by Barbara Abercrombie | Updated September 6, 2018
For my thirteenth birthday my parents gave me a five year pink leatherette diary with a key. I made entries for four years and then gave up. It wasn't a happy experience. The diary had pages divided into five spaces for each year and I always felt frustrated because either there wasn't enough room for what I wanted to write or guilty because I didn't feel like writing that day. When my mother read it behind my back all hell broke loose and I was grounded for weeks. My little brother stole it once and for a price he offered to read pages aloud to my boyfriends. When I read the diary decades later I'd written it like such a teenage ditz that I ended up throwing it out.
In a writing class years later I started keeping a journal, which sounded more serious to me than 'writing in my diary'. I used an ordinary college lined notebook. The great thing about using the lined notebooks is that you can tear a page out if you want to, you can hide it in plain sight, and you can write as much or as little as you wish. Beautiful notebooks filled with serious paper always make me feel like I have to write something beautiful and serious.
Most everyone has heard about the emotional and health benefits you get from keeping a journal; writing about feelings and traumatic events is good for you. But for a person who writes there are two other vital reasons to keep a journal.
First, a journal can get you in the habit of writing regularly, finding a time and a place to write. You're not just jotting things down at random on little pieces of paper (though this can be a good idea too), you have a notebook and you write in it everyday. Five minutes, an hour. It doesn't matter. You're starting a habit. And while you may think you need great rushes of adrenaline and creative highs in order to write, the fact is very little gets written unless writing becomes a habit.
The other reason to keep a journal is to have a place to record the details of your life both your inner life and also the surface details. Details that can turn to gold when you're writing stories about your life, including the long boring days when nothing seems to happen. It's all material, no matter what does or doesn't happen.
Buy a notebook or open a new Word file on your computer. If you're stuck and don't know what to write, try writing a list of things that you now see, smell, and hear. No need to be literary or clever about this. Just be specific. A sheet of lined white paper with a note to call Bonnie and a yellow post-it stuck to the paper that says: Mexico Reservations. A container of kitty grass on the floor, sunlight on computer keyboard, cat hairs floating, sound of a helicopter overhead, traffic, nasal voice on radio, smell of spray cleaner That's what I see, hear and smell as I write this. I had to fight against the urge to make it more interesting, more 'written'. And to do that I had to stay in my own senses and pay attention. And that's what we all need to do when we write about our own lives pay attention. And not get fancy.
© 2006 By Barbara Abercrombie. All rights reserved.
Barbara Abercrombie teaches in the writing program at UCLA Extension. The author of novels, children's books, and many essays and articles in national publications, she also wrote A Year of Writing Dangerously. ...