Saturday, August 18, 2007

Raw Data

The Latest Completed Journal Notebook

My latest completed journal notebook. The digitally-blurred interior shot is of the last entry page (held open by a large binder clip). I've written people's contact information down on the very last page (one more flip).

I've written in this blog before about journaling (see, for example, this entry), but seeing the "Dear Diary" prompt on Sunday Scribblings inspired this installment....

Thanks to the discussion boards at the Moleskinerie pool, I learned that a silver metallic Sharpie is great for writing on the covers (and spines) of these notebooks (I use the large sketchbook, 5.25 x 8.25 inches). That makes my job much easier when I'm trying to find things.

My August 13, 2007, entry continued in the notebook I'm filling now. These journals are where I amass what I call my "raw data."

Back in April I posted the following on Flickr:


Journal Series

I've been keeping a journal for decades. These photos show most but not all of my collection of filled notebooks.

Upper left: I've recently started using Moleskine sketchbooks. My in-process journal lives in my fanny pack and goes everywhere with me.

Upper right: Before I switched to Moleskines (far right) I was using Canson Classic sketchbooks (center). I use the wire-bound Cachet sketchbooks on the left in my free-writing group. At first I kept index cards of journal topics, but now I go through widely-spaced but fairly intense periods where I type my entries on computer and use the Search function when I want to find information. I have yet to input the writings in the notebooks shown in this shot. Edit: I've since done the inputting.

Lower Left: This steamer trunk was in the garage of my parents' house, where Mary and I now live. I don't know how old it is, but I thought it was the perfect place to store old journal notebooks.

Lower Right: My notebooks range from three-ring binders to inexpensive blank books to the Moleskines I use now. A folding stool at right holds the trunk open. The trunk now resides in my studio, next to my desk.

Thanks to Armand Frasco for soliciting this entry for posting here on


That prompted someone to ask me how long it took me to fill a notebook. I answered:

It varies, due to different notebook sizes and what's happening in my life at the time. I wrote much more prolifically in the first years I was living on my own, which started in March of 1983.

Cool question, though (and thanks!) -- made me curious, myself, so I did some number crunching, pulling out a couple notebooks at random among the ones I'd typed up.

The notebook that holds entries spanning October 7, 1985 through January 3, 1986 yielded 211-1/2 pages of single-spaced typed text. That was during my Scripsit days (8-inch floppy discs), so those pages have been scanned in and turned into .jpg files. Word-count estimates place that notebook at 105,730 words, or an average of about 1,188 words/day.

In contrast, my notebook that spans March 24 through October 2, 2003 contains 46,206 words, or an average of 239.4 words/day.

On the other hand, I started my first blog in 1999, and while I keep computer files of those entries they're not in my notebooks. Pre-blog, much of that material probably would have made it into the handwritten journal. On the third hand, my blog writing is geared toward an audience, so it's different in some ways from my notebook writing. On the fourth hand, I occasionally include excerpts from my handwritten journal in the blog entries.

But of course I had to do a word-count there... :)

The blog entries for the same period of that second notebook come to 66,272 words. If one were to combine the two, the word count would become 112,478 words, or an average of almost 583 words/day.


I advise all my students to keep a hardcopy journal that they can take anywhere with them. From my class handout:

A journal is, quite simply, a place to write with no holds barred. It will serve you well in a variety of uses:

1. Practice. No matter what you write, you are writing.

2. Raw data. All the details, insights, minutiae, rants, and anything else you write down is potential material for more crafted writing, be it in stories, poems, articles, or other forms of expression, like art or music.

3. Self-help. Talking to yourself on paper or using your journal as a confidante can help you solve problems and make burdens easier to bear. I have found sometimes that what I’ve written can serve as valuable advice to myself years later.

4. Legacy. As journals across the eons have shown, even minutiae have value for future generations. (See, for example, Lillian Schlissel’s collection Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, New York: Schocken Books, 1982.)

What to write in:

Above all, choose what you are comfortable with. When I was a teenager I used a small 3-ring binder that I filled with lined paper. (The “diaries” sold in stationery stores never had enough room for me.) The first diary I kept, at age 6, was in an old New York City Board of Education booklet that my mother brought home from her teaching job and my father covered with gold and white striped wallpaper, artfully printing my name on the cover. It had wide-ruled paper on which I printed my entries in pencil.

