"Imagination is more important than knowledge." One wouldn't think such a phrase would come out of a scientist's mouth, but those are words spoken by the theorist Albert Einstein when asked which was more important in his life, his imagination or his knowledge. His words surprised the interviewer.
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For imagination is the stuff of artists and writers, not the stuff of science. Or is it? It is our imagination that defines us, moves us, and motivates us; we imagine a world better than the place in which we live, and we use that vision to guide us into something better. Yet imaginations and visions are fleeting, and once lost, that moment is never recaptured. Sometimes, entire thoughts are erased, wiped clean from the mind much as a dream upon awakening.
As writers, we depend on our imaginations to fuel our work. Whether one is a novelist, or poet, or essayist, every piece written begins in the mind, in our imagination. Never at rest, we always think; we always plan; we always improve. How can we capture these random visions before they are lost? How can we record them to later improve upon them?
The answer is simple, and this is, perhaps, the writer's greatest tool: the private journal.
"What is written is not forgotten: What is written is not erased." A Yoruba proverb.
Journals are a far cry from the diaries kept in our youth, although the premise is the same—to record our thoughts, feelings, and impressions. It's not a professional work; even among professionals, the writing found in the journal is often amateur, plagued with bad grammar and misspellings. At its barest bones, it is a record of one's personal activities, a daily "went there and did that." However, a journal is not only a collection of one’s experiences in the past and present. As it evolves, it records reflections and emotions and charts one’s progress over time. And as the journalist matures, often it becomes not only a reflection of one's life, but a guidepost to one's future.
Journaling can be therapeutic and cathartic in nature. You can learn from past mistakes, recognize your behavior patterns and how you deal with things better. However for a writer, there are many reasons to keep a journal. It's a good routine to practice writing regularly. It keeps you practicing your skill or trade. It may inspire you. A sentence or passage in your journal could become a springboard for a story or article. It's a great way to develop ideas that float in your mind. By organizing your thoughts on paper, you practice your writer's voice, develop your style, and increase your ability to express yourself through words. Write down things you dream about doing. You may jot down spontaneous concepts that come into your mind or perhaps something more intellectual or thought out.
You may record meaningful experiences or aha moments that are significant to you. For me, I write down positive experiences and remarks on my writing from other people which I can reflect on when I receive those dreaded rejection letters from editors. Writing in a journal is like writing to yourself, which aids you to understand yourself better, meditate on things and widen your perspective. It allows you to pull things out of your subconscious or repressed experiences. By remembering how you felt at various times, you can relive experiences through a writer's lens. Events in your life are great sources for creative non-fiction. You can develop insights into your own character and those close to you.
Some people want to write, but can't find the time to do it, thus procrastination results in dissatisfaction. When is the best time to write? Every night before turning in, I sit on my bed with pen in hand and write any interesting observations I've had that day. You may want to choose a certain time of day, morning or night, to sit down and write down your thoughts for that day in your journal. On the other hand, anytime you feel the urge, is the right time to get it down on paper. You might keep your journal by your bedside to record dreams upon awakening or thoughts you get at night. Carry your journal when you are out at a coffee shop, bus stop or anywhere you go. Make it easily accessible for times when you need it. Photographers carry cameras; writers carry journals.
My personal journal is not one entity – it is several. Each serves its purpose, and each works to compliment my work as a writer.
The Pocket Notebook: Early in college, as students we were encouraged to keep a small, wire bound pad in our front pockets, and in this, we were asked to record our daily assignments. It was a running tally of work needing to be done in each class, and as the tasks were completed, we crossed them out and moved on to the next one.
I'm 42 years old, and my college days are far behind me. I still keep this spiral-bound pad close, tucked away in an otherwise empty pocket. Around my neck, tucked under my shirt, is a single pen on a thin string; and when the random moment strikes that I have an idea, quickly it goes down in this small pad of paper. It's good practice to always be ready to record images, ideas and words.
Ideas are fleeting creatures, and inspiration is ethereal; they come at will, unbidden, and escape as quickly as they flash into our brains. For twenty years, that pad and pen have been with me (I buy new ones almost weekly), and I can say that with them, I have never lost a thought. It is an important part of my journal.
