Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Writer's Journal

Okay, I know I promised this for earlier this week, and I know it's been about an entire geological age since my last post, and I'm not going to bore you with excuses (mainly because, trust me, they're dull excuses and in no way blog-worthy) but I'm just going to continue blogging away as though I've been here all along.


So, journals. Or diaries. Or notebooks. Call them whatever you like. Doesn't matter.
What sort of diary would I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious holdall, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself… into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life.
-Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary
This week I lectured on the value of keeping a writing journal. As I've mentioned here before, I expected to feel like something of a phony lecturing on this topic, given that the closest I've come to keeping a writing journal in the 'traditional' sense of the word was a really execrable notebook I kept my jottings in during my first year of uni, which I filled with musings and writing that today could only be described as 'emo' (hey, I was listening to a lot of 'The Cure' at the time) and which I distinctly remember burning in about 1992, much to my own cathartic relief. And I haven't kept anything remotely similar since. So the thought of talking about the importance of journalling to my students was a bit of a downer.

My journals, as I'm pretty certain I've said here before, are notebooks which I dedicate to each specific writing project I'm engaged in. I start with the original idea on the first page, and once the final proofs of that book go off to the publisher, I shut that journal and stick it on the shelf. I've always thought of them as dead documents. As utilitarian and workmanlike and strictly functional. Not 'diaries' or journals in the sense that we would generally think of them. Certainly not personal writing.
But here's the thing - putting together my lecture for this week, I realised how utterly stupid this notion is. Sure, my journals might not be the 'deep old desk' or 'capacious holdall' of Virginia Woolf, but somehow along the way, they've become much more than simple skeletons for my books.

Even aside from the contents, there are lives and histories and memories tied up in all of them, which takes them immediately out of the realm of the utilitarian, and makes them something far more.
Let me introduce you...

Here are a couple of pages from the journal for my first two novels - The Darkness and A New Kind of Dreaming. This journal consists of an account book purchased optimistically, well before the signing of my first book contract, in which I intended to start mapping out my financial future. Within a week, I was sticking things in to it about refugee camps, reconciliation, lighthouses and nautical charts. Making notes about all manner of eclectic ideas and historical events. In the pages of this journal, my first two books came to life, while my chequebook remained horribly unbalanced.

Looking back through this journal takes me right back to the start of my writing career - to a time when I was still a full time high school teacher, and to a period of my life where I was fuelled by a heady combination of ideology, ambition, unrestricted creativity and a really solid understanding of the brilliance of my artistic abilities. Somewhere in the course of the last fifteen years or so, all these things have faded and muted, and while I think (hope!) that nowadays I'm a better writer as a result, the ideas and anger and passion I see in the pages of this old account book makes me really think about why I got into the writing game in the first place.

The journal for Fireshadow is contained within the pages of an old TAR site log book that my father had bought home from work at some point in the distant past. I have no idea what a TAR site is, nor why it needs a logbook. I hope it's not important. This journal has numbered pages and when you open the cover, the first thing you notice is that it begins on page 41. What was written upon those first 40 pages is long since lost to us, but from page 41 on are lists of facts about POW internment, the second world war, Hitler's armies, the Australian bush.

In here are timelines and photographs from both the past and the present, chapter outlines and maps. This journal ends on page 130, with the cryptic note: "Easter Sunday. Resurrection / Redemption" After that point, the book remains resolutely empty.

Oddly, the smallest of my writing journals belongs to the largest of my projects: When I started mapping out the idea for a science fiction short story in another old account book, way back in 1999 I had no idea that it would turn into a trilogy of novels which would take me almost an entire decade to complete.

Perhaps it's because of the speculative nature of the Darklands Trilogy, dwelling so much more in my imaginings of the future than in present or past reality that this journal feels less 'useful' than the others. In fact, the most important function of this book was as a sketchpad, a place for me to draw the physical and imagined worlds about which I was trying to write. To get my head around the perspectives that would reveal themselves to the residents of a city in the sky, or a walled off expanse of desert.

Finally, my journal for Into White Silence which consists of two A4 sized visual diaries, and which travelled with me to Antarctica and back, capturing and mapping as many tiny transient details of six weeks that I spent at Casey station during the summer of 2005/6 . Of all my journals, the first book of this one is probably the closest that I have to a 'traditional' diary - pages of longhand accounting my day-to-day movements and activities. Watercolours of the landscape. Rough sketches of seabirds, transcripts of conversations, and occasionally jotted random thoughts and observations. The second of these two notebooks is more businesslike - in this one is the bones of the book; the bringing together of a vast amount of scientific and historical research, the mapping of the spaces of the story, the calculations of winds and tides and ice movement, the character notes, the chapter summaries.

So there you have it - my journals. All of them I used to think of as being strictly utilitarian or 'workmanlike' documents; set down in whatever came to hand most readily at the time, and used as a kind of foundation for my imagination. After the completion of each book - when the final proofs are checked and finalised and off to the printers, then the journal for that work becomes, in effect, a dead document. I haven't written a word in any of these journals since the completion of the final draft of whatever novel they were concerned with. They serve no useful purpose in my current life, and yet, oddly, when I was recently asked if I'd be willing to donate them to a library archive, I found myself strangely reluctant. Even though they're no longer useful to me, and though there's nothing at all in them that I'd want kept from the public eye, the thought of surrendering them and of no longer having them there - filling a comforting chunk of space on my bookshelves - is an uncomfortable one for me.

And in that, I believe, lies the value of the journal for the writer - even the most practical and functional journal cannot help but provide its author with that 'space to be free' and in providing that service a utilitarian document quickly transmogrifies into a personal one. A quick leaf through any of these notebooks here will reveal a wide range of ideas which, despite having been flung onto the page in the heat of creative passion, never make it past that first enthusiastic jotting to see the light of day in the pages of one of my books. But that doesn't matter, does it.

It's writing them down in the first place that's important. That's what gives journals life.

And which, in turn, gives life to the final book.


  1. Great blog, Tony! I loved peeping into your journals. Like you - mine are notebooks - filled with research, maps - the cartographer in me! And I never look at them again either. But I think you're right, while practical they're intensely personal too. The genesis of an idea - the cell that gestates over pages until it is one day born. Thank you Tony! Great stuff.

  2. Fascinating peek, Tony. My journals aren't a patch on yours. Typically a page of rapid sketch characters and notes on driving conflicts and dilemnas before I get bored with planning and hop into the writing. I'm more a pantser than a plotter, so the rest of my journals consist of notes on what I'll have to fix n the rewrite! Thanks for another great post.



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