Editor's Note: In this multipart series, Biographile and Rita Jacobs, PhD, will walk you through finding the inspiration and motivation to start â€“ and keep â€“ a journal, and will later offer some approaches to transforming journal entries into memoir. In part four of this series, Dr. Jacobs moves on to the topic of getting unstuck in your writing in an unconventional way. See earlier posts in the From Journal to Memoir series here.
This week, Iâ€™d like to stay with the idea of breaking through any blocks you may have about writing. Very often we defeat ourselves before we begin by imagining what a finished product might look like or sound like and are frustrated from the outset by the sure knowledge that the words wonâ€™t come out the right way, especially the first time 'round. Yes, the mantra is â€śwriting is rewriting,â€ť and although we know that intellectually, it isnâ€™t always enticing to begin with the notion that we will have to redo.
So I like to think about E.L. Doctorowâ€™s trenchant and encouraging description that works for all writers: â€śWriting is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.â€ť If we accept that we donâ€™t always know where we are going when we begin to write, then approaches such as freewriting, discussed in the last post, and this weekâ€™s unblocker, the questioning approach to writing, may help allow us to find our topics and our voices.
If you have a topic and make a statement such as, â€śMy mother was a perfectionist,â€ť you are naturally led to write about the facts -- the ways in which she manifested her perfectionism, maybe in lunchboxes or family meals, the way she dressed you or herself, the cleaning of the tile grout with a toothbrush and many other details that you might remember or capture. (Believe me, we will get around to using statements for writing.) A statement may be a great place to begin, if you have already clearly identified that topic for yourself. But making statements in writing is often a way to access facts and the thoughts you have about those facts.
Right now we are dealing more with exploration -- the kind of writing that could bring you to the place where you might eventually choose to make a statement. One of the more successful techniques that can lead to examining feelings and exploring unknown territory is the open-ended question as a jumping-off place for writing. (Closed-ended questions with â€śrightâ€ť answers or, worse yet, yes or no answers, shut off exploration. Just remember all those teachers who couldnâ€™t get a discussion going -- they were probably asking closed-ended questions.)
So rather than writing what you know, try writing what you donâ€™t know and are open to finding out on the page during the writing process. Once again, this is a way of opening your writing practice beyond thinking and composing. You never know how much you will discover. As John Fowles said in "The Magus," â€śThe most important questions in life can never be answered by anyone except oneself.â€ť
Writing Exercise: The five writing prompt questions below can be used for five different journal entries during the next week and will allow you to access emotions and ideas that are present at the moment of writing. They are deliberately open-ended and may lead you to writing an entry that you had not consciously intended. You might even want to stay with one question for more than one day because on any given day, the writing prompt will evoke a different response. Remember to write quickly and not edit.
How old do I feel today?
What's the most important thing to do right now?
What do I value most about my relationship with---?
Why am I feeling so---?
What do I really want to say to---?