In the same way that it’s more satisfying to eat food you’ve grown on your own ground and cooked with your own hands, writing from your own experiences can do more than create publishable words.
Writers who find material in their own experiences, beliefs and tastes learn to know themselves more thoroughly and can translate that information into knowledge of other people. Insight into others is one of the elements that makes writing universal, and thus appealing to a wide variety of readers.
One way to discover the evidence that leads to writing with broad appeal is to use a journal, writing in it anything and everything that interests you at the moment. Eventually, you will need to sort and winnow the collection of observations, but the more you collect, the more material you will have from which to select the best.
I’ve kept journals since I was nine years old when my mother married a rancher and we moved to the ranch. My journals included my first attempts to write, the beginning of my understanding that I might be a writer, and all the evidence of the things I learned about myself as a child and teenager and young woman.
During my first marriage, I left my husband for a couple of months to sort out my thoughts— and took my journal along. When my husband and I got back together, “to give our marriage another chance,” (that didn’t work, since his behavior didn’t change), I told him everything important that had happened while we’d been apart.
But he didn’t trust me, so he read my most recent journal.
My short-sighted response was to burn all the journals I had kept until that time, from the ages of nine until I was 24 years old.
My action was hasty and foolish, the most destructive thing I’ve ever done to my own writing in 70 years of making mistakes. For a long time I did not understand just how much harm my own action had done to me.
His reading my journals meant that he had violated not only my privacy, but the trust between us. I realized that just as I couldn’t trust him not to read my private papers, I couldn’t trust him to keep his promises. (I shouldn’t have needed to learn that lesson again; he had already violated our marriage vows several times.)
But more importantly, burning my journals meant I did not believe I deserved privacy. Burning those pages and pages of my own life meant that I thought so little of myself that I could add to his hurting me by damaging myself. I burned journals that he’d never seen and would never have read. I burned journals that were my record of my own childhood. Now, nearly 50 years later, I remind myself how foolish I was whenever I’m tempted to make harsh judgments on the actions of others.
Somehow I believed that destroying my most private self would help my marriage, a belief of such incredible stupidity that I still have a hard time admitting it, and believing that I did it.
Burning those journals was erasing much of my childhood from my mind. When I read the accounts of people who lose their memories as the result of injury, I know how they feel. I lost all the smells and sights and thoughts and emotions that I’d recorded— and I did this to myself. I can’t even blame my husband, because my action was not a logical response to his behavior. I should have left him immediately, taking my journals with me. Almost any action I might have taken at that time would have been better for my writing, and therefore for my soul, than burning my journals.
Your journals— and your letters, your photographs, and perhaps today your tweets and blogs— are your record of the experiences that will create your writing. They are the evidence from which your writing will arise and your life will find resolution. No matter who you are, or who you become, you need to be able to write fully and honestly. You can’t do that if someone may read your material without your permission.
My journals were in paper books, so I could have put them in a locked box and kept them secure from any prying eyes.
What effect will it have on writers if they keep journals online, in a blog or other form that strangers as well as friends may read?
Many people seem to be using online writing forums the way I use my paper journal: to work out thoughts and ideas. Writing online is so easy; fire up the computer and pour those glib words out. Often one can receive positive comments, or clicks that indicate “like” within seconds.
But when I write in my journal, it’s in my hands, so it’s impossible to read without my permission. If your journal is online, anyone may read what you write, no matter how wise or foolish it may be. FaceBook, Twitter, public blogs, and other “social media” I probably haven’t even heard of make it possible for anyone to express their own views about your words.
Will someone’s anger or misunderstanding about your written words damage your faith in yourself, or cause you to drop an idea that might have taken you to another dimension?
Will the ease of writing and the joy of quickly seeing your words available to the public make you settle for facile thoughts? Will you write what you think people want to see in order to get those approving clicks of “Like”?
My first expression of an opinion is rarely my last thought on the subject. I shoot off my mouth in my journal as blithely as a drunk in a bar, without thought of the consequences. And I can do that, because no one is reading. Like the drunk in the bar, will I get punched in the snoot if I make stupid statements online?
In my journal, I can take time to carefully winnow through all the possible nuances of my opinion, considering my prejudices, my preferences, and all the other matters that lead me to express what I really think, and I need not consider the opinions of others.
The first draft of anything is highly unlikely to be the final draft. When I try to perfect my thoughts, I write and rethink and revise— that is re-vision — the piece dozens of times. If my first draft appeared in print and gained positive comments, would I bother to improve it? Or would I settle for writing, and thinking, that was inferior to my best?
Furthermore, to publish online is to publish legally. Your copyright is probably protected, but there is some uncertainty about copyright laws online. And some people don’t know that copyright is likely protected for online utterances, and believe they have the right to adopt your words as their own. Online theft may be harder to define, and harder to stop, than plagiarism.
In addition, publication online is giving your words to the public— the equivalent of putting them in print. I find it much harder to revise something that’s in black and white on a page, even if no one else has seen it. Once it’s gone out into the world and been read by others, it no longer seems like something I can change.
You cannot know what might be important in your journal. An experience you have recorded but that’s too painful to read this year might provide insight you need to survive, or material for a novel, in five years. But if you have posted that story online, and read reactions to it from others, will you lose its freshness, lose the impulse to revise and revise until you discover precisely what its meaning is to you?
And if someone compliments you on the writing, will you decide the writing is satisfactory, even if it does not say precisely what you mean?
Writing even, or perhaps especially, in the middle of terrible grief, pain, excitement or terror, can provide you with valuable information on yourself and your life at a later time. If your process of quiet contemplation over meaning is diverted or lost among the comments of others, might you miss the steps in development you need to take as a human being, and as a writer? I’m afraid writers who keep their journals online, open to the public, will lose important parts of themselves in the garbled, facile, momentary reactions of others who have access. Online, you have no control over who reads your work or what their reactions might be. By the time you have revised multiple times and your work is placed in a print medium, you’ve had time to consider possible responses to it, to protect yourself with reasoning from some of the extreme viewpoints.
Before posting online, consider writing in your own paper journal, or in a private computer file. Then refine the work either by retyping it into a computer file or by revising it. Once you have confidence in what you have written, consider carefully when and how to expose it to public comment. Does it belong on a page dedicated to a particular interest group where you might gain insights from readers’ responses? Perhaps you can learn from the experience, as some writers do when working with a group of sympathetic writers.
The key to understanding your life may lie in the thoughts you record in your journals as you live your life one day at a time. In order for those journals to be useful to you as a writer, you must own and control them. If you publish them online, you may lose that ownership in a variety of ways. “Life,” said Soren Kierkegaard, “can only be understood backward, but we must live it forward.”
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
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© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom