Build a Book with Journal Entries

Journal under pillow

If you begin the habit of writing in your journal every day, you can lead yourself into writing a book– not quite painlessly.

If you sit at the computer and think:

I am going to
write a book

you may terrify yourself with the monumental nature of the task.

Instead, resolve to write a journal entry every day. Let your book build itself.

In order to make this a habit, you should choose to write at the same time. And because our days so easily fill with tasks, you might be most successful if the time you write in your journal is when you first wake up.

This arrangement may depend in part on your sleeping arrangements, but all of us require privacy early in the morning. I keep my journal beside the bed. When I get up, I usually have to let the dog out, so I also turn on the coffee and turn up the heat. By the time I’ve had a few private moments in the bathroom, the dog is ready to come in and the coffee is finished. I put a cup on my bedside table, arrange the pillows behind me, take my journal out from under the pillow beside me where it spent the night, and begin the day with the date, time, temperature and thoughts.

I keep the journal under the pillow, with a pen slipped to a blank page, because I often have a thought in the middle of the night, and can write it down immediately. If I need more light, I have on the bedside table a tiny light that clips around a pen.

WindbreakIf sitting up in bed doesn’t afford you the privacy you need, then take advantage of the bathroom: take your journal with you and begin your day in peace and quiet, writing.

One more element exists to this method of building a book from journal entries: begin thinking about, and writing about, a particular topic. No matter what else you write in your journal to begin the day, devote a few minutes to writing about that topic.

Journal entry, from Windbreak, September 29, page 22:

When the folks came back from town this afternoon, the cats had a young bird down on his back. Mother rushed over to him, and realized it wasn’t anything she’d ever seen before. They rescued it, handling it with thick gloves because of its talons, and put it in a box in the garage. I believe it’s a falcon, because of the beak, one of those tiny fast ones. They called Game, Fish and Parks, and an officer came out and picked the bird up. He’ll be fed and checked for injury, and then released. I can’t imagine how the fat, lazy barn cats ever got their claws into him in the first place, but he’s not badly hurt.

At that point, I’d told the falcon’s story and believed I was finished with it– though I didn’t even know what kind of bird the cats had caught. I did, however, study the bird closely before it was released, and identified it as a kestrel, a small hawk common on the plains as hunters of mice, grasshoppers, and the like.

But I kept thinking about the story– the cats were following their own habits, doing their feline duty by catching the bird. We interrupted the food chain by rescuing it and turning it over to a government official for release. But the bird, too, has a job — kestrels may occasionally kill cats; certainly their larger cousins the owls do. The thoughts percolated in my mind until I wrote a poem, in partial reaction to heckling by vegetarians who Land Circlebelieve I ought to get rid of cows and raise gardens, an action which would be contrary to the nature of the landscape since it would require plowing up the thin soil, exposing it to erosion. Here’s the poem I wrote from this journal entry:

What the Falcon Said

Flat on his back, feathers bloody,
surrounded by drooling cats,
the young falcon hissed,
clacked his beak, clawed air.
His feathers were bloody;
one cat licked a bleeding ear.
Falcon’s yellow eyes didn’t blink
when I picked him up
like a handful of springs,
like a grenade with the pin pulled.
None of the blood was his.

I put him high in a cedar tree.
He clutched the branch and panted,
glared at me,
then shot straight up like a bullet.
Next day, on my horse, I saw
a redwing blackbird whistling on a post
explode in the middle of a fluid run of song.
The falcon shot away, clutching the corpse.
He screeched once but I heard what he said:

Don’t expect pretty lies from me.
I know my job.
You saved me from the cats
so I could live.
I kill to eat.
So do the cats.

So do you.

© 1991, Linda Hasselstrom, Land Circle, page 192

The metaphors are not country ones, but I tried many others while I remembered and considered the feeling of that small bird in my hand.

