Recently, at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, when the facilitator of a panel I was sitting on, my friend Nancy Lord, introduced me to the audience, she added (only half joking), “Rich is a bit of a contrarian.”
Of course, I responded, “Am not!”
OK, it’s a lame joke, but I cannot refuse a straight line like that. And I don’t mind bearing that label. I think it’s okay for artists to air contradictory ideas in public. That’s how we grow; it’s called the dialectic. What would be the point of bringing together 150 writers if they all told each other what they already believed for three days and nights?
Last year, in the first ten minutes of the conference, I unintentionally offended some people in the room with my clumsy assertion that nature writing, like many other genres, could use a makeover. This year the conference offered a workshop and discussion by Nancy titled “Sick of Nature: Make it New.” The session’s description in the program included this: suggestions for avoiding earnestness and tendentiousness that can turn readers away from “nature writing.” I’m not taking credit for that; far smarter people than I have noticed that almost nobody wants to be called a nature writer these days. In fact, the decision to put “nature writing” inside those quote marks in the program notes hints at a desire to be distanced from the dreaded moniker, even while attempting to refurbish it. This is exactly the kind of serious matter the conference gives writers the opportunity to discuss.
Although I swore I would behave and keep my irritating opinions to myself, this year, once more, in the first minutes of the first day, when someone suggested that new writers keep a daily journal, I hinted that I didn’t think that was a good idea. Actually what I said was, “Journal writing is the work of Satan.”
Maybe that should be explained.
First of all let’s define the terms. When I pointed that the dictionary describes a journal as “a daily record of news and events of a personal nature; a diary,” someone changed the term to “notebook.” Well, that’s different. A writer’s notebook is anything he jots snippets of dialog, ideas, images and so forth into at every chance. I’d say something of the sort is an absolute necessity for writers of all levels. But it is categorically different than a vessel you ritualistically fill with a chronicle of each day –instead of, say, actually working on your writing.
And so here is my first misgiving about daily journal writing (I refuse to use the awful gerund “journaling,” perhaps the most egregious bastardization of a noun into a verb and back again since the hideous word “workshopping” was coined –not coincidentally, also by we teachers of creative writing). It is a waste of precious time. Most new writers I’ve met are working, teaching, raising families; they are basically swamped with the responsibilities of daily life. Who has time to take twenty minutes each day to document it? According to my unscientific, anecdotal and completely biased research, virtually all the professional writers I’ve met say they do not keep a daily journal; all of them do keep notebooks they scribble in whenever they can. Conversely, an awful lot of the people in writing classes and at conferences say they want to be writers, but do little else but write in their journals. The problem is, it feels like real writing, and you can easily fool yourself into thinking you’ve done your writing work for the day, the month, the years that go by as your journals pile up and that novel you want to write never gets started.
Secondly, journal writing promotes solipsism. Art transcends the personal and reaches for the universal. We write for readers. The notion of writing for oneself is a frigid, withholding and basically frightened stance: nothing ventured, nothing criticized. Nobody is going to judge or critique that secret journal. Frankly it seems like an excuse to avoid commitment to the craft.
And that brings me to my final complaint.
Writing in the vacuum of one’s journal encourages sloppiness and bad writing of every kind, because there is no concern for a reader’s basic needs: coherence, continuity and clarity. If no one is ever going to see what goes on the page, there is no need for the most important of step in the writing process: revision.
All that said, I do think there are people for whom journal writing is a wonderful idea: children, for example. Friends who teach high school English classes say it is the only way they can get students to use the written language –aside from texting. My wife, a high school counselor, says that may be because teenagers are doing the monumentally hard work of figuring out who they are and have little time to consider the needs of life forms outside themselves. In any case, adolescents possess the intense self-absorption that journal writing rewards. It’s a luxury grownups cannot afford, and a disastrous stance for writers of any age to take.
Not everyone will agree. Someone will come forward and point out that she has written six best-selling books, works in a coal mine all day, and has fourteen children she’s raising on her own —and still writes in her journal each and every evening, religiously. That person probably also balances her checkbook to the penny and keeps track of her gas mileage with every single fill-up too. If that sounds like you, by all means, ignore my suggestion to spend more time on writing something that someone else might want to read, and less time talking to yourself in your journal. If, on the other hand, you can’t seem to find time to write that memoir you’ve been thinking about. Well…..
* * *
Like my contrarian joke, my low opinion of “journaling” as a means toward better writing is only half serious. It’s none of my business. But it is fun to poke a sacred writing workshop cow like that one, I’ll admit.
At another panel discussion in Homer last month, I dumped out an overstuffed manila envelope containing notes and story ideas and images that I had jotted down on everything from the backs of envelopes to Costco receipts and bits of wallpaper. Some scraps had just a single word or two on them. The handwriting was mostly unintelligible, possibly scribbled in the middle of the night upon being wakened by a dream, or scratched on a Spenard Builders’ Supply Invoice on the seat of my truck while driving between Homer and Anchorage. Each cryptic message to myself was intended to trigger whatever I had been thinking about when I wrote it.
Out of the pile, I picked a blue sticky note with uncommonly legible words on it. I read the three things listed in a row–in my wife’s handwriting.
Someone in the conference audience asked what they meant.
Last April as yet another snowstorm buried the remnants of any hope for winter’s quick demise, I hung my head and whimpered something about three things I’m sure to find in hell one day. My wife, unfazed by my mood swings after thirty years together, said, “You need to use that.” She wrote down the three things I said the devil had in store for me.
When I stumbled onto them again there in front of an audience at the table at the conference, the June sun was smiling through the windows of the big meeting room. I knew my wife was right. Later that same day, this poem came out of that scrap.
All The Things We Hate The Most
Somehow I doubt that Dante’s sinner-crammed circles
are the true blueprint for hell.
My guess is that Satan, the apparent creator
of Amazon’s “recommendation” software,
will use it to customize an individual ring of anguish
for each and every unlucky one of us.
I see myself checking in at the Hotel Nether World,
flameproof jammies in my suitcase, my toothbrush eternal.
The horned bellhop will escort me to my room,
where it will snow, of course, every depressing afternoon.
There will be banjo music in an endless loop, all quaint and farmy.
And as I settle into my finely personalized agony
I will find that the only available reading material
— forever — will be the journals of teenage girls.
Richard Chiappone, a recipient of the Robert Traver Award, is the author of the story collection Water of an Undetermined Depth. His writing has appeared in anthologies and national publications including Playboy, the Sun, and Gray’s Sporting Journal. His story, Raccoon, was made into an award winning short film, and his work has been featured on BBC Radio. A thirty-year Alaskan, Chiappone lives with his wife, Lin, and several Siamese cats on a steelhead river near Anchor Point, the westernmost point on the contiguous highway system of North America. He teaches writing for the University of Alaska and serves on the faculty of the annual Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in the town of Homer.