Ivan Turgenev, the famous Russian novelist, short story writer and playwright gave his followers invaluable advice on how to get the job done: “ . . . without painstaking work,” he wrote, “any writer or artist definitely remains a dilettante; there is no point in waiting for so called blissful moments, inspiration; if it comes, so much the better; but you keep on working anyway.”
This is the tough love for writers. We’re inspired; we pick up our journals; we write what’s in our hearts. If we’re brave, we write some of those letters Harry Truman knew would be best left in a drawer. But the thoughts are no longer running loose: they are captured. We can return to them, like voyeurs into our own lives. And writers are Narcissists: we enjoy looking at ourselves—reading and re-reading our journals. Admit it.
The original journalists—journal writers, that is—documented what happened during the day, which is where the word comes from. The weather, the comings and goings of family and friends, minor and major illnesses, births and deaths of most everyone who made up our lives, including dogs and cats, cows, pigs and chickens. When diarists reflect on their records, surmising how or why anything had come to be—Why did the neighbor’s daughter return from her trip so early? Why did the child fall ill? What do we do now?—they are writing stories. We wonder, we challenge, we try to re-create the emotions we felt when we were writing. We tell stories and “We are the stories we tell.” Our present-day journals shape us as much as we shape them.
I don’t know of any writer who doesn’t keep an idea file or journal or diary. Keeping a journal can be a healing process as we get distance from ourselves; journals help us make sense out of Life; they put events and emotions in order. And, after all, if we can’t talk convincingly to ourselves, whom can we talk to? In some ways, journals are inspired, sacrosanct conversations with ourselves.
For some of us, these journals are enough. We are rewinding our lives, re-living what we did and how we felt: our journals address an audience so intimate that our reader needs no context, no backstory, no narrative arc (although it’s nearly impossible to write a story without one). We use words as we choose (we know what we mean, right?), we craft sentences as they pop into our heads (we know what we mean, right?); we don’t concern ourselves with point of view or punctuation (we know what we mean).
Challenges come, though, when we mine our journals for stories we want to share with others. That’s when the hard work begins. Now that we know how we think and feel, how are we going to communicate that to others? Do we want to bother? For some, this is a clear “No.” For others, this is the beginning of writers’ block, various forms of angst, grammar books, dictionaries and thesauruses (is it thesauri?), Internet research (could that have been a Buick, and could it have had three headlights?), and narrative plotting (how would my sister have known then what was going to happen?). We are inspired to share our opinions and stories but soon discover the consequences of a wider-than-us audience.
Inspiration is a necessary first stage, but as artist Chuck Close wrote (was it over a hundred years after Turgenev, or less than that?) “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”