I Wrote In A Journal Every Night, Anaïs Nin-Style, And This Is How It Changed My Writing (And My Life)
Every writer's routine is different — Maya Angelou rented a hotel room to write in every day, Kurt Vonnegut was at his typewriter by 5:30 each morning, and Jack Kerouac preferred writing by candlelight. For Anaïs Nin, one of the most important parts of her writing routine was writing in her diary every night. Nin, who is famous for her pioneering erotica and her uncensored published diaries, started keeping a journal when she was only 11 years old, and kept at it until her death 63 years later. She often spoke on how keeping a diary affected her writing, summing it up in the best way by saying, "It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments."
When I decided to follow the routine of a famous writer for a week, something about Nin's simple ritual struck me. As she described in her own journals, Nin did her best writing in the morning, and never went to bed without making a new journal entry. As a writer, I make sure to write every day, but I'll admit that I don't stick to a schedule, no matter how many people advise it or how many other writers preach it, so I knew sticking to Nin's was going to be a challenge. Not to mention that it had been years since I wrote in a journal. I used to keep a diary as a kid, but once I got to high school, I began rereading some of my earlier entries and the shame of it all was too great. Those long, whiny pages of unrequited middle school love, the grandiose delusions of running away to California, the petty grievances I held against my parents — it was all too cliché to bear, so left my "Dear Diary" days behind me.
Like Anaïs Nin, I was going to commit to a consistent, albeit low-maintenance, schedule: write in the morning and journal in the evening. Each morning, I would work on a short story collection I'm in the process of writing, and each evening, I would spend at least one hour writing in a journal.
I am an early riser most days, but I am used to spending the morning hours cleaning up around the house, going for a walk, doing yoga, finishing up some outstanding articles for work — basically, anything but working on my own writing. So when the sun rose and brought Day 1 with it, I fixed myself a cup of tea, opened up my laptop, and... proceeded to stare at a blank computer screen for about 20 minutes. It was my goal of the morning to get a story started — at least 1,500 words — for a larger collection I'm working on, but despite the brainstorming sheet next to me, my mind felt blank. Actually, scratch that. My mind felt so completely full that I couldn't separate my characters' names from my grocery list.
Despite my lack of focus, I trudged on and made myself write until lunch. What I accomplished was a spotty story full of incomplete thoughts. I was already doubtful of how productive the next week would be if I had to stick to this schedule, because clearly I wasn't meant to write in the morning. Luckily, I had someone to vent to later that night: my diary.
It's time we got to know each other, but first, I have already decided that I don't want to call you diary. It makes me think of Anne Frank, not that I don't like Anne Frank or appreciate her record-keeping skills, I just think "diary" sounds so... Clarissa Explains It All, does that make sense? I think I will leave you nameless for now, and start my entry over.
Now, that's better right?
So began my first journal entry. I should probably confess that it was written after a long night and a couple of cocktails. That might be why I started talking to my journal as its own being, as opposed to an extension of mine, but that style worked for me, and it would be one I would keep throughout the experiment. The rest of the four-page entry was filled with quandaries into the benefits of journal keeping, questions about my own sanity, and ended with a list of simple goals: Write better. Laugh more. Bitch less.
It was all over the place, but it didn't feel disorganized as I wrote it. It felt natural and refreshing, like I was relieving the pressure on the inside of my skull. Not to mention, I slept much better than usual. Maybe I could get into this journaling thing — maybe.
Despite an evening of drinking the night before, I sat down at my desk the morning of Day 2 feeling refreshed and ready to dive in. My mind seemed less jam-packed, having been emptied onto the pages of my journal. Yesterday morning, I could barely get a few coherent sentences typed up, last night, I had words practically leaking out of me, and today? Well, today I still found myself at a loss as I watched the cursor blink on the screen in front of me.
I was working on what I had written the day before, but found myself in a familiar rut. Every time I started to get going on one path, I found my mind trailing to the laundry I had to do that afternoon or the run I hadn't gotten up early enough to go on before starting in on my new routine. Maybe writing in the morning just wasn't for me. Maybe my creativity was blocked by the To-Dos hanging over me. But I forged ahead anyway, pushed passed all the white noise in my brain, and worked until I had a somewhat decent 2,000-word story that I wasn't thrilled with, but that was markedly better than the junk I had come up with the previous day. Maybe I could do this after all.
