How do you flex your writing muscles?

Great news that writer Mavis Gallant’s private journals will be edited and published, though not so great that we may have to wait until 2014 to read them! A teaser set of excerpts from 1952 appears in the July 9 issue of The New Yorker, where Gallant also published more than 100 stories over her lifetime. I’ve not yet seen the issue (the copy someone bought at my request from a bookstore across town yesterday turned out to be the July 2 issue!), but teaser bits from that teaser set have appeared here and there on Facebook statuses and in blog posts (such as this lovely one by Janice Gray over at Richard Gilbert’s blog Narrative), all enough to make it clear how full of personality, wonderful writing, and compelling detail the published journals will be. A 1959 treasure quoted by editor Steven Barclay is an example.

 …we took the train and walked in the royal park at Marly, and lay in the uncut grass under a sky as warm as wool and blue as itself. The chestnut trees looked as though nothing could oblige them ever to shed their leaves; and when the wind bent the grass around the barren flat, submissively, the grass went all one color, silvery, like the underside of leaves, as if it might rain.

Gallant wrote nearly every day and the handwritten journals comprise thousands of pages. They are “really, really quite personal,” Barclay says (in the Globe and Mail report above, “full of many, many details.” They were, he says, a “flexing of her writing muscles.”

Does anyone keep a diary like that anymore?

It got me wondering, then, whether anyone keeps a diary like that nowadays, or do we set down our observations, our notes on what we do and see and read, in other ways now, in places like blogs, tweets, FB statuses? Or, to consider it another way, would Gallant, if young and making a career as a writer today, have kept a running, public log of her life, rather than saving it up in notebooks? Somehow I can’t quite imagine her not doing exactly what she did, but then again, perhaps it’s not just the character of the writer that determines the practices of the writing life, but the times.

At any rate, I’d be curious to know from writers and/or diarist types: how do you flex your writing muscles? Have your habits changed since the advent of social media with its many venues to record your life and make observations?

8 thoughts on “How do you flex your writing muscles?

  1. Yes, alas, my diary writing habits have changed. When we lived in Africa (1969-1984) I got into the habit of writing diary and I have a whole book shelf of handwritten diaries. On our return to Canada I continued this practise, but the more I used the computer the less inclined I was to write by hand, and now I do it only when we go on trips. I hardly ever send letters in the mail either. I enjoy writing a blog but I write differently when I know other people will read it. That intimate connection between me and my diary is becoming a thing of the past.

    Who knows, handwriting may soon become obsolete, and cursive writing something that only experts can read, never mind write!


    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Elfrieda. My experience is similar to yours and the computer is definitely involved. The question now: how to negotiate this new world? It’s interesting to me too that it was in Africa that you wrote so intensely — perhaps as a way of surviving in an initially unfamiliar and “other” not-home environment? People who don’t journal regularly will nevertheless often keep trip diaries, because they are “away.”

  2. I’ve been an occasional journal keeper and have written almost as many journal entries since I started on FB and Twitter and blogging as before. Sometimes the journal becomes a kind of rough draft for blog posts, as in trips.

    However, I do not write like Mavis Gallant, Thomas Merton, or May Sarton in my journals. Their prose descriptions of nature are beyond my ken. When I try to imitate them, the sound of my own voice seems strained.

    My impulse is more about documentation and learning (including spiritual learning) than about pure language. But I read the beautiful journal writers for inspiration.

    • It’s interesting to me that your journal keeping has not changed that much, Shirley, compared to others who have responded here and at the link to this post on Facebook. You also make some interesting distinctions in your mention of kinds of “flexing” — documentation, learning, pure language. Perhaps, in fact, there are really only a few “beautiful journal writers” among us, or at least published ones, given as gifts for our inspiration. — Thanks for sharing your practices!

  3. For me, “the times” have absolutely affected my writing habits. When I was in my early twenties, I kept a fairly comprehensive and introspective prayer journal that filled up numerous notebooks. It was a discipline that sustained and shaped my spirituality in a variety of ways. Today, my first instinct seems to be to blog or Facebook something rather than recording it in a private journal.

    I often wonder if the ubiquity of social media has altered us (me) in some fairly profound ways… I think that collectively, our culture is losing the ability to have private experiences that stay private. We flood to Facebook and Twitter and the blogosphere to catalogue our every moment, our every fleeting thought and reaction to whatever happens to be “trending” at the moment. We don’t seem able (or willing) to allow things to pass by without our commentary. And now I have just ably demonstrated that this is so by responding to your words here :).

    I miss the days when I wrote without an audience, however small, in mind.

  4. I appreciate your taking the time to respond here, Ryan; I know this is a topic you’ve occasionally reflected on in your blog as well. — I am quite certain that I have indeed been “altered” by the times. But I find my jury still out on what to embrace of it, what to resist, how to adapt. I do know that I need the push, whether it comes via commentary or inspiring glimpses into journals such as Gallant’s, to keep going on some practice of private writing.

  5. Although I’m on face book and frequently go there to read comments others make, I seldom leave a comment myself. Guess I’m sort of social media-resistant. To post a comment that a whole bunch of people can read seems audacious. Or risky. Or unnecessary. On the other hand, I do journal, not regularly, but in an ongoing way, Ball point pen. When I recently took my papers to the Uof M archives–i’m moving–I learned that they especially wanted, besides journals, correspondence with other writers. But when that correspondence happens by email and the messages aren’t printed out and kept….? We no longer write ‘real’ letters and there goes a research source that has been invaluable to scholars. Technology has changed the way I write and I can’t imagine being computer- or internet-less and continuing to write.

    Do you keep hard copies of your blogs? Do blogs frequently become books, the way a journalists columns might?


    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Sarah. And pleased to know your papers are at U of M, and your journals someday too! — I know what you mean about letters. I’ve kept letters from certain people over the years and noticed recently that there’s next to nothing ever going into those paper files anymore. —
      It occurred to me the other day that if Facebook “keeps” everything, however, there may be a other, new, ways in which people’s lives and ongoing comment could still be researched, if they become famous for some reason, I mean, and someone cares to research them or publish their “journals.”

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