Don’t Edit Your Journal . . . until later

I often write about the Four Steps to Successful Revision. The advice still stands: add, subtract, substitute, rearrange. But it occurs to me that there is another kind of editing that adds an extra dimension to creative writing. The editing of ideas involves instant replay, form, and focus. In my case, it has always started with journaling.

Journaling is journeying . . . traveling through introspective space . . . a trip without reservations! When my husband and I traveled, I wrote, and Bob took pictures. I carried a journal (nothing fancy, simply a thick notebook), and I scribbled along as we rattled in questionable transportation along bumpy roads. There was no time for traditional editing. I recorded quick descriptions that consisted of mostly nouns and adjectives. I also wrote directions and necessary details, such as road names, opening and closing times for special stops, and entrance fees. We were, after all, planning Step-by-Step travel books and articles for England, Italy, and other not so familiar places. We had contracts, and up-to-date details had to be collected on the spot.

Memories are flighty things, and I often heard fellow travelers ask, “What was that place we visited yesterday?” “What were those spreading trees called?” “Can anybody remember the story about the castle?”

We couldn’t afford that kind of faulty memory. But details in my journal weren’t enough. That’s why every evening, without fail, we collaborated, practicing instant replay. We talked about the day, tried to recapture moments in time — visions, smells, sounds — before they got away. Remembering, brainstorming, checking the journal for accuracy, and brainstorming again was not easy — or convenient. But it was a must.

We discovered that our best, and most easily sold, articles were those that were formed on site. On one trip, we visited the infamous Devil’s Island, the former French penal colony about 11 kilometers off the coast of French Guiana. After hiking from shore to shore through the overgrown jungle, we wanted nothing more than to relax with a cold iced tea, maybe even two. We did get the cool drinks, but we didn’t relax. The island was fresh in memory. Beauty and brutality. Hell in Eden. We sat under a coconut palm and, without even taking out our notes, we began to discuss the feelings, impressions, locations that had assaulted our senses and taken us back in time to when this tranquil place was filled with sickness and pain. A rough outline emerged (form). Then we brought out the journal and compared our memories to what I had written on the spot. These memories served as fillers, the joints that connected the whole. But the meat of  the story, the form, was in the emotion of the moment.

Of course, we used traditional editing methods. But I believe that editing our ideas by zeroing in on instant replay (recalling sensory experiences that captured moments in time), form (using journal memories to connect emotional impressions with factual details), and focus (finding the heart of the story) was what made the difference between a journal entry and an article in print.

Contributed by Marilyn Donahue

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4 responses to “Don’t Edit Your Journal . . . until later

  1. Thanks, Marilyn, for this insightful article about journaling!
    ~Tina Cho

  2. Shirley Shibley

    Ooh, Marilyn, I would love to read your travel articles! Do you have copies you could copy? I know you’re working with a dealine right now, but maybe in the months ahead you might find time? I love your writing, and with your expertise of setting the articles are bound to be winners!

    Shirley

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