I recently read The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo. The author is a professor at Hunter College, where she began the college’s MFA in Memoir program, and has also published numerous books. In this particular book she assures writers that it’s perfectly all right to take a long time to complete a writing project—provided the writer works on the piece consistently. She’s not talking about writers who spend a couple of hours once a week on their writing. One of the key pieces of advice she gives is: “Touch the work every day.”
Along with other such advice and interesting insights into how well-known writers such as Michael Chabon and Ian McEwan write, or Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on writing, DeSalvo discusses what she calls a process journal. She references it in a few different chapters, and I was not taken with the idea at first. After I finished reading the book, I went back through it to find parts I wanted to share in my writing classes. I revisited the sections on the process journal and found the concept more intriguing. So I wrote up some notes on it and presented it to all of my classes. Some students were skeptical at first, as I had been, but as we talked about it, most students became interested. In the month since then, several students have told me they have started using process journals.
As have I. As I read Slow Writing, I was finishing what I realized was the first part of my current novel. With that realization, I knew it was time for me to consider where I had been and where I was going. I dug out a blank journal that had been a gift from a student a few years ago (thanks, Peg!) and wrote down what I had done in Part I, what was working, what needed to be tossed, what needed to be expanded, what needed tweaking. Then I wrote down what I thought should happen to each of my main characters as I started Part II. As soon as I did that, I saw new changes that Part I required, how the timing needed to be changed, how two main characters needed attitude adjustments. This journal was enormously helpful already.
In her book, DeSalvo says that she first learned about process journals in 2001, when she went to hear Sue Grafton speak. Grafton keeps a separate journal for each of her novels. DeSalvo reports: “[Grafton] writes an entry each day before she begins work.… She describes what’s troublesome in a scene, a puzzle she can’t resolve, lines she’s imagined but doesn’t know how to use.” Grafton said that any problem she had in a book, she worked it out in her process journal.
John Steinbeck kept a similar journal. DeSalvo quotes from his entry of April 9, 1951, when he was working on East of Eden. He considered not only when he was going to get his laundry done, but what he wanted to work on in his novel that week, if he could write more than he had been, and specifically what he wanted to work on that day. He also wrote in the journal when he was done, summarizing what he’d written and what he hoped to write the next day.
DeSalvo, naturally, keeps a process journal too. In it she lists “books I want to read, subjects I want to write about … sketch scenes, think about the work’s structure …” and more. It’s around here that a writer might feel overwhelmed with this idea of a process journal. She might say, as I did, as my students did, “Write more?” According to DeSalvo, Grafton’s journals are longer than her novels. I imagine DeSalvo’s are lengthy too. But a process journal only has to be as long as you need it to be. I don’t write in mine before I begin my daily writing, but I do read what I wrote in it the day before, after I was done writing. In those journal entries, I assess what I wrote that day: if I’m satisfied with it; if I’m not satisfied with it, why not; how it’s fitting in (or not) with what has come before and where I want to go; and, most importantly, what I want to write next. Too often I’ve sat down at the computer or opened to a fresh page in my notebook and stared, my mind as blank as the page. How much better to leave a note for myself, with the energy that builds up while writing, about what should come next, than to sift around in my brain, considering different characters and different scenarios, frustrating myself because I’m uncertain about where to go.
So try a process journal. Write as little or as much as you need. The amount and what you write may vary from day to day, depending on where you are with your work. Through the journal, you may untangle a troublesome plot element, gain a vital insight into a character, or unexpectedly write down an excellent bit of dialogue. Remember, nothing we write is ever wasted.