Two reasons to keep a poetry or writing journal
Shortly after Joan Larkin published her latest book of poetry, My Body: New and Selected Poems, I took an afternoon writing class from her. I’d been writing poetry off and on for twenty years and had developed my own style for writing and saving my work. It looked something like this:
- I go for a walk, or do the dishes, or some other activity that requires little thinking. As I walk or scrub, I let my mind and eyes wander. Let them flit over ideas and objects until something seizes my imagination. I ask questions: What does this mean? What could this mean? What if?
- At some point, the words start coming. If I’m still walking, I speak into my iRecorder but eventually, I sit down and write out my first draft by hand—usually on a piece of lined notebook paper, but not in any particular journal or notebook.
- Once the first draft is down, I type the poem into a word document and start fiddling and editing. I might save one version of the poem called “draft” and one called “final.” But I don’t save any of the in-between stuff. Once I get the poem on the computer, I throw out the paper with my hand-written draft for two reasons: a) I don’t like clutter and b) I don’t like to see a visual reminder that I have the world’s worst handwriting.
In class, Joan suggested we try an experiment: keep a journal or notebook specifically for our poetry and record each version of each poem in that one journal. The idea being that we can see our evolution as a poet over time. To me it sounded like a lot of extra work. But then Joan showed us some of her journals and I was intrigued. Was it the pretty paper she used? Or the fact that her handwriting was so neat and flowery? I decided to try it for myself and see if there was anything to it. Maybe something would rub off.
What I found was pretty amazing—keeping a poetry journal and then looking it over later not only allowed me to see how much better I’d gotten over time, but showed me my process as a poet. Besides my sloppy handwriting, (which didn’t get any better, by the way) I have a plethora of scratch outs, rewrites, arrows, circles, etc. My pages often look like how my brain works—a complete mess! Yet, somehow, out of this mess grow ideas, images, and words.
I still type up my draft in Word but before I make major changes or additions to the poem, I write them in my poetry journal first. I realized that for me, there’s something about writing by hand that sparks more creativity than if I type straight onto the computer. At least for poetry.
When I write prose, I tend to type it directly into Word—but if I get stuck or need to really dig into something, I revert back to writing by hand. Maybe my brain needs more time to think and ponder, maybe I need those visual clues—those arrows and circles—to help my mind make the needed connections.
Do you keep a poetry journal or any kind of writing journal? If so, what have you learned from it? Please share your experiences!