Today my journal is in an artist’s sketch book with unlined, acid-free paper. Sometimes I will sketch in addition to writing: my cats, a coffee cup, a crude outline of objects from a dream.

Some people are more comfortable with spiral-bound notebooks, or with loose sheets of paper. Some may use a leather-bound blank book, others large index cards or napkins. Some use pencil or black pen; others use colorful gel pens in every shade, fountain pens, magic markers. Some tape or paste pictures onto the page, or newspaper articles that catch their eye.

Use what is comfortable for you. Experiment. Make sure your journal is transportable so that you can carry it with you. I have written journal entries on planes, trains, automobiles, boats. I have written them on hiking trails, in doctor’s offices, in restaurants, by candlelight during power outages, in hotel lobbies, in hospital waiting rooms.

What to write:

Anything goes. The only rule in keeping a journal is to write, period. My journal includes, but is not limited to:

•descriptions of nature
•descriptions of people
•divination (e.g., I-Ching, Tarot, Runes)
•dreams (including REM-sleep dreams, wishes, fantasies)
•letters sent and unsent
•lists of things done
•medical details
•quotations from books, songs, etc.
•reactions to news stories
•story and other ideas
•to-do lists
•writing exercises

Keeping track of it all:

After writing, if you want to organize your journal (this is entirely optional), consider how you want to use it. Do you want to concentrate on events? On emotional states? On particular people?

When I was a teenager my journal followed my own invented calendar. Fortunately there were a few specific events (such as New Year’s Eve) that allowed me to create a Rosetta Stone for dating purposes decades later. Every so often I type up my entries and use my word processor’s search function to find specific journal details. Years ago I kept a subject index on index cards.

You may or may not want to be that detailed. Sometimes, filling a journal notebook and putting it in a safe place to read again years later can yield tremendous insights. This can also be useful if you’re not sure how you may want to use your journal material in the future, particularly if your priorities change over the years.


Earlier this year, creative nonfiction of mine taken from a journal entry was published in Reed.

A Better Box

My contributor's copy is at center right in the storage box, keeping company with other contributor's copies.


One of the discussion topics on Moleskinerie was, "What was your first entry?" I wrote:

After using other types of journal notebooks for decades, I made my first Moleskine entry on April 7, 2006. Excerpts follow:

12:41 a.m. Will be going to bed soon -- am headphoned into Ned Rorem's symphonies. Not looking to stay up too late, since I will have only about 5 hrs of sleep anyway, before I drive Mary to her stress test. Meanwhile I sit and admire this book, this piece of history. Reading the quotes on the stamp card reminds me of why I'm here. I need to remember that, keep doing my Real Job.

7:30 a.m. Waiting for Mary to be called for her stress test. I did have 2 short sleep periods -- dreamt I heard people talking outside -- a man was saying, "That's because he's an entomologist," or something similar. I heard their footfalls. The sound clarity was what convinced me it was a dream. I awoke around 3:30 a.m., based on Mary (also awake) telling me the time.

Fortunately I fell back asleep and dreamt something about cars being towed on a barge across the water, to a kind of island. It had something to do with the Mob. My 6 a.m. alarm blasted me out of that one.

Fog driving in this morning, in patchy islands gathered mostly inside stands of trees and other areas of vegetation. Very little on the roads. Looked quite enchanting. Dawn-pink sky as I drove east, the sun just beginning to show as a fuzzy orange ball as I turned toward the hospital.

11:30 a.m. Mary went in at 8 for a predicted 90-min. test. I left to get her antigen, arrived at [her doctor] at 8:15. They ramped up the dosage so I'll start her on .1 cc tomorrow -- Monday, rather. Drove home, put the antigen in the fridge, petted [our cat] Daisy (couldn't see [our other cat] Red; I imagine he was in the bedroom), took a bathroom break, drove back here. Three slowdowns for school crossings in both directions. Got here at 9:50, asked if Mary was still taking the test. Yes, and she'll be another half hour.

I checked again at 11:28. She is still back there, and it will still be "another half hour." No explanation as to why things are taking so long.

