NOTES ON KEEPING A JOURNAL AND CREATIVE WRITING
Every day we change. We are a day older. We experience events that affect our thinking, that make us different people from who we were yesterday. It may be difficult to notice or realize how we have changed in the past days, weeks, months or even years, until we think about it. We are too close, too familiar, too comfortable with ourselves to pay attention to these changes.
The fact remains — we are changing every day, for good or ill, whether we recognize it or not. The question is, how much power do we have to effect positive changes in our lives? Are we going to be sealed, empty bottles that float aimlessly out to sea, to be carried at the whim of wind, waves and tides, or are we going to be swimmers who see an island on the horizon, and set out with strong strokes, with a clear direction and goal that we can accomplish?
Think about how you have changed. Picture in your mind your first day at school, six years old. How did you look? How big were you? Were you big for your age, taller and stronger than your fellow first graders? Or were you small, skinny, picked on, bullied, pushed around? Did you have confidence in yourself, or were you frightened and insecure? Were you smart, and caught on quickly what the teacher presented? Or did you have trouble understanding the lessons? Did you get along with the other students? Were you popular and well-liked? Did you have a best friend? Or not? Just the act of reading these questions is likely to trigger memories and images you may not have thought about for years.
Fast forward a dozen years, to the age of eighteen. Picture that six year old you as if someone had taken a series of stop-action photos of you facing the camera as you grew to seven years old, eight, nine, ten, to your teen years, and your full-grown, adult self. Watch your growth, development and changes in your physical self as though you were watching a movie, from child to adult, and it is easier to understand, to visualize the process.
It is not so easy to visualize the changes to your inner self, over a period of time, but the inner changes, your knowledge, education, beliefs, fears, hopes and dreams, are inevitably developing in no less severe degree than your outer self. In some instances, the inner changes are even greater than the outer ones.
Are you the same person you were twenty years ago ? Of course not. What about a year ago, a month, a week, a day? Each of us is in a state of perpetual change, from our births to our deaths. Most people aren’t aware of this process until they look at an old photo of themselves, and then in the mirror and ask, “Is that me?”
This brings me to getting into the habit of keeping a journal, writing down one’s thoughts every day, or at least frequently, the process of documenting the changes in ourselves over a period of time.
In our prison creative writing class we began slowly, with simple instructions to observe our surroundings, the events of our days, and write, “DAY ONE, DAY TWO, DAY THREE,” through “DAY SEVEN,” with at least a paragraph, up to a page, recording what we saw, what we heard, and what we thought about the daily experiences.
So you want to be a writer? Writers write. Your journal is not a diary, but it could be. It is not a listing of your meals — “I had pancakes and oatmeal for breakfast” — a dry recording of your day, but that could be a part of it. You are the camera, but in your journal you keep track of more than dry facts. You record your feelings, how the events and your observations affected you, what memories were triggered.
Did you remember something that happened to you as a child, an irrational fear that affected your life, that you haven’t thought about for years? Write it in your journal. The very process of writing about the memory may trigger more memories, even an epiphany that you want to preserve before you forget them. One memory could inspire a line that begins a poem or a memoir, or even an idea for a short story or a novel.
Did you have a strange dream? Write about it in your journal before it evaporates. Robert Louis Stevenson awoke from a dream, began furiously writing, and when he stopped he had completed, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
You never know where the process of writing will take you, but be assured that it will take you somewhere. Over time, as you keep your journal, filling it with thoughts, memories, ideas, first drafts and meaningless scribbles, as you go back over what you wrote weeks, months, even years ago, you will discover that you are keeping in touch with your former self, the person you used to be. It is an interesting proposition, one filled with sometimes surprising insights.
In the 1980’s as part of a time management course I took, I began keeping track of my daily hours and activities on, at first, sheets of paper, then with a “Pocket Pal,” or small daily calendar/memo pad that I carried in my shirt pocket, where I would take it out at any time and write brief entries.
1985 was a tough year for me. I was serving the seventh year of a life prison sentence. My father was dying, and I was experiencing a number of personal trials. Making daily entries in that mini-journal gave my life focus and structure, and helped me make sense of what was happening in my life.
Over twenty years later, in the midst of another transfer from one repressive prison to another, going through personal papers I’d been toting from place to place forever, it seemed, I discovered that little pocket journal. I began reading the entries I’d made so long before, and I was immediately transported back to that painful time. I felt those same emotions as I relived those events. I had even made entries of our Jaycees greeting card project sales figures, and I smiled at the recollections of how long-forgotten prisoners carped and schemed, of the things that had been happening outside my inner turmoil that no one knew about as they went about daily prison life.
I was no longer the same person I had been over twenty years before, reading those words. I realized that my old self was sending messages to my present self, messages that said, “I didn’t understand what all this meant while it was happening. You’ve had a couple decades to think about it and make sense of it, so do that.”
And I did. Using those notes, I wrote a memoir, I Wore Chains To My Father’s Funeral, which won a literary award and was widely published, then I wrote a second memoir taking place directly before the time period of the first one, As My Father Lay Dying, then a third, In The Shadow of the Valley — A Christian’s Journey Through Life In Prison.
Perhaps I could have written those memoirs without the journal entries from 1985, but they wouldn’t have had the emotional connections or included the details and context that brought that brief period alive in my mind. It became a major revelation, the importance of recording my thoughts, feelings, and events of my life. I had been doing it for years, writing in journals, without realizing its future significance.
In 2008, a literary mentor, Professor William “Chip” Brantley, in Massachusetts (now at the University of Alabama), encouraged me to expand my writing’s audience. He set up an Internet blog for that purpose, http://charlienorman.blogspot.com/. Almost six years, close to two hundred essays, poems, and journal entries later, several thousand people in seventy five countries have read my blog posts. Receiving messages, comments and feedback from readers all over the world encourages me to keep writing, to continue documenting my life, expressing my thoughts and feelings, and to keep in touch with my former self.
When a twenty five year old single mother in South Africa tells me she’s been reading my essays for several years, that they have been a source of comfort for her, increasing her faith, when people in London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Moscow, New Dehli and dozens of other places log on to the blog, that tells me that what I am doing is worthwhile, and has a greater value.
The old expression, “If I had known then what I know now…” — have you ever conjectured how you would have acted or lived your life if you had the benefit of hindsight, if you’d known how things would turn out?
The “Terminator” movies and the TV show, “The Sara Connor Chronicles,” addressed this issue in a science fiction format. John Connor’s father was transported from the future to the present time, which was his past. He knew what would happen, the destruction of the world by intelligent machines. He had been sent back into the past to warn and attempt to change the future to save humanity.
Writing in your daily journal will not likely save humanity, but it could ultimately hold answers to questions that have burdened you, and provide you with an opportunity to re-evaluate the events of your life from a fresh perspective, in the light of heightened maturity gained through experience. A mental image from childhood that has affected you for years, once it has been re-examined rationally in the present day, may not seem so painful or fear-inducing as it did when you were six.
No one can stop the process of change in their evolving lives. But when we are aware of the process, how we are affected by it, we can actively influence the changes in a positive, not negative manner. Keeping a daily journal can not only make you a better writer, but also a better, more self-aware person, better equipped to deal with life’s challenges.
Can you send a message to your future self, tell him, “Pay attention! This is important to me. Try to figure it out, make sense of it.”
Who knows? Perhaps your future self will answer you back.e had been sent t
January 4, 2014
January 4, 2014
CHANGE IN PHOTOS
BELOW: Scene from prison 2014