That single event also grew into a prose piece:

Falcon Dreaming

The mind heals itself in intricate and surprising ways, and even during such serious work, demonstrates its sense of humor. One winter night I dreamed I was walking up the entrance road after getting the mail, and came upon a pile of clothing. I immediately recognized it as George’s: his worn belt, the big shoes, the circle his Skoal can left in his shirt pocket. Everything he might have worn on a normal work day was there; I unfolded each item and looked at it closely, breathed his clean scent from the wrinkles. Tucked inside, I found a note; George explained that he was really an explorer of our world, sent from an advanced, star-traveling race to see if we were civilized yet. He said he was sorry to go, but he had other planets to visit; this was his third visit, and when he came back, I would be long dead, because his kind lives so much longer than ours.

I woke up smiling, and then laughing. George was always fascinated with space, and would have traded his rifle for a chance to ride a space shuttle. He loved to read science fiction, and speculate on the possibilities of advanced races. Part of my mind was still not willing to believe that he is dead; it was comforting to fantasize that a higher duty took him elsewhere. And I still resented the well-meaning person who had laundered all the dirty clothes we left behind when we went to the hospital; only his oldest work coats and his leather buckskinning clothes still held his scent, and I longed for it enough to put it in my dream.

Another night, later in the winter, I dreamed I was on a pack trip with three other people in terrain that resembled Jackson Hole. We were well-equipped, carrying our gear on pack mules and riding good horses. The day was sunny and cold, but we were comfortable in our wool and leather rendezvous clothing, or perhaps it was really 1840. I felt no fear, only a deep freedom and joy to be riding through such country before the white man’s greed destroyed it. George wasn’t with us, but I felt comfortable with the other riders, though I can’t name them. I sensed that George would meet us somewhere ahead. I felt vibrantly alive.

While we rested high above a broad valley a brilliant turquoise falcon with gold wings alighted on my wrist. The other riders simply nodded as if he was expected, and we rode on. I was following the snow-crusted rump of a buffalo, which didn’t seem incongruous. Glancing up, I noticed that a large eagle was circling above our group, and accepted it as a sign of George’s guidance. I knew the little falcon wouldn’t leave me, and put him on my shoulder.

Suddenly the lead rider galloped over a steep wall into a streambed, and the buffalo followed. I was worried about my horse falling, so I dismounted and ran ahead; I heard the horse thrashing behind me. The falcon lifted a little from my shoulder, balancing himself with spread wings. I fell, rolled over in a flurry of snow, and stood again, brushed myself off and was ready to mount and ride on. I felt no fear, only assurance.

Almost at once I woke, encouraged by the dream. I knew the eagle was symbolic of George’s protection, as the falcon was of my own strength. I’d been doing something I was capable of, with strong friends, in the freedom and magnificence of a mountain wilderness. The white buffalo, sacred to the Lakota, was with us; I had seen him stalk into George’s hospital room, heard the rumble of his hooves, which an airman mistook for a B-1 taking off. George and I had often daydreamed about being able to live the old mountain life full-time, and apparently the dream still lived inside me. I was going to survive George’s death.

A phrase from the Navajo Beauty Way chant is inscribed inside our wedding rings: “In beauty may I walk.” George’s ring rests in a parqueted wood box on the dresser; mine is still on my finger.

-– Land Circle, p. 165-168.

Much later, I learned that the little falcon I saw was a kestrel or a merlin–it’s hard to tell the difference even with a bird book. And now, many years after George’s death, a kestrel flies overhead nearly every time I drive our entrance road.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Kestrel on electric line along ranch lane January 2019

#  #  #

Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains
$14.95 – paper
Nonfiction, with poetry. A diary of a year on a cattle ranch in western South Dakota, documenting the “work, worry and wonder” of this life. (Barn Owl Books, 1987)
Read about WINDBREAK on my website

Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
$16.95 – paper
Essays and poetry on ranching, the environment, isolation, working, rendezvous, travel, teenagers, and the death of a spouse. (Fulcrum Publishing, 1991; new edition 2008)
Read about LAND CIRCLE on my website

8 thoughts on “Build a Book with Journal Entries

  1. I should have added to “Build a Book with Journal Entries” that every one of my 17 books in print has begun, and progressed, in journal entries, though not all of them are in journal form. For the 17th book, Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal, I returned to the form with which my writing begins.

