Sunday, June 25, 2006

Harpy Shampoo I

This is the first in a series where I plan to discuss a variety of writing practices and exercises designed to foil writer’s block and even tame those harpies of perfectionism which I wrote about in my essay, Washing Those Harpies Right Out of My Hair, first posted at Write Stuff and then at Joystory last April. I’ve been working on versions of this follow-up ever since. In fact, when I first set out to write the original essay, it was with the intent to share some of the exercises that I’ve found helpful over the years. But my ‘intro’ got away from me, becoming so long that I had to break off with an implied promise of presenting those exercises in a future post.

Well, a similar thing has been happening as I worked on the follow-up. It kept getting unwieldy long. And also, I was having trouble tracking down the sources, in which I first encountered a version of an exercise that I may or may not have altered in some way, so that I could give appropriate credit.
So I have decided to do a series, taking one or two exercises at a time--depending on how involved they are to explain and how much I wish to share about my personal experiences with them.This time, I am going to discuss journaling and I suspect I have plenty to say about it so it will stand alone. Nor is there any need to credit sources as it is one of the most commonly recommended exercises for writers. A writer’s journal is typically more than a simple daily journal for recording a day’s events. It can be that as well but it shouldn’t stop with that for, at the very least, a writer’s daily events would include anything they were reading, thinking about or doing that was related in any way to writing that day. It is also a safe place in which a writer can practice the techniques and skills needed for the more formal writing tasks.

By safe I mean two things.

First that it should be private so that you are not subject to the fears of exposure or judgment or criticism from a potenial audience--even if only imagined--nor are you tempted to put up a social mask or self-censure as you write. To guard this privacy you should keep your journal away from prying eyes whether you are writing in it or not. You also need to reassure that timid aspect of yourself that you are committed to protecting the privacy of this forum.

This will pay off in many ways. You will take risks you might not have when anticipating an audience and thus you will be more creative as creativity is inherently risky. You will be more honest with yourself which often leads to insights that will add depth and integrity to both your life and your writing.

Of course I am not saying never to share with anyone something that you wrote in your journal. I am saying that once that impulse or desire to share has occurred than the portion you are willing to share has become something more than a journaling exercise and that is the whole point of it. But to protect the safety zone you need to copy those paragraphs into a separate document--whether paper or pixels--whereupon it becomes the rough draft of something else which can be shared at your discretion.

The second purpose of the safety zone is to give you a place to pour words out without worrying about form or format. Although safety from a sense of observation is essential for me too, it is this waiving of the need for perfection in grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice etcetera that has had the most impact on my productivity in the ten years since I committed to daily journaling. My daily word count went from the hundreds into the thousands. Consistently.

Whether only ten percent or even only one percent of these words became eligible for copying into other forums for projects intended for an audience is not the issue for even if none of it ever had it would not have been in vain. For it is the act of writing that primes the pump. The more you write--the more you will write. The more respect you give your ideas by honoring them with space and time--the more willing they are to reveal themselves to you. The more you practice observation of events, people, environment, feelings, etcetera with the intent of rendering it into words, the more you will observe and the easier it will get to find the right words.

When I committed to daily journaling in the summer of 1996, I had only three rules: Never miss a day. Never share--even in my imagination. Never edit either thought or keystroke. These rules were few and simple but they were based on intimate knowledge of myself and designed to give me a harpy-free zone. For what are my harpies after all if not internalized rules and social expectations gone amok?

(Harpy Shampoo I was my guest post at Write Stuff on Friday. The link in the title of this post will take you there.)

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