Keeping a Journal of a Novel

Late last year I came across John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel. He kept it while writing his epic novel, East of Eden. The journal was written in the form of letters to his editor, who was also a close friend, and reveals both his trepidation and his love and dedication at the undertaking of writing his most ambitious novel. On the pages of his journal he challenges himself, encourages himself, explains and defends his creation, and generally keeps himself going.

Inspired in the reading of his journal, I began my own writing journal for the re-write of my current novel. I can report that keeping a writing journal has helped me immensely. Once I committed to the journal, I was then committed to writing the book. I wanted to see the dates stack up. A number of times when I attempted to describe a scene I planned for the day but found it very blurry in my mind, the act of seeking clarity on the journal page brought the scene into sharp focus. Writing on the journal page gives me permission to play, I think. I won’t do a proper outline (I suspect Steinbeck never did, either), but I will write the journal of what I want to write. My aim was there on the page to prod me the next day.

The entries of Steinbeck’s journal are long for the first days. He wrote not only the journal but the entire manuscript by hand, with a pencil. He bought his pencils by the dozen, a specific brand, apparently costly, from a certain shop in New York. When I thought of it, I realized that I also am particular. I must type my novel at a keyboard, but I must write my journal entries with Uniball Signo, 207 blue ink pen. No computer journaling for me. I’ve started ordering these pens by the dozen.

On the first page of Steinbeck’s journal, he writes: “The last few years have been painful. I don’t know whether they have hurt me permanently or not. Certainly they have changed me.”

I so identify with his words. When I consider it, this statement is the human condition at any point in time and we all can identify–which is the writer’s aim.

On the second page, he wrote: “The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through–not ever much…A good writer always works at the impossible.”

And so we do. We work alone and face the blank page in our effort to give words to feelings. We put our hearts on the page and attempt to make them beating.

A writer friend wrote me today that she has finished a book she has been working on for a number of years. She, too, has undergone painful years that have changed her. She said her newly finished book would need a lot of editing and cutting, but it was finished, and “I like it whether anyone else does or not.”

That is what I can, at last, say about my current wip: I like it, so anyone else’s opinion will be secondary. Perhaps I am actually saying: I have done my best and kept the faith in the impossible task, and parts of it make me smile. There is nothing finer for a writer to be able to say to herself.