A Writer’s Book of Days

Hi Chip,

I’m a high school student in Pueblo, Colo. After reading Don Murray’s book, “Writing to Deadline,” and
several of your columns, I have a couple of questions about daybooks and their use.

What is a daybook?
How does one use it?
What type of notebook/planner do you use?

Nicholas S. Garcia

Dear Nicholas,

Happy New Year. Asking about daybooks strikes me as particularly timely at this time of fresh starts. Looking back over the shelf-full of blank notebooks I’ve been scribbling in for more than 40 years, it’s no coincidence that many of the first entries are dated, “January 1.”

I’m sure I’m not the only writer who began 2004 with a resolution to write more regularly, to buckle down and make the dreams in my head a reality on the page.

The daybook, a.k.a. journal, diary, daily log, is a useful repository for such resolutions, among many other things. Don’t confuse it with the media jargon for a daily schedule of upcoming news events, distributed by wire services and other information outlets.

A daybook can be a seedbed where you plant an idea for a story, a poem, and over time watch it grow.

“Once you have learned to recognize the seeds, you’ll probably have more than you can use,” says Stephen Koch in “The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop.” “With a little tending — sketching, adding, changing, seeing what moves you — some will sprout. Some will grow. Some will even make it to the harvest.”

The oldest daybook I have dates back to 1963 when I used it to keep track of the money I made caddying at a local golf club. Thirty-four years after I made this crabbed notation — “Mr. Chapman and guest. Member-guest tournament. Tipped cart over on 10th. $20,” the Mississippi Review Web Edition published “Mad Looper,” a short story inspired by that childhood experience.

A daybook can serve as a confessional, a therapist’s couch, a safe place to share secrets without fear of disclosure or ridicule.

A daybook can serve as a confessional, a therapist’s couch, a safe place to share secrets without fear of disclosure or ridicule. It’s no accident that diaries favored by little girls come equipped with lock and key. Passwords provide an electronic equivalent.

But not all daybooks are sealed. “The Writer’s Journal: 40 Contemporary Writers and Their Journals,” edited by Sheila Bender, offers a fascinating and inspiring look at the impact of private writing in the work and lives of a diverse collection of contemporary authors.

Sometimes a daybook can feel like the only friend you’ve got in the world. Re-reading the vinyl-bound journal that I kept during a lonely year as a Peace Corps volunteer in French West Africa in 1971-72 is like running into someone you haven’t seen in ages and trading memories, good and bad, about days gone by.

For writers, a daybook is a practice field, a rehearsal hall, a training ground, a laboratory for experiments with language and form, a place to try and fail and try again. A handwritten journal kept in the early 1950s by a nineteen-year old sophomore at DePauw University “is the workshop in which John Gardner teaches himself the craft that will make him one of the great writer-teachers of his time,” Thomas Gavin writes in his introduction to “Lies! Lies! Lies! A College Journal of John Gardner,” published in a fascimile edition by the University of Rochester Libaries.

“With the journal shaping his discipline, Gardner as a teacher is his own best student,” writes Gavin. “He writes character sketches, scenes, poems, parodies, polemics arguing with critics and teachers — then tests and questions his own words (he calls the journal “Lies! Lies! Lies!” to remind himself that his opinions are provisional). Again and again he formulates strategies that he will incarnate in novels… The journal, then, gives its writer a chance to discover what works and what doesn’t.”

A daybook can be made of paper or computer bytes. Twelve million blank journals are sold every year in America, estimates Alexandra Johnson in “Leaving a Trace,” a guide to keeping a journal. “An estimated four million scribblers keep some form of journal on a computer,” she reports. The explosion of blogs has unleashed a torrent of online diaries.

My daybooks are high and low-tech.

I subscribe to Online HomeBase, a web-based “information manager” with a cool new feature from creator Marc Fest which allows me to e-mail random entries to a single “journal file.”

For writers, a daybook is a practice field, a rehearsal hall, a training ground, a laboratory for experiments with language and form, a place to try and fail and try again.But I hardly leave home without something to write on as well, either a thin notepad that fits neatly in a jeans back pocket, or tucked in my backpack, a #33-008 Avery-Dennison Single Subject Notebook with Narrow Ruled Eye Ease Paper that my friend and mentor Don Murray introduced me to in 1981. “Ten-by-eight spiral notebooks filled with greenish, narrow-ruled paper, with a margin down the left,” as he lovingly describes them in his book “Write to Learn,” they’re standard issue in Poynter’s writing workshops.

“All the writing in the daybook is a form of talking to myself, a way of thinking on paper,” says Murray.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what you use to record the days of your writing life or what you write: ideas, memories, imaginings, details, overheard conversations, appointments, assignments, deadlines, lines of writing that pop into your head but that will evaporate if not recorded.

“Make your daybook your own,” Murray advises. “Don’t try to follow anyone else’s formula. And don’t write it for another audience. It’s a private place where you can think and where you can be dumb, stupid, sloppy, silly; where you can do all the bad writing and bad thinking essential for those moments of insight that produce good writing.”

Here are the kinds of things Murrays says you’d find in his daybooks:

  • Questions that need to be answered

  • Fragments of writing seeking a voice

  • Leads, hundreds of leads, the beginning lines of what I may write

  • Titles, hundreds of titles

  • Notes from which I have made lectures, talks, or speeches

  • Notes I have made at lectures, talks, or speeches of others; also notes I have made at poetry readings, hockey games, and concerts

  • Outlines

  • Ideas for stories, articles, poems, books, papers

  • Diagrams showing how a piece might be organized, or more likely showing the relationships between parts of an idea

  • Drafts

  • A running commentary on my writing techniques, habits, problems, and solutions

  • Observations

  • Quotations from writers or artists

  • Newspaper clippings

  • Titles of books to be read

  • Notes on what I have read

  • Pictures I want to save

  • Writing schedules

  • Pasted-in copies of interesting letters I’ve received or written

  • Lists, lots of lists

  • Pasted-in handouts I’ve developed for classes of workshops

What I admire about that list is that like John Gardner’s college journal, Murray demonstrates that writers, even Pulitzer Prize winners with a shelf of books to their credit, never stop learning their craft by teaching themselves. I called Don this morning to see what number daybook he was on. “116,’ he said.

[ Before the PowerBook, there was the daybook. What’s in your daybook and how does it help you write better? ]

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