I've had a power bar and tea (before we initially left home); Mary hasn't had anything since midnight, the cut-off time for the test. I've had maybe 2 hrs of sleep. Sat here with my eyes closed to try to get in a quasi-nap, when I wasn't looking at the omnipresent TV (CNN Headline News) or looking through the paper. I've got the Corbett with me [Jim Corbett's book The Man-Eaters of Kumaon] and may try to read it if I have any earplugs in the fanny pack -- otherwise I won't be able to.

No earplugs seem to be had. I'll have to put in a pair.


Fortunately, Mary passed her stress test with flying colors.

From the Cool Coincidence department: I discovered Moleskine notebooks through Flickr because many artists draw terrific things in them and then post the photos. Among artists, Moleskines were used by Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. Among writers, Moleskines were used by Ernest Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin. (The notebooks these people used are not exactly like the current Moleskines, but the current version is based on those journals.)

Chatwin's name is what drew me to splurge and try one. (From my journal entry of March 25, 2006: "Utrecht is having a spring sale, and this time their catalogue includes the Moleskines I've heard so much about...") I had read Chatwin's book The Songlines, which details his travels through Australia, as part of preparing for my own trip there in August 1991. But Chatwin's details are interwoven with many extraordinary threads.

I wrote in my journal on August 4, 1991, "Chatwin writes the way I want to: his piecing together of fragments: slice of life, philosophy, references -- woven into a pattern, his own Songline. The book speaks to my heart in many ways -- makes me want to buy several copies to give away."

Which I did.

Fifteen years after reading The Songlines I'd forgotten that Chatwin had written about Moleskines in that work ("...and is responsible for naming them 'les carnets moleskines'" -- BBC). Other details had riveted me. Back on August 4, 1991, I was still brainstorming on ways to expand my 1985 short story that finally became Covenant and the rest of the Deviations series. On that day I found and copied into my journal entry a quote from The Songlines that became the epigraph for Covenant more than a decade later.

A bit over six months after I bought my first Moleskine I had a contract for Covenant.

For some number crunching on the Moleskine's aesthetic qualities and why they can be so mesmerizing, check out this discussion thread.


Blogger Rob Kistner said...

WOW!! How unbelievably overwhelming your undertaking is... remarkable! I am so very ADD that simply not losing the journal among the clutter of my life would be as daunting for me as sitting down with a writing implement in my hand and writing... providing I could even find the writing implement. Writing in a desktop computer works for me because the computer stays put -- always ready to receive.

I successfully kept a travel diary many years ago -- but I was on a motorcycle for a year, with so few personal belongings, all kept in one pack, that I was unable to 'lose' the diary.

Bravo for your tenacity!

1:23 PM  
Blogger paisley said...

amazing analytical on all things "diary"... journaling has been a passion in my life,, but i have lost of thrown away so many,, i long daily for their return.. to no avail... bravo on your concerted effort to keep and organize all of yours....

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an interesting and thoughtful post!

2:18 PM  
Blogger alphawoman said...

This post totally blew me away. I have kept a journal since I was in grammar school. I once burnt them all...I wish I hadn't done it, but it's over, I too have a trunk full of them. I like the large notebook kind with college ruled pages and pockets built in. I crama a lot of stuff in them, postcards, newpaper articles etc. I also carry around a small notebook....but since discovering blogging years ago, I have neglected the journals. Your entry has inspired me to begin fresh with a moleskines. Thanks for an enjoyable read.

6:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, thanks for visiting MY entry on Sunday Scribblings.

Second, wow, this was amazing. Your steamer trunk is gorgeous, and I'm half envious and half reminiscent of Harriet the Spy.

It is only today that I learned that the neo-moleskines sold at places like Barnes and Nobel come in a top-bound "reporter's notebook" style, and I'm excited about that.

but this entry, your entry, has me wanting to just write and write and write.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Sherri B. said...

WOW...!! You are the epitome of the seasoned journal writer. I am so impressed at how organized and methodical you are about your journaling...incredible! I only wish I was 1/10th as focused as you are.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Patois42 said...

If we aren't all saying WOW upon reading this post, then we're not paying close enough attention! Your habit, your skill, your devotion are all so admirable.

5:47 PM  
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