You’re rushing about preparing for Christmas, aren’t you? No time to sit about writing. Perhaps you’ve earmarked Boxing Day for settling into some serious writing time, or the day after.
That’s what I did last year, and the previous one too. In fact, I’ve probably done it through all my writing years. Once the rush is over, I tell myself, I’ll have time to myself. You’ve already guessed that things never work out that way, haven’t you?
So this year I’m going to be less ambitious. I’m going to treat myself to the truth. I don’t want to miss out on Christmas. The festivities are fun. They’re a time to unwind and meet up with the friends and family I don’t make enough effort to see through the rest of the year. I don’t want to have an ember of guilt burning a hole into my enjoyment if an unexpected invitation happens.
That’s why I’m not earmarking specific days or times to spend at my desk that week. I might not visit my work area at all. Because lately it’s occurred to me that I’ve got slack with one of the basics of a writing habit, The Writer’s Diary.
For the uninitiated I’m not thinking of a desk, pocket or other personal diary that we attempt to fill in according to the time spaces arbitrarily assigned by the printer. I don’t know about you, but I’ve a long and disastrous history with that kind of diary keeping. I’ve always begun well, buoyed up no doubt by some new-year resolution, but by the middle of January my entries were usually lagging, tagged with the confession that I was filling in details from memory three days later than the page claimed. After that entries were sporadic, marked by long gaps and filled with mundane details.
The writer’s diary is different. For a start, it doesn’t have a specific form. It can be any collection of blank pages that suit you. My writers diaries have been made from beautiful notebooks, school exercise books, stapled scrap paper, reporters notebooks, and even, to completely mess up my original statement, ancient unused desk diaries. The only rule is, there’s no right or wrong way to fill it in.
After a gap of a few days, or several months, you just carry on to the next empty line. There are no reproachfully blank pages of weeks and months to give away how lax you’ve been. In my case, no dates are given to indicate the distance crossed between entries. I’m no longer forced to fill in spaces with descriptions of what I ate for breakfast, lunch or tea, unless I want to. Instead I scribble down notes, ideas, thoughts, observations, quotes, plans and any moments of inspiration. Or in other words, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, as Yul Brynner’s King of Siam liked to say.
Although these are usually private spaces where we can experiment with our writing, on the Imaginative Writing BA our writer’s diaries were part of our course-work in the first year. I’ve thought a lot about how important that was to me. For a few months I kept it because it was required. I remember that at first it seemed like hard work. I was finding my way with so much at that time, and there was no blueprint to show us how A Writer’s Diary should be done. I know now that there could not be, that each has to be collated according to the individual.
All we had was Edmund’s advice to, ‘write something in it everyday’.
When we asked, ‘Write what?’ he said, ‘anything,’ and rattled through a similar list to the one I’ve given. ‘Not finished pieces,’ he said. ‘The workings-out, the notes, the wrong turns and right ones. Write anything.’
It was a valuable trick, a lesson we should all try to learn. I’ve since found a quote that puts it beautifully,
The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you did not write.
Keeping that Writer’s Diary was good training on so many levels, but the fundamental one was the way it helped me to establish a regular writing habit. It may have started as a chore, but once I’d gone through the first term and found that what had seemed a scrappy effort was indeed correct, I grew braver.
I learned to always have a notebook and pen to hand. After all, like Cecily Cardew (The Importance of Being Earnest) you ‘ should always have something sensational to read on the train,’ and her diary seems to have been organised as a kind of Writer’s Diary.
Looking back through some of my old diaries, (yes I have kept them, and a tatty well-thumbed bunch they are too) is a form of time travel that is just as vivid as my conventional diary fragments. Here are moments captured as they happened, not filtered at the end of a day, or week. There are snippets of conversation overheard on a bus; fragments of encounters, real and imagined; the view across the Mersey from the top floor of the Dean Walters Building; the movement of the ferry crossing the Irish sea and a sketch of a story. I’ve captured a kaleidoscope of sights, smells, sounds, tastes, textures, mood and emotions that sometimes launch off into fantasy. It’s rough stuff. But I’m glad I have it to skim through.
So, why call it a diary, rather than a notebook? Because the aim is to put in something every day. The dictionary definition of a diary, is ‘a book in which one keeps a daily record of events and experiences’. Which sums it up nicely. I do aim to record daily from this point on. When I call my pages a notebook, they becomes less demanding. I’ve a fraction less incentive to be rigorous, and these days I can’t afford that, can you?