagine someone further down your family lineage discovering your journal. What could they learn not just about you but about the world in which you now live?



4 Comments leave one →
  1. sandyyoung75 permalink
    June 8, 2015 12:30 pm

    This week sounds like lots of fun, but I need to read it and Chapter 3 again so that I really understand what I’ll be doing. Thanks, Cuz!

  2. Kathy permalink
    June 12, 2015 2:39 pm

    Got my book, enjoying it a lot, read the first 3 chapters to catch up. Have re-read some of it to really let it sink in. Along with some short frequent journal posts about what’s on my mind, I’ve decided to write about growing up in Pensacola. Moving back here a year ago has broughht waves, no, more like tsunamis of memories and emotions. I want to write it all down while I still have Mom and brother to contribute and fill in details I miss. So far, it has been fun, and cathartic, and I’m excited to have all these recollections in a collection!

  3. sandyyoung75 permalink
    June 13, 2015 10:56 pm

    How wonderful that you’re joining in on the writing, Kathy! And writing about growing up in Pensacola is a great assignment to give yourself. I’d surely love to read some of your remembrances if you’d ever like to share. I’ll just bet Louise Bowen will show up somewhere. And Edwin. And your mom, dad, and Dave. Such good memories come back to me when I think of all of these folks! It’s so good to be connected to you in a “writerly” way!

  4. June 14, 2015 2:40 am

    Kathy, I’ve figured out one thing: comments from my phone don’t show up here. What I wanted to say is that you’re doing something right: gathering details from your mother and brother too. I’m always thinking of things I wish I’d asked. In fact, my second poetry chapbook that’s just been published online so far is entitled Rescuing Libraries, an allusion to the old saying, “Every time an old man dies, a library burns down.”

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