Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Over break, Daily Themes students were to keep a journal, then select five entries to turn in for discussion. Journal week is one of my favorites in the course because it's such a free-for-all. I don't care how formless the writing is, how notational, how slice-of-life: the more slice-of-life the better! The point of the journal, the task of the journal, is to "be yourself" in prose. Those who can do that, who can register an actual dialogue with themselves, get the point. It's not composition, it's not creative writing, it's not argument. It's life in words. It's thought in action.

That's not to say that students can't compose entries about specific events or pursue an argument. The point is that the journal is whatever you make it be. But the entries I like best are the ones that give me the sense of being in someone's head while whatever is going on is going on. Or just after. It's that immediacy that makes it interesting. If I write an entry on Monday, I have no real idea of what will happen between then and Friday. On Friday I know that, but I don't know what the weekend will bring. The incremental nature of our lives in time is on display in a very vulnerable way.

Looking back at journals I kept when I was the age of my students, what I like best is when I comment on something that's happening right then, that day. I never took the time to describe people because it seemed somehow arrogant at the time, to give a description of someone I saw regularly made it seem like I was in command of some higher perspective, or maybe that I was making a real person "a character." Which wasn't the point at all. Eventually that changed when I began to be interested in writing fiction. But initially, writing a journal had nothing to do with "material." It was simply about what went on. About responding in writing to whatever the feeling of the day was. And keeping it brief. Beginning the year I turned twenty, I kept it up daily for about two years, then intermittent for another ten or so.

Of course there's a tension about students turning in journal entries for someone to read. I don't know what I would do about that if I were them. The journal is a private monologue. I often tell students that anyone reading mine would think I was a very negative person because the journal is a great place to gripe in ways that you would be ashamed to do in front of even your best, most sympathetic friends. And horny, because the other private thing is how aware one is of sexual provocation. Something one has to downplay in daily dealings, particularly if one is in a committed relationship. So the student entries I identify with most have some negativity and some horniness because those things go with the territory. It's like looking at the letters of famous writers: what are the two topics that dominate? Health and wealth. Every writer talks about health issues and about not having enough money. In journals it's more about getting even and getting laid.

Then there's blogs. Some bloggers treat them like journals, public journals. But that's a contradiction in terms. The journal can never be public, the blog (unless it's blocked to every reader) can never be private. A journal can be published at some point, of course, but it wasn't written to be published. A blog is sorta published as soon as it goes online. But blogging, for me, does fill up some of the void that keeping a journal used to do. So maybe that's why I began it as more of a daily record, only to find, as with the journal, that mostly my thoughts aren't on what is happening day to day.

That's ok, though. I still think developing a relation to oneself in writing is supremely important.

Like many writers, I often find starting the working day a discouraging prospect, one I spend much energy avoiding. Four years ago I was reminded of an injunction Stendahl gave himself early in life: Vingt lignes par jour, génie ou pas (Twenty lines a day, genius or not). Stendahl was thinking about getting a book done. I deliberately mistook his words as a method for overcoming the anxiety of the blank page. Even for a dubious, wary writer, twenty lines seemed a reassuringly obtainable objective, especially if they had no connection with a "serious" project like a novel or an essay.
--Harry Matthews, "Preface," 20 Lines a Day

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