This collaged notebook represents a watershed moment in my writing life.
Nowadays it's not unusual for teachers to have kids write journals. But in 1977, when I took three English classes at once and two of them required journals, it was very new. (I'm hoping one of my teachers will comment on this post and say what the thinking was.) I was a high school senior with a scary scientific paper term project (another assignment that had a major impact on my future writing and interests), trigonometry to survive, and lots of other senior-type things to do, so I asked the two teachers to let me write one journal that they both could read and grade.
I wasn't worried about the journal writing, just didn't want to have to write two journals. I had kept a diary since I was nine, and was a regular journaler. Sometimes I shared sentences or paragraphs of what I'd written with my aunt (just a year older than me), who also journaled. But this was the first time I'd ever written something that I knew for certain would be read by somebody else.
Mainly the journals were read for quantity; we had to write a certain number of entries, and one of the teachers (not the one I hope will comment) really seemed to just check it off. But under the eyes of the other teacher, Fran Kondziela, my writing bloomed and took off. A theater director as well as an English teacher, she was quick to point out that I needed an audience. Now, isn't that an interesting thing to find out about yourself? It makes sense, I guess. Like many who aren't physically confident, loathe getting up on a stage, and have palpitations about public speaking, I became a writer because I needed to express myself. Who was reading? Nobody -- until Ms. K.
My journal, Ms. K's comment
And that wasn't all: my writing improved when I had feedback, not just approval, from someone else. Ms. K. posed questions and made comments in my margins, and that led me to better, clearer, more thoughtful writing. Looking back at it, I also notice that I was forever drawing and doodling. Here's one example, J.R.R. Tolkien, from the back of my copy of The Two Towers.
Doodle: Tolkien and his ear
As ever, journaling has enormous value for me as a writer and as a human. It's fun and funny and educational to look back on the things I was worried about when I was 17, or 32, or 47. It helps me to see straight into those days as if I had a telescope taking the long view back into the dots on my personal timeline. So much is there, from the music I was listening to (and going to concerts of such as, in 1977, Eric Carmen, Loggins and Messina, and Peter Frampton).
I don't share my journal entries anymore, preferring to keep them private. But the journal begun for high school English in the spring of '77 taught me the value of working with a trusted reader or writing partner, someone who would confirm what was good and question what was questionable.
Nowadays I rely on the response of other writers, artists, editors, my agent, and my children.
For several years, I worked with a novels-only writing group that devoted hours and hours to each other's work -- and from which some truly beautiful novels emerged, and continue to emerge even though we have disbanded.
Without the responses of my daughter Emily and author/illustrator friend Katie Davis, Doodlebug would never have come to be, and writer/editor Ann Downer provides invaluable input about my Humanimal Doodles.
I've got to get to work, I really do. I've got a new writing partner, Gail Carson Levine, and she's expecting a new installment of the semi-graphic novel I'm working on. I'm inspired by the masterful revisions Gail has been doing on her own novel chapters, and reminded once again how important it is to have an audience that listens well, makes comments, and tries to follow my sketchy plots.
Sometimes it's difficult. Every time Gail and I meet she asks me a question that causes me to drop my head right onto the table in dismay -- something I'd blanked on, not thought of, done wrong, not considered. It's not easy, this writing job! But then I think of a possible answer, and Gail shakes her head, I think of another and Gail tilts her head to one side, considering. We talk about it a while. And then I get back to work.
Counting my blessings here, I'm very grateful. And that includes Peter Frampton.