Category Archives: Writing

Bullet Journaling Is Not Journaling


Here’s a thing I started recently: Journaling.

Believe it or not, it’s a thing I wasn’t doing before. But the more I read about productivity and best practices and the habits of “successful” people (and especially writers!), the more I came across it. So I took it up, opened a blank notebook, and started a habit.

But because I’m me, on some level I fear that I’m doing it wrong, or at least not doing it optimally. And because it’s the 21st century, I turn immediately to Dr. Google to allay my fears and correct my faults. And what’s the first thing I see when I google “journaling”?

Bullet Journaling.

This is a term I’ve heard before without actually learning anything about it, and it sounds simply procedural. Journal in bullets! Something something guns! Usually I journal longhand, letting the drivel spill out however it comes, which is usually either in short, choppy machine-gun sentences, or in longer, rambling passages. But bullet journaling? Well, that sounds like just bullet points in a list — rather than mucking about with all those articles and properly conjugated verbs and appropriately undangled modifiers, you just list your thoughts. Okay, far out — that’s all I need to get started! So I try a day like that — and I run dry in about thirty seconds. What gives? On a normal day, I can free-write for an hour if I’m not careful. But when I simply list the thoughts without exploring them, I run out of thoughts quicker than a soda machine at fat camp. So I go googling again.

And … oh. OH.

Bullet journaling, it turns out, is less about writing and more about listing. It’s not so much about exploring your thoughts, it’s just about decluttering your head by putting on paper everything you need to get through in the day. With maybe a motivational quote attached. It’s making a to-do list. Setting reminders. Notes-to-self. Less stroll-through-your-headspace, more inventory-your-tornado-wracked-warehouse.

Uh, okay, but that’s not “journaling,” is it?

But it’s worse still. Bullet journaling isn’t just a practice, it’s a product. In fact, Bulletjournal.com has an array of notebooks ready for you to purchase, not to mention an app, and — coming soon — a book!

I don’t know about you, but the moment I hear somebody saying that their practice will change my life and make me a better person, oh and by the way, buy our fancy stuff to do it properly — well, that reeks ever so slightly of bovine defecation. The best practices in life are the ones you can start doing now, meaning right now, without any special apparatus, without any practice first, without watching any instructional videos. Drink some water, for example. Take a few minutes to just breathe. Get up and walk around a little bit. If “journaling” requires me to slap down $18.95 for a proprietary journal or invest in colored pencils or notecards lined off at laser-accurate increments, then that’s a thing I won’t be doing.

I say that not as a knock on Bullet Journal — the products or the practice. I’m sure that if I were a different type of person, I might even nurse a fetish for such things (apparently Pinterest and Instagram are lousy with people fawning all over each other’s immaculately designed to-do lists, which … okay, I guess?). But that, to me, ain’t journaling. It’s to-do listing.

So Bullet Journal, you are not for me.

For me, the journal is less about a stately declaration to myself of Things I Must Do Today. That — and the Bullet Journal MO, it seems (and again, I didn’t exactly research in depth, so, you know, grains of salt and all) — implies urgency and pressure. Which is sort of the antithesis, to me, of the whole idea of journaling. Journaling, I think, is about writing without rules, without goals, and (perhaps most importantly), without an audience. It doesn’t replace any of my daily writing, rather, it sets the tone for that writing. The journal is a clearing of the throat before I step up to the microphone. A deep-knee bend before approaching the starting line. A rev of the engine before I slam it into gear. It’s a little brain-dump to decrapify my head of all the garbage I don’t want to think about, and to crystallize my thinking about the things I do want to think about.

Here’s how I’m doing it so far:

I take five minutes every morning (and occasionally visit it on the weekend as well) just to jot down some thoughts. What makes it in is whatever’s front-of-mind: muses on the current project, nerves and apprehensions about the day, rants about the idiot that blocked me in while I was dropping my kid off at day care. Usually a reflection on the morning’s workout, since that’s usually fresh in my brain. It’s even more free-form and less coherent than what I post on the blarg, which may tell you something about the state of it. Coincidentally, it almost always clocks in at about a single side of one page. Or maybe it’s not a coincidence. Designers are cagey.

I don’t use an eraser at all, I don’t go back for misspellings, and I try to keep the pencil moving for the full five minutes. And once the five minutes are up, I stop! (I actually wrote out “I STOPS” and conjured in my head a grumpy Gollum hunched over a desk with a pencil and now I’m giggling inwardly, you’re welcome.) I finish the sentence I’m writing, close the book, and don’t think about it again until the next morning.

And, you know, it’s nice. I can’t tell if it’s actually helping my process or adding productivity to my day, at this point, but it’s nice to have a little ritual, since I don’t drink coffee or take the morning paper or anything thoughtful and meditative like that. I mean, I run, and there’s that, but that’s not every day. And as far as the free-form writing goes, there’s something about putting pencil to paper that isn’t quite approximated by any amount of typing in any form. The skritch, skritch of a pencil (mechanical pencils only, DON’T GET ME STARTED) creating words is its own kind of soothing. And the fact that it’s for my eyes only is comforting as well — I have even allowed myself a few unintended sentence fragments and misplaced modifiers (gasp!).

It comes out looking like this:

20180326_134637.jpg

(Typing was invented for guys like me!)

Notice the total lack of anything like a pretty color, the discounted-for-the-season 25-cent composition book, the handwriting that would put a doctor’s prescription pad to shame.

THAT’S a journal.

What’s yours look like? (And, if you’re a practitioner of Bullet Journaling — what am I missing?)

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Passage-in-Progress 3818


I don’t do this enough, but that’s a thing worth fixing: Here’s my favorite passage from the chapters I’m reviewing today:

“Yes, I would have killed him. Is that what you want to hear? If it’s him dead or me in prison, well, sorry, Jack.”
“His name is Eric.”
“I don’t care what his name is. I don’t want to know what his name is. I wish I didn’t know it.”
“Because he’s a person now, right?”
“The hell is that supposed to mean? Of course he’s a person.”
“No, I mean he’s a real person. With a name. Kids. A dog.”
“He could have a whole mansion full of adopted African babies for all I care,” Dina snaps.
Linc considers that, and considers her, resolutely staring out the windshield at the darkened streets. “You’ve killed before.” It’s not a question.
“Aaaand this is the part where you stop psychoanalyzing me. I know you think you’ve had it rough, but I’m a survivor.” The way she says it tells Linc she’s not talking about surviving a boating accident or a bear attack.

Is it wrong that I love my supporting characters more than I love my protagonist?


The Spell is Broken


Funny how editing your novel really shows off your literary limps. The little phrases you lean on, the sensory language you favor, the way you have to end every chapter, for some reason, on a sentence that is its own paragraph. (Why do you do that?)

Today I’m laughing at myself because I’ve just read through and marked up three more chapters, and I’m now keeping a tally mark in the side of my notebook every time I read the phrase “the spell is broken”. The count is five, now, and we’re in chapter 9.

“He shakes his head, and the spell is broken.”

“The spell is broken now, and …”

“He looks at her, the spell fully broken, and sees …”

I mean, come on.

Good news, I guess, is that I’m still able to laugh at myself over it. Bad news is that I’m still in the first third of the novel, which statistically means I’ve got at least ten more “the spell is broken”s before I make it to the end. Ten might be a bit much, but I know I’ve got some more lurking out there in the chapters ahead.

Course, this is why we edit. You take the hard look to see the irritating little things like these. So that you can take the buzzsaw to them in the second draft.

Ah, well. Lunch is over. The spell is broken. Guess it’s back to work.

Seriously gotta come up with better ways to say it, though. Ideas?

 


Caveat Pre-Emptor (Or, Why It’s Okay to Brag a Little)


So, like, I’m a writer, right? Or at least, I’m trying to be. I aspire. Along with the legions of others.

And once in a while, and I do mean a good while, somebody will ask me “how’s it going?” Or, even more rarely, the subject will come up for the first time and they’ll ask “what are you writing?”

And before I can even properly formulate my response, the caveats start flooding out of me like the air from a punctured tire. “Well, I haven’t been making the kind of progress I’d like, but —”, or “you know, I really haven’t been working on it for very long, so —”, or “I don’t have the time to really focus on it, and —”, or, you know, fill in the blank with whatever disclaimer is handy. I’m basically telling the person that whatever it is isn’t really up to standards (mine or theirs or some imaginary person’s? WHO KNOWS, I DON’T), and it’s basically just me noodling around on the page like that lame guy who knows three chords but pulls his guitar out at the party anyway.

All of which, I should point out, is true. I mean, I’d like to be making more progress, but THIS STUFF IS HARD. I really haven’t been working on it very long — writing in general for maybe three years, this project in particular about a year, all told — but that’s because THIS STUFF IS HARD and I only recently decided to take it on. And I don’t have the time to really focus on it, because THIS STUFF IS HARD and it takes a ton of freaking time and I have, you know, a job, bills, a family, etc, etc.

Damn, I even caught myself doing it when I was doing a little journaling the other morning. In a bit of personal writing, from MYSELF to MYSELF, meant for absolutely nobody else’s eyes ever, I put an asterisk on a statement of accomplishment. (I’d been for a run in the morning, and thanks to a nagging injury, my pace wasn’t exactly what I’d prefer, so I hemmed and hawed — again, AT MYSELF — about the fact that I got out there and ran my morning miles.)

Something — something deeply rooted and insidious like the fungus at the heart of an ancient elm — makes me shy away from “bragging”. Somehow, to talk about a thing I’ve done seems too much like grandstanding, like a ploy for accolades, like fishing for compliments. No, it’s even worse than that — I have this thing where I can’t stop thinking and analyzing. And because I’m always analyzing (especially when it comes to my own efforts and the stuff I create), I know, deep down in my bones, that what I’m doing is a far cry short of the best stuff out there, that it probably won’t appeal to the average person, and that therefore any horn-tooting about it would be very much amiss. Something about pride and falls and all that.

But you know what? It’s exactly because THIS STUFF IS HARD that it’s worth bragging about. Getting it done, regardless of the quality of it, is worth tooting my own horn, I think. I mean, just to put it in perspective: how many people out there didn’t run a 5k with their dog (in the rain!) before the sun even cracked an eye to reach for the snooze alarm? Almost all of them. How many people didn’t pen the last words of a draft and start the long, thankless process of editing their novel? Almost all of them. How many people didn’t carve time out of their lunch hour to itemize the entire plot of their story on notecards strictly for the purpose of mapping it out and seeing it better on the re-write? Pretty much all of them.

Almost all of them might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s really not. I’m reminded of a passage from Douglas Adams explaining that the population of the universe is essentially zero. How does that work, you ask? Owing to the staggering amount of empty space, the amount of space that has people in it compared as a ratio to the amount of space that doesn’t gives a value so infinitesimal that for all practical purposes, it might as well be zero. By that rationale, sure, there are tons of writers and runners in the world, but they are outnumbered on a planetary scale by people who aren’t writers or runners — so, basically, virtually nobody writes or runs. (This is a fun way to claim significance for just about anything.)

And why didn’t almost every person out there do any of these things? BECAUSE THIS STUFF IS HARD. But I did it anyway. Regardless of the time it took to finish, or the quality of the product as I look back on it, or how I felt or didn’t feel as I was doing it, I did these things.

To hell with layering it, like a damned wedding cake, with asterisks. To hell with putting disclaimers on it. That’s a hot pile of horse puckey. I did these things, and they were worth doing. Doesn’t matter if it could’ve been better; doing it was better than not doing it. Doesn’t matter if it took a long time; it’s done now. And if I don’t show some pride in the things I’m doing, who the hell else is gonna do it for me?