I think I need to stop watching so much TV. I want to blame Netflix but, let's be honest, I am the one who turns it on and then sits there and watches it for however many minutes/hours/days at a time. Does Netflix come between me and my boyfriend and a real conversation, or am I using it to deflect? Is it so bad that we fall asleep watching a show every night instead of talking about the future? What's so bad about being quite next to each other, anyway? You know what, I take it back. I don't watch too much TV, and it is fine we don't talk about the future yet. Probably the only reason I think I should be having that conversation is because I watch a lot of TV, and the timelines are so unrealistic...
And on and on I went for six pages. Like the previous day's entry, this one was full of questions, the only difference was that not only was I asking them, but also answering them. The journal was becoming a sounding board, but instead of a good friend who is full of their own opinions, my journal was full of my opinions alone. I could be honest and emotional without worrying about sounding stupid or being judged, because the only person who would read these pages were me. It felt like a huge relief to finally work through some things I had been afraid of even mentioning out loud. Did I feel like I had a new life plan after two days of journaling? No, it doesn't work like magic. But I did notice I felt less anxious, and a little more confident.
I had told myself (and my journal) the night before that I needed to stop making excuses, so I woke up even earlier for Day 3 of morning writing determined to get things done. My head felt clearer, my attitude was more positive, and in general, I felt more focused. I could already tell my nightly journaling was helping me separate my personal stresses from my artistic ones. Although it's been said that personal turmoil can fuel creative genius, for me, anxiety acts as the greatest writing block, so having a designated time and place to work through those feelings allowed me to put them aside until later and zero in at the task at hand: writing a damn good story.
I ignored the work from the two days before, opened a brand new Word document, and began typing immediately. I didn't worry about how the story would end, and I didn't wonder if I had used the word "ambiguous" too many times, because those were all things I could worry about later, when I wasn't caught up in the flow of things. A few hours and about 3,000 words later, I had, for the first time, something I didn't totally hate. Though editing would later cut this work basically in half, I was really starting to believe in the benefits journaling can have on writing.
I've been thinking about this creative nonfiction class I took in college, where we used journals and letters from the university's archives to recreate a moment in a person's life, and I wonder, will anyone be recreating my life from this? It makes me rethink this whole journaling idea — what if one of my grandchildren gets a hold of this notebook and donates it to some archive somewhere? All of these confessions made public, not to mention my awful spelling... everyone will know how heavily I rely on spellcheck. But all of this is assuming I have kids, which is up in the air, and assuming I become a famous writer, which is an even bigger "if."
Day 3 was my first experience in "journal block," as I have decided to call it. For the first time, I was hyper-aware of the project I had undertaken the fact that it was intended to be shared. (After all, the woman whose technique I had set out to follow is best known for her diaries which were published for the world to read, so could I really be that surprised that mine could, and would, be shared, too?) Day 3's entry was full of self-doubt, negativity, and, most notably, insincerity. I found myself editing my thoughts as I wrote, unable to convey an honest emotion. I felt too vulnerable and embarrassed to have a productive venting-via-writing session, so I stopped after two pages of mostly BS and called it a night.
Much like how the previous night ended, my day began in a funk. I felt stressed and overwhelmed, and the last thing I wanted to do was come up against another task I could fail at. Man, since when was I such a Negative Nancy? I sat down to my desk anyways, but instead of opening my laptop, I grabbed my journal and started scrawling my to-do list, a goal list, some questions like, "Are you using every hour in the day?" and "It's OK to relax, isn't it?"
After about 30 minutes of journaling random thoughts and concerns, I felt a huge sigh of relief. I closed my journal, turned to my computer, and began working. I didn't have chatter in the back of my head, but instead I was focused and unconcerned with anything outside my writing. It was freeing, to say the least.
I like to imagine anxiety as a hairball. It starts when you feel a little stressed, and start to chew on the ends of your hair. You don't think about it much, that one strand you choked on, but day after day you gnaw at your split ends — all the while hearing your mother's voice repeating "Spit that out!" — until there's a weight in the pit of your stomach that you can't ignore. I've decided to embrace the lump of hair, cough it up as loudly as I can, and show it off for the world to see.
Damn, I was on a roll. Emotion in the form of run-on sentences were pouring out of me, and it felt great. Instead of letting go of the anxiety I felt around having a somewhat public diary, I embraced it. It was liberating, so much so that I wrote until my hand cramped and eight lined pages were filled with exclamations, inquiries, revelations, and, most importantly, honesty. I felt exhausted by the end, maybe even a little emotionally drained, but satisfied all the same.
More than halfway done with the experiment, I was finally getting into the swing of morning writing when disaster struck: I had reached the end of my story brainstorm sheet. I still wanted to add a story or two to the last section of the collection I was working on, but I was fresh out of ideas. I searched, in vain, through older works to see if I had anything worth revisiting, and that's when it hit me: my journal. It isn't any secret that authors pull from their real-life experiences when writing fiction, so why not turn to my new primary source material for a little inspiration?
