I’ve kept a journal for as long as I can remember. Traditionally I fill one a year and buy myself a new one on my birthday. It’s a fun tradition, but what I learned last fall is that a journal is different from a writer’s notebook. Learning to keep a writer’s notebook has changed how I see the world. It has challenged me to become a better writer, and supported my story telling in ways I never really believed it would.
It was Janet Fitch who taught me to keep a writer’s notebook. When I took her class last fall she insisted that we all have a small notebook, and that we keep it on hand at all times. She pushed us to write in it every day, if not multiple times a day. Every day we should note the weather, pushing ourselves to describe it in a way we have never heard before. Every time we hear or see something that catches our attention we should write it down – in a way we have never heard before. And that (“a way we have never heard before”) changed the way I write.
Describing things, weather or people, in a way that is uniquely my own, over and over again, is hard. It takes training. I am getting better at it all the time. And the great thing is that every couple of months I take a few hours and type up everything in my journal and store it for future use. Now, should I need to describe Los Angeles in October during a sudden down pour, I don’t have to try to remember it – I just go to my file on weather and pull something out:
“The rain sounds like an argument. Insistent an imposing. I try not to hear, but it keeps getting louder. Reflected droplets splash up and hit my shins making me cold. Everything is shiny in this dim light and I can see the outline of drops clinging to the underside of the railing as if they too are trying to hide from the downpour, trying to stay dry.”
I may or may not use all of that, but it’s a great start, and it was written in the moment, looking at the rain, feeling it, hearing it – not just trying to remember it. It’s the details that make a story memorable, and the more you push yourself to notice them, and exercise your ability to describe them well, the better writer you will be. At least, that’s what Janet Fitch told us, and I for one believe her.
So if you are a writer, invest in a little notebook – something small enough to fit in your pocket or purse, and carry it with you always, and don’t forget a pen (there’s nothing sorrier than a writer without a pen). When you have an idea or a thought on how you would describe something – stop and write it. Pull over to the side of the road, make the checkout lady wait, ignore the kid’s request for juice for a minute and just get it down. That’s what being a writer is all about.