The Writer’s Notebook
Many years ago, I attended a Vancouver writers’ festival event featuring Richard Ford. An audience member asked the award-winning author a question I never tire hearing the answer to: “How do you get the ideas for your novels?”
Ford, a tall, attractive Southerner, looked at the questioner blankly for a few seconds. The silence was unsettling; Ford had been affable and approachable until then. But perhaps the answer was so obvious he couldn’t imagine anyone asking the question. “I look in my notebook,” said Ford flatly. He could, he said, trace the inspiration for his 1996 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Independence Day to a single sentence from his writer’s notebook. I don’t exactly know what Richard Ford kept in that notebook of his, but it was clear that for him keeping some form of record of his writing life was important to him.
While I’m sure many writers produce excellent books without ever writing a free-form notebook entry, my professional opinion is that anyone’s writing, fiction or non-fiction, would be improved by it. Why? Because free-form writing releases you from the tyranny of goal-oriented writing. If you have a purpose every time you sit down to write, you may not be discovering who you truly are as a writer. Sometimes the most provocative and unexpected writing can pop out in the middle of an entry without you even being aware of it. Letting the pen take you where your hand (not your head) wants to go, without censorship or judgment, is a great way to learn about your writing self.
I’m not suggesting you change the style you currently use for your fiction or non-fiction writing and incorporate free-form writing into your active writing process. You may eventually find yourself doing that, but it’s not important or even recommended in the beginning. What I am suggesting is that you start off by reserving a small portion of your writing day, preferably first thing in the morning, to non-goal-oriented personal or practice writing.
Call it journaling, stream of consciousness writing, free-form creative writing . . . it doesn’t really matter. The "rules" are pretty simple. In fact, the rule is there are no rules. Date your entries, write them longhand if you can (something about the kinesthetic process of handwriting helps override The Critic) and don’t worry if they occasionally make no sense.