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To write, write it down. All of it.

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Thursday, 7 May 2015, 10:15

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.” Will Self

This is tip one of ten from the Open University course 'Start Writing Fiction' and its launch of a Twitter Fiction campaign.

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On keeping a notebook, diary or learning journal. On paper.

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Anything you might use. Think of yourself as an artist before the era of the portable camera. If you don’t sketch something now you’ll forget it. So with words and ways of expressing what you see, feel, do and think. Get those ideas and descriptions down as soon as you can.

Try to work them up that evening, that day. Within a couple of days. Think of this as nurturing a seedling that will have to be transplanted in a day, week, even in a year or five years time. It’ll wait for you, but only if you have made it robust.

Write, and rewrite, toy with it and layer it. Have you recreated a sense of the moment as it was experienced the first time? Maybe. This effort to recall the moment creates a multitude of connections in your brain, some logical, many not, some becoming fixed, some floating, all transformed every nanosecond more that you live. There is no stability in it, not on the page and never in your head.

Then use these ideas somewhere. In a short story, or in a character or context description. It’ll come in time. It’ll become easier.

No automatic recording device can do this for you. A gadget works in absolutes, in numbers. What it takes for you is fixed. Write it down.

Like many of us, I'm sure, I wordpress and go online. I conceive and store ideas on these things. None yet gets close to offering the emotional power of what I said, and where I said it forty years ago: in a school kid diary, in a letter to my grandfather, even typed up with the portable typewriter I got one Christmas. Boxed up and stored I know have a way back into the child's head, that young teenager's hopes and observations. I even printed out filed and boxed stuff from the Amstrad in the 1980s and the various MACs I had in the 1990s and that originated on the Psion in 2000. Anything I thought would be safe on a floppy disc, or Zip drive is probably lost. I can't figure out to read them on a modern device. A box full of paper is another thing.

At 53 my life has been short. At 89 my father-in-law is going through his 'archive' - an academic and educator his house has over the years become a physical expression of the contents of his brain. There are books three columns deep to the ceiling, there are bedrooms stacked with boxes of papers and newspapers. As most of his faculties fail he now has a PhD student at his side to give some order to his archive, and to his life. Sharing it with one, on paper, at this stage, has to be more rewarding and effective than doing it digitally in a blog with wiki-like affordances. 

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21 good reasons to blog a lot

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Tuesday, 20 Mar 2012, 15:42

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'It seems to me that I follow only the most accessible thread. Three or four threads may be agitated, like telegraph wires, at the same time, and if I were to tap them all I would reveal such a mixture of innocence and duplicity, generosity and calculation, fear and courage. I cannot tell the whole truth simply because I would have to write four journals at once. I often would have to retrace my steps, because of my vice for embellishment'.

Anais Nin

(Henry & June, Journals, July 1932)


A diary can be  many things:

1) a record of what happens to me and around me each day

2) a notebook for whatever I’m reading

3) a record and analysis of dreams

4) a place to try my hand at exposure

5) a place to describe how it is, or isn’t;

6)a place to practise lies

7) a place to drill, thrill and hone my skill

8) a place to underplay, exaggerate or avoid

9) a place to lose myself in Truth

10) a place to play

11) a place where a blank pages means something as a day missed is a day when I’m too ill, too depressed, too drunk or too bored with it writers keep diaries to record events -a writer’s journal I do this; working up events until they have become more real that reality as I obscure what happened with scene setting detail and by bringing narrative order to the muddle of a daily life.

12)  At times I write as a drill, to practice, at others because I feel an obligation, it is what I do most days, every day.

13) I use these pages to extract a writing style and extricate myself from the bland.

Lately a form has emerged as I tripped and stumbled over a keyboard I’ve been hacking at the undergrowth until I have found my way, happily pursing forest paths and following streams back to their source.

14) I keep a diary as a record of events: what I did, where, with whom.

At times I reduce the diary to bullet points, satisfied that I've not lost the day forever to obscurity.

As a painter I had to draw what I saw, from reality, not straight out of the mind or by copying.

As a writer I hoped at first that I could write candidly about reality and once I had established that I could progress to fiction.

Do I want to put my life under the microscope?

Am I writing postcards to myself?

It all counts. It all mounts This writing is never supposed to be a draft of anything Francois Truffaut said he felt it was necessary to read everything to give the mind food and things to smart against. It is worth reading all kinds of things.

So how many diaries or journals do I need?

15) a dream book

16) a diary for a straight log of what I did during the day

17) a journal as a notebook (as here)

18) a memory jogger

19) something for assessment/analysis of what I am thinking and reading

20) a scrapbook.

How many is that? Would four do the trick?

You should try it for a year

There comes that moment when you can reflect on what you were doing exactly a year ago amd to feel the same every time another entry is composed.

I kept a five year day for eight years in my early teens: the five lines per day are hopeless unrevealing.

I washed my hair, cleaned out the rabbit kind of thing. Some rare moments bring back the day or event. I began to record dreams in my mid-teens, tiring off it when I found I could recall four or more dreams each night taking several hours to write them up the following day.

I kept a scrapbook and dairy in a ring-bind folder when I went on an exchange with a French boy and repeated this around my 17th birthday, filling a folder in one month and so realising I needed a different approach.

Then I settled for a page of A4 per day every day, not less and rarely more.

21) Write as much or as little as you like.

Being able to write as much as I liked I found myself filling a dozen pages plus and so quickly lost the detail that would have otherwise identified the day, month and year. I wanted to buy a scrapbook again for ages.

Then along came the Web.

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