To hear me tell it, basically everything I’ve done is only a half-measure. Sure, I wrote a few plays after college, but they were just those lame murder-mysteries you can see anywhere. And yeah, I wrote a full-length play that was a smash hit at my old high school, but it’s really too long and there’s all kinds of things wrong with it. Yup, I’ve finished a novel, but I’m not published yet. Or yeah, I run, but only about fifteen miles a week these days. Sure, I’ve run long-distance races — but only a half-marathon. (By the way, somebody seriously needs to get on re-branding the half-marathon — the title itself is a caveat. And get out of here with that Pikermi crap, you can’t be serious in a run if people think a digitized cartoon rat goes dancing across the finish line.)

See how lousy that sounds? But strip the caveats out, and that turns into:

I run four days a week. And I’ve run over 13 miles at a stretch before.

I’ve written plays. (Plural.) Which were performed for audiences which paid money to watch them.

I’ve written a novel. (And am working on more.)

See how much better that sounds? That sounds like a guy who’s got his life together. That sounds like a guy you’d buy a cup of coffee for, if you could, and maybe hear a little bit of what he has to say.

So here’s a challenge for me and for you: cut out the caveats and the disclaimers. Stop knocking yourself down before you’ve even properly stood up. Accomplish whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish and be proud of the accomplishment.

Stuff your caveats in a sack. Then set the sack on fire and shoot it out of a cannon.


The Doors of “Frozen”: Subconscious Storytelling At Its Best


You know that song from the opening third of Frozen? Princess Anna has just met Prince Hans (who she doesn’t yet know is a scheming sharknadobag) and starts singing. And because it’s a Disney musical, of course Prince Hans is ready to start singing right along with her. And dancing. Okay, I’m not here to kvetch about the willful suspension of disbelief; we’re talking about a fantasy story with talking snowmen and ice-casting princesses. (And don’t forget about the rock turds. I mean trolls. Even though they’re turds. For some reason I hate those things.)

Nope, today it’s the extended metaphor of doors. “Love is an open door,” Anna and Hans sing, and somehow I didn’t catch it on first viewing, but the movie is shot through with the door metaphor.

After Anna is injured, the parents separate the sisters by giving them separate rooms; and Elsa’s door is locked. After the parents die and Anna and Elsa are left alone, the door remains closed and Anna lingers outside it. She could just open it and talk to her sister, but she doesn’t — the door has become its own barrier, symbolic of the growing divide between them. In her very next song, Anna sings about opening up the gates of the castle, and how long it’s been since that happened.

Then, of course, it’s “love is an open door”, and we’re on to the second half of the movie, where Anna follows her sister into the wilderness only to find she’s built herself a totally badass ice castle, but she hesitates right on the threshold of — the giant ice door. (Quoth the snowman: “why doesn’t she knock? Do you think she knows how to knock?”) The doors in the ice castle are massive, but Elsa can open them with just a thought — they really are simply barriers of the mind, not the impenetrable barriers Anna takes them for.

The final third of the movie finds both the sisters trapped by the now-evil Prince Hans: Elsa in a dungeon, Anna in a sumptuous castle bedroom. Of course, both cells feature locked doors the princesses cannot escape. How will they overcome their captivity? Elsa channels a bit of power and counters the locked door with an exploded window, while Anna gets rescued by her childhood snowman, who picks the lock with his disembodied nose. It’s a funny moment, but viewed another way, Olaf the snowman seems like the purest manifestation of love in the story, so of course he can open any door he encounters. (Think back: “why doesn’t she just knock?” Doors are not a problem for him.)

The movie ends with the sisters reunited and committed to tearing down the barriers between them (blah blah an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart blah). And how does the movie end? With Elsa vowing that the gates will forever remain open. Probably not the greatest policy in terms of security, but for symbolic significance between the sisters, it’s as rich as it gets.

So I guess it should shock nobody that Disney knows how to give good story, but the extended metaphor of the door in Frozen shows how story elements can function behind the scenes to do subconscious work on an audience.

AnnaDoor

This mini-essay is a part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday. This week’s prompt: “door”.


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