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Let’s talk about journaling as a writer. Some writers swear by keeping a journal, others have never felt the need for one and that’s fine too. But, for the sake of this post, imagine you are interested in starting one and have been asking yourself this question for a while. Should I start a journal? I’m going to talk about my own journaling practices and how that ties into my fiction writing.

First question: How do I begin?

There is no right or wrong answers when it comes to journaling. I’ve known writers who keep a journal and write in it, sure, but also fill it up with pictures and stickers and sketches. If you’re looking for direction, I like to start with an intention.

Set out with an intention that is writing-related. If I just started a new journal, I might start by describing some of the projects I’m working on. I’ll try to think through them and kind of try to understand what I’m aspiring to do with them.

Later, I might try to plan out a story or play with ideas for a scene. I talk through it on the page. It becomes a kind of sounding board for myself before I sit down to start writing. If I like how it’s sounding, I might start drafting the scene or story by hand.

Next question: How do I keep it up?

I think of my journal as a space for me to think through something privately. Journaling is an effective tool for thinking through emotions in your personal life, but it also can be used effectively in your writing life. For instance, if I read something I’m really excited about or had a strong reaction to, I might go back to my English-major mindset and start picking it apart. I’ll analyze the element of craft that’s being utilized and try to figure out why I was so drawn to it.

Those are notes better left for myself than in a blog post. The book I’ve been over-analyzing lately is Bunny by Mona Awad. It’s a book that is set in a stylized, but realistic world that somehow manages to bring in a lot of fairy tale elements. It left me mesmerized and a little obsessed. So, naturally, I’ve been spending way, way too much time picking apart scenes just to try to figure out how Awad pulled it off.

I’m still obsessed with this book and maybe what I’ve learned from her technique I will eventually try in my own writing. Why not?

What else do I write about?

There’s nothing you need to write about, but I like to jot down things that might inspire a story or a scene, for example:

  • A vivid dream. I often will even try to decrypt it in some way so that I can make sense of it or find a narrative within the dream which could lead to a story.
  • An awkward interaction or uncanny moment. Someone once waved for me to pull my car over while driving in rush hour traffic. He’d thought I’d rear-ended him. I hadn’t. I generally don’t drive close enough for it to even be a question, so I was really confused. He got out of his car and inspected by his bumper and then mine. Both were just fine. It’ll go in a story of mine one day, I’m sure of it.
  • An interesting fact or true story that inspires you. I am always jotting down random things I learn while listening to podcasts. It can serve as a great place to do research for writing projects, especially when you’re relatively new to the topic.

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I received an anonymous message the other day that is not all that unlike so many other messages I’ve received since I first started blogging. It reads:

”My parents always urged me not to become a writer. “Oh but, you need something that brings food on the table,” “I won’t be paying your bills,” “No one guarantees your success” stuff like that. I’m 18, about to enroll to uni for a degree I kinda sorta like and see myself liking more in the future. But I still want to write. And my parents’ patronizing always stops me, even if they aren’t there, I can’t develop a story further because I feel like I’m not good enough. I truly just want to write. Help.”

I want to help, but I think most young writers don’t fully understand the truth about writing as a career path. I know I had heard it several dozen times before I graduated. It didn’t once sink in until I realized, Oh wait, I need to make a living. I am not writing this to dash anyone’s dream, but maybe shed a little light on what it’s like to be a writer before it can become a sustainable career.

From the time I was about twelve years old, I’d been saying I want to be an author. I wanted to write great, amazing books that would become bestsellers and land me in history books. And as I got older, that dream didn’t exactly die. My expectations became a bit more realistic, but I still thought when I graduated college I could check a box somewhere, declare myself as writer and somehow live comfortably enough to write my books for the rest of my life. Really, I knew it wasn’t quite that simple, but I thought it would be easier.

It’s not easier. With writing, I learned, until your writing can support you, you’re going to need to have something else to help you get by. It was initially really hard to explain that to people, to friends, to my sibling, to my parents. You can work at it for years and never have any success. It’s a career-path that for the most part relies on you having some other way to support yourself for awhile.

When I say that, I don’t mean that you can’t make money writing. That’s simply not true. I write for my job. It is how I have an income. You can make money writing. It’s just important to note it’s not the same as becoming an author right away. Writing your novel takes time. Publishing your novel takes kind of a long time too. Those a tough years and for most people, it means finding a job that allows for you to have time to really work on your writing.

Almost every writer I’ve ever met has had to take up a day job at some point before achieving some level of acclaim and success. This should not be something to be ashamed of. Every writer I’ve ever heard of has been something else before they could write full-time. Stephen King had to teach high school. J.D. Salinger was an activities director on a cruise ship. Jack Kerouac took up so many different odd jobs, it’s hard to keep track of what he was exactly. Margaret Atwood was a barista. I heard from somewhere Nicholas Sparks used to wait tables and sell dental products over the phone. Everyone had to start somewhere.

So, again, I don’t mean to sound discouraging. Writing is a career that take a long time to work towards. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of seriousness and commitment. It may mean taking up odd-jobs to get by, but that’s not always a bad thing. Authors like Rainbow Rowell, Neil Gaiman, and Suzanne Collins were “writers” even before their bestsellers, as respectively, a columnist, a freelance writer, and a children’s TV show writer. You can become a writer no matter what you end up doing – even if you’re like me and want to do nothing else but write. I’m a writer now. I do a lot of freelance work. It might not be a the kind of writing I want to be known for, but just like any great writer, I’m working at it and maybe I’ll get there one day.

My word of advice, for everyone who has been asking, don’t think taking up a day job means ending your writing career. It’s something that almost every writer I love has had to do. One exception might be Edith Wharton – she was born an heiress, but outside of her prosperous career as a writer, she designed home interiors and gardens. I guess even she had a day job. If you want to write, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. You can make a commitment to writing even if it’s not the only thing you do.

Reading time: 4 min
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