I didn't want to completely reread my journal entries for fear of being overwhelmed with embarrassment like I was when I rereading my young self's diaries, so instead I skimmed them, jotting down words and phrases that popped out to me. The result: a modern day remix on the classic Rapunzel fairy tale involving hairballs and a TV guide as holy as the Bible. Hey, maybe if you're lucky — or if I am lucky, I should say — you'll get to read it someday.
It is OK to pat yourself on the back, but don't break your arm just to do it. Remember that tomorrow.
Note to self: change middle name to awesome.
Note to other self: compliment people more.
Note to self: organize a sit-in.
This entry is brought to you in part by an evening of drinking. (Please don't get the wrong idea about me, I swear, I don't get drunk all the time.) It was one of those beautiful, warm afternoons that lead into an even more beautiful evening — you know, the kind of day drinking that leads into night drinking — and I was feeling good. So good, in fact, that I apparently believed myself to be a poet, a philosopher, a political activist, and, simply, awesome. This entry spans four pages, which would seem impressive if it weren't for the doodles that account for at least a page and a half. Despite the overall silliness of this entry, I still count it as one of my successful attempts at journaling because it was done without inhibition, which how all diary writing should be done.
Like I said earlier, I am a morning person mostly, but getting up on a weekend after a night of drinking can turn even the most eager early risers resentful of the sunrise. Still, I pried myself out of bed, used half of my strength to get a cup of coffee and the other half on opening my computer. With my head foggy and my eyes droopy, I sat at my writing desk willing the click-clack of the keys to quiet down as I began typing. Slow at first, I found that despite my hangover, I was able to write with ease. Maybe it was the alcohol, but I like to think five solid days of clearing my head and communicating my internal conflicts on pages other than those in my stories was improving my writing.
It was becoming increasingly easy to drown out all of the other voices in my head — the laundry that needed to get done, the emails I had to answer, the hotel I needed to book — and focus purely on writing. I was able to close my eyes and shut out the rest of the world, and finally find a comfortable space where it was just me and my stories. The rest, I knew, could wait until later.
It was a normal day by anyone's standard, but then, not every day has to be extra-ordinary. Sometimes I really do crave an event-free day, one where I don't have anything planned, I don't have a to do list, I don't have anywhere to go. Because on a day like today, I get to just be, and how often does that happen? I ate strawberries because they were ripe and I listened to the new Florence album because it was open on my computer. I worked in the garden because it needed weeding. I didn't decide to do anything, but things decided to happen, and isn't that wonderful?
By Day 6, I had not only found my writing flow, but I was also able to sink into a comfortable journaling routine as well. I didn't have to think about what I wanted to express to my diary. In fact, I finally had no outside motivation (other than this article) at all, and found it natural and freeing to blurt out my interior monologue. It was on this night that I also realized that I really enjoyed writing, which, coming from a writer, sounds silly, I know. But for the first time in a long time I could do what I loved without worrying about plot points, word repetition, syntax, or even spelling. It was a fantastic feeling.
The sun is up, the birds were chirping — OK, not really, but that's how I felt. It was a cold and cloudy day, but inside at my writing desk, things were heating up. I wrote furiously, and when I hit a wall, I looked to my journal for words I circled or sentences I had underlined while writing for inspiration. My most productive day yet, I was able to finish a story and set up my brainstorm for the next session. I had officially found my groove.
Today was one of those days where you don't feel anytime pass, and then all of a sudden, it's bedtime. Sometimes I hate those days, but today I didn't mind, because I feel like I was there for all of it.
So, I had found my groove, and it didn't stop at writing. I had become fond of my journal and the hour I set aside each night to write in it. It was a quiet time for me to work through the day, write down my thoughts, ask myself questions, doubt myself, reassure myself, and just be with myself. It was a safe, comforting place I really looked forward to visiting, and Day 7 was sure to be one of many I spent there.
While I will likely fall back into my routine of writing when the moment is right, I don't think I'll stop journaling anytime soon. Putting down all of those stresses and anxieties into one place, a place that I could close and leave behind, helped me focus during the rest of my day. It gave me a sense of clarity in my life that carried over into my writing.
The best part, though? Finding inspiration for my writing on the pages of my journal. Not only do I have a mini-therapy session every night, but I also have a running record of my life, filled with story ideas. Although I don't think I could ever be like Nin and publish my diaries for all the world to see, I think I'll keep her lifelong habit of writing in it daily.