Have you ever read somebody else’s journal?
I don’t mean your sister’s, your brother’s or your best friend’s. I’m talking about the journals of those literary and now long-gone heavyweights.
In each of these deeply powerful and personal works, I learnt important lessons about writing and creativity that helped me view the world differently.
These works can help you too.
Here are five of those powerful creative lessons:
1. Discipline and Routine Triumph Over Passion
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Anytime, I avoid writing because I’m tired, bored or devoid of ideas, I remind myself of the importance of discipline.
Almost every writer I’ve read about sacrificed to pursue their work. They rose early or worked late into the night and the wrote because they had to and not just when they felt the hand of inspiration.
Virginia Woolf wrote with a pencil and paper every morning until the early afternoon.
She writes about her routine, her ordinary moments:
“I generally write with heat and ease till 12.30; and thus do my two pages. So it will be done, written over that is, in 3 weeks, I forecast from today”
Cheever bemoans his lack of discipline throughout his journals. However, in an entry written shortly before his death in 1982, he recognises he possessed this essential and departing personal strength that comes with adhering to a writing routine.
“I have climbed from a bed on the second floor to reach this typewriter. This was an achievement. I do not understand what has happened to the discipline, or character, that has brought me here for so many years,” he writes.
2. Writers Need a Side-interest or Hobby
Yes, discipline is important, but not at the cost of day-to-day life.
For a long time, I thought there was nothing more important than filling a blank page with sentences.
Now, I spend time running, reading, traveling, meeting friends and sitting quietly.
And I’m OK with that.
Even if you’ve found a passion, side-interests are essential.
When you’re in danger of burning out, taking time pursue a side-interest will stoke the embers of what inspires you.
Woolf chronicled her long walks while Cheever wrote dozens of entries about swimming, cycling, and meeting friends.
“I do have trouble with the dead hours of the afternoon without skating, skiing, bicycling, swimming, or sexual discharges or drink,” he writes.
The Russian writer Nabokov had little time for eating, socialising or drinking coffee with friends.
Instead, he loved to solve chess problems and study butterflies. Both of these interests informed his work; his novel, Zashchita Luzhina (The Luzhin Defense), features an insane chess player.
He writes in his memoir:
“And the highest enjoyment of timelessness…is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love.”
3. Even the Best Creative People are Insecure
I don’t like writing posts like this. I worry how people will perceive me, and if I’ll upset or offend anyone.
I’m insecure but every now and again I try to write more honest articles like these, and I start with journal entries.
Virginia Woolf taught me even the greats were insecure about their work and that if I didn’t worry, then something would be amiss. Criticism can even help writers improve their craft.
“What is the use of saying one is indifferent to reviews when positive praise, though mingled with blame, gives one such a start on, that instead of feeling dried up, one feels, on the contrary, flooded with ideas?”
Cheever wasn’t one for paying too much attention to his critics. He almost never re-read his works or the reviews about them.
That said, even Cheever occasionally dreamt (worried) about how people saw him.
He writes in his journal:
“…and last night I had a dream that a brilliant reviewer pointed out that there was an excess of lamentation in my work.”
One way to overcome insecurity is to practice expressing gratitude.
I try to do this by thanking those who take the time to read or even share my work, and by appreciating that writers today have more places to express themselves than before.
4. Mortality, Death and all the Ugly Stuff Make for Great Prose
It was a happy time but after my son was born, I dreamt about death and how my life would end.
I knew I wasn’t depressed but I worried there was something wrong with me. Then a friend (also a recent father), confessed the same thoughts.
As we get older, it’s natural to consider mortality and death. To pretend death doesn’t exist is to live in ignorance of the bond we all share.
There are echoes of death in Woolf’s, Cheever’s and Nabokov’s memoirs, and these authors taught me it’s unnatural to avoid considering our place in the world.
In the opening pages of Speak Memory, Nabokov unpacks the notion of time as a single linear event. He challenged the reader to see not just the end point of life, but the beginning of life as well.
“….my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life.”
5. Journal writing is an essential writing practice
The journals of Cheever, Woolf and Nabokov taught me that keeping a journal helps identify negative patterns, thoughts and behaviours.
Woolf writes about her depression at length. In 1934, she describes the period after she finished her experimental novel the Waves.
“I was, I remember, nearer suicide, seriously, than since 1913.”
John chronicles his alcoholism at length in his journal and towards the end of his book, it’s hard not the feel the same sense of relief as he does upon finally becoming sober.
I don’t want to be too morbid here.
The journals of these authors aren’t all filled with dark life lessons and lamentations. Sometimes, these writers express express gratitude.
Nabokov writes at length about his love for his mother and father, his son and Russia of old. And I’ve yet to read a more powerful personal mission statement than Cheever’s aspiration for the blank page:
“To write well, to write passionately, to be less inhibited, to be warmer, to be more self-critical, to recognise the power of as well as the force of lust, to write, to love.”
Why Yesterday’s Writers Are Today’s Mentors
I share these five lessons about writing and creativity because these authors showed me that the words can help us find the way.
I’m not going to lie and pretend these authors will impact you in the same way.
Perhaps they affected me because I’m interested in the lives of other authors and writers.
I feel as if I know them because their problems and struggles are one-part unique and another-part universal.
Unlike the latest social media trend, their writings and ideas stand today as a lasting source of strength for writers and creative people of all types.
What lessons about creativity or writing have you learnt in strange places?
Share them in the comments section below.
“Johncheever”. Licensed under Public Domain via Creative Commons via Wikipedia
Vladimir Nabokov, Montreux, October 1969 via Giuseppe Pino (Mondadori Publishers)
Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford via Wikipedia