The Notebook: Or, perhaps I should call this the "Journal Proper." Filled with lined 8 x 10-1/2 inch paper, this is where I write on a regular, daily basis. I write about the places I went, the work I did, the people I met, and the conversations I had. Sometimes my entries go on for pages, while others are no more than a few lines. After twenty years of journaling, some of the oldest entries from my youth are the most useful ones in my writing.
Of course, preference in notebook size is as varied as writers themselves. Any size notebook will do, lined or unlined, coiled or bound. There are those who journal with a favorite pencil or pen, for writing with just any instrument just won't do. You may include drawings, doodles, and cartoons as part of your daily entries. When recording one's observations, there are no rules; there is only freedom to write whatever comes to mind.
The Computer Journal: With the age of computers and the BlackBerry, the old-fashioned handwritten journal may seem like something of the past. It's a matter of preference for some. It may be easier to whip out a portable notebook rather than a laptop or computer when outside your home. But in this day and age, choose the recording tool or tools that works best for you.
Exercises: The library or local bookstore may have books on journaling available that have exercises or ways to improve your writing. Here are a few ideas you might like to try:
Write a mission statement outlining your short and long-term goal or goals for your writing. If you like, make the decision to make writing a priority. Do you need to schedule time to work on your writing? Do you wish to take a class to teach you how to write better? Or are online writers' workshops something you'd like to consider?
After you've kept your journal for a while, it's time to step it up a little. By now, you have a good habit of writing daily. Use words to brainstorm, create mind maps, or write fragments of conversations or phrases. The purpose is to generate ideas. Brainstorming is when you take a topic and discuss or write down any related ideas that come to mind. People in the advertising industry do it as well as writers for television serials. It's a good tool to have. Mind maps are bubble diagrams that start with a root word and each added word relates to a word in your diagram. Mind maps can look like chains of words, all linked together.
Automatic writing is based on writing continuously for a period of time, using words drawn from the subconscious. Some call it stream of consciousness writing. Relax and let the words flow. It doesn't have to be logical or in complete sentences. This is a good exercise in juxtaposing unrelated words in original combinations.
Use a prompt like "it was a dark and stormy night" as a hook. Write a poem or prose piece from the prompt. Another prompt might be "once upon a time" indicating a fairytale. Or you can use a theme, word or phrase to conjure ideas for writing. Describe a significant event in your life. Delve into the recesses of your mind and visual the experience. What was the setting? Who was there? What were you thinking or sensing?
Relating to the previous exercise, write about a particular situation with the emphasis on your emotional response. Talk about fear, anger, sadness or disappointment that you felt in a conflict and build tension to a climax as in a story format. Use the dictionary to draw ideas from the words as you flip through it. Write down new words from the dictionary and their meanings to increase your vocabulary.
After watching a movie or show, write your impressions of what you saw. Did it move you? Did it show you something from a new perspective? Was it funny or entertaining?
Read the newspaper and practice writing an opinion piece. Writing an editorial piece practices your flexibility as a writer. It includes evaluation, intellect and stating your viewpoint with confidence. After reading a novel, reflect and write about it. Did you connect with the characters? Was the plot satisfying? Did you like the ending?
Write a letter to yourself. Be kind and honest. Have a check-in with how you are feeling. Create positive self-talk. As an alternative write a letter to someone but don't give it to the person. If I am unsettled, worried, or antagonized, writing out how I feel can expel anger or defensive attitudes.
Write your own proverbs. They can be simple or just for fun.
In conclusion, good writing habits start with writing regularly and being conscious of people and places around you in your everyday life. Like musicians who practice an instrument, writers must exercise and improve their ability to write. The more you write, and mature as a writer and a person, the more intricate and complex your ideas and opinions may become. This complexity will enrich your writing. Subtlety can be as striking and meaningful as direct or pointed wording. The craft of writing can be learned. I encourage you to practice journaling as a powerful and useful writer's tool but also as part of your lifelong learning.