  2. Linda, I was going to point out, but you have beat me to it, that it is not “a” book that can be built this way, but many. I loved this gathering of sightings, and–as always–I appreciate your encouragement for a writing life by increments: not only the small daily attentions, but the willingness to allow the small events to reveal their larger potential.

    1. Thanks Andrea–yes, that was almost a revelation and yet it’s so simple: if you think about WRITING A BOOK, who would ever start? Jerry just built another cutting board out of the scraps of wood he had left over– several hundred– from other things he’s made in his wood shop. The process required days and days of gluing tiny pieces together–but the result is a solid and beautiful piece of craftsmanship that will last for generations.

  3. julieweston

    As always, I love your blog post. The poem and then the essay grew out of rescuing the small hawk from the cat–lovely declensions. I love reading journals such as yours and I have two of yours, including your new prize winning Grasslands. I also write in journal form (in addition to my mysteries), but have had a hard time finding a publisher for my Desert Journal about traveling in the Southwest and September Journal about aging with my mother, an artist, as we spent ten Septembers meeting at an old family cabin in Idaho. Keep journaling, Linda. I do love reading all of your writing.

    1. Julie, I absolutely think that the two journals you mention could find a publisher. Have you tried some of the smaller regional presses? Sometimes it’s tempting to focus on the big publishers, but so often they are publishing the journals of some rock star or Pulitzer prize-winner, whereas a regional publisher would pay attention to your specific abilities and comments, and create a book that is more to your liking. I’ve been extremely happy with the way my most recent two books have been handled by my Wyoming publisher. And as a published writer, I would think you would have an edge. I just read one of your blogs, and discovered our taste in mysteries is identical!!! I must definitely get some of your books. I wish I could point you to a specific publisher — since you are from Seattle, and the desert southwest is such a contrast to your own neighborhood, maybe try publishers in the northwest too — and my apologies if you’ve thought of all this.

      1. julieweston

        Linda, thanks so much for your suggestions. I have tried a number of smaller presses for Desert Journal, but I will keep trying. I hope our paths cross at some point.

  4. Betsy Vinz

    I am a failed journaler. I buy lovely blank books, I write at different times of day, I try recording my thoughts in various ways. But the lovely books stack up–with anywhere from five to fifty pages written on. Most successful effort was a combined journal/scrapbook, which was also fun. Perhaps I should go back to that once we are moved and settled and I have more time to myself. As always, Linda, I thank you!

  5. Linda M. Hasselstrom

    Betsy, I’m not sure I’d consider you a failure. You have a lot of note books that you could keep in various locations, so that you could pick one up and write in it whenever the spirit moved you. Not everyone has to be as organized as I am– dates, times, temperatures even! You may be a journaler who writes sporadically, and that would be fine if it works to make you happy. I would say also try to keep one in your pocket or handy as you move (I didn’t know you were moving– tell me about that?) so you can write down what will no doubt be various thoughts about that process. And yes, I think you should go back to the journal/scrapbook. Again, this is something that has only worked occasionally for me because I’m so– ordinary– hidebound–rule bound– something. But when I have started stuffing extra things into my journals, I’ve been pleased and excited. Even keeping birthday cards in there gives you a different perspective. So don’t count yourself out yet, Betsy. On — and I have several tiny ones– 4 1/2 x 3-1/4 that fit almost every pocket, purse– easy to whip out and write in, and I can rip pages out to put in my other journals. The main thing is to have it with you so you CAN do it if you want to. And the more you write, oddly, the more you want to.

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