The Journal Writer: How to Get the Most Out of Your Journaling

I paint not by sight but by faith. Faith gives you sight.

Amos Ferguson
Yellow birch tree and moss-covered roots, Jackson Creek park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Doing Research

The appearance of things changes according to the emotions, and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves

Kahlil Gibran

Learn more by researching what you write about. This may provide solutions and ideas to help work out difficulties. It will certainly help to increase your interest and learning in the subject areas you’ve written about.

Your journal entries may serve the additional purpose of being a resource for something you later wish to investigate. Say, you had made some interesting entries on the cycles of the moon during a particular cosmic occurrence. You may wish to use these observations later in a school project on that cosmic event. Of course, this underscores the merit of keeping an accurate journal when recording natural phenomena, including date and time.

Path through red pine forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Harvest Your Journal

He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened

Lao Tzu

One of the real benefits of journal writing is the gift of perspective you get from the flow of ideas, experiences and learning through your journal’s sustained use over a period of time. The more frequent, detailed and honest your entries have been, the more you will get out of them when you revisit your journal to reflect on what you’ve written. This is why daily journaling can be so rewarding. Through the lens of perspective over time, you may begin to see patterns in your activities, reactions and observations that you weren’t aware of before. It’s like Max Planc said about nature: “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” When you step out of the stream you were in and look in from outside, you will gain insight through a new perspective. The payoffs can include galvanizing new ideas, arriving at action items that suddenly make sense, and providing material for making new plans.

Make a point of reading your journals. Often. The three steps in harvesting your journal are: 1) read; 2) ponder; and 3) reread. These three steps can be used as many times as you wish. I would add another optional step too: research. During your revisit, you may find a benefit to researching outside your journal for answers or clarification to ideas and concepts and questions that emerge from your review.

Making sense of your journal takes time. Ken Plummer (2001) tells us that this analysis part in the journaling process is the “truly creative part of the work… It entails brooding and reflecting upon mounds of [information] for long periods of time until it makes sense and feels right, and key ideas and themes flow from it. It is also the hardest process to describe.” He suggests that the standard technique is to read and make notes (and research), leave and ponder (and research), reread without notes, make new notes, ponder (and research), reread and so on.  Ideas and glimmers of understanding emerge. You can deepen these through conversation with others and through research (e.g., reading relevant texts, online searches, etc.).

—What is Truth?

Judith Barrington, author of Writing the Memoir, describes factual truth and emotional truth and that they are not necessarily the same thing.

It’s important to acknowledge the emotional truth of events and actions in our lives. How you express and remember an event tells you as much about your state of mind and heart then — and now — as the event itself.  Understanding the importance of personal truth in capturing the essence of the events as they pertain to you and your life journey can empower you and can also be revealing.

Cedars growing on ancient decayed cedar logs in swamp forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

—Questions To Ask as You Review Your Journal

Here are some basic questions you can ask yourself as you reread your journal:

  • Do any experiences, situations or understandings stand out for you? What is it about them that is catching your attention?
  • Does what you have written in your journal still resonate with you? Were you fully honest and do the interpretations you made at the time still make sense? From your present standpoint and understanding, are there items you need to re-interpret?
  • Is there anything missing? Was there something revealed that you evaded?
  • Can you see any connection with any broader experience, problem or theme you were/are exploring?

You may wish to eventually use your journal(s), whether personal (mixed) or themed, as a research/resource for development of theories or later projects you may embark on — say, a memoir or a project in school or at work that relates to a theme you covered (e.g., on the subject of recycling that you covered in a journal you kept).

—Making a Themed Index

You may wish to keep the first few pages of your paper journal free to make an index later that will identify 1) particular aspects touched upon in your journal, 2) themes that have revealed themselves and 3) important milestones recognized in your life story.

Making an index for your journal will help you organize your thoughts and feelings over the time period covered. It will also help you find relevant entries more easily later on.

There are many ways to index and code your journal. It helps if you number the pages first. If you are indexing themes (say, anything to do with your friend Alison) — which you may have made entries about not chronologically but chaotically throughout the journal — you can code any relevant page to Alison with a sticky note of a certain colour and refer to that colour in your index alongside your reference to “Alison”. This way, when you wish to come back and revisit those references to do with Alison specifically, you can simply go to those pages coded with that colour.

Underbrush among rocks in swamp cedar forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

—Using Metaphor & Personification

Because metaphor compares one thing to another, when you use metaphor you are linking events or things to your personal feelings, which can reveal, heal and provide directions for action. Because metaphor relies on individual comparison and interpretation, it will mean different things to different people. Let’s take the example “the darkness embraced her”. When I wrote that line, I was comparing the darkness to a sweetheart. When I shared the metaphor with my writing students, one of them shared that what first came to her mind was an image of a vampire about to devour her. In my mind the darkness was friendly, safe and warmly thrilling; in my student’s mind the darkness was sinister, scary and suffocating. What’s important is what the metaphor means to you. It will help reveal your feelings at the time you wrote.

Exercise: Compare a person you know to the following: a peacock; a sloth; a dung beetle; a rabbit. What physical and emotional connotations do you get?   Take a piece of your own writing and find all the metaphors and similes. Highlight them then interrogate them. What do they say?

Reference: Munteanu, 2009. “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” Pixl Press. 164pp.

Path through maple beech forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

 —Become a “Connoisseur”

Journals are all about expression and learning from it. They enable us to examine ourselves and our world, analyze, conclude and develop. Learning relies on an element of artistry: the ability to improvise, devise new ways of looking at things, and then act on them in new ways. According to Donald Schőn (1987) such artistry is an exercise of intelligence — a kind of knowing. Through engaging with our experiences we can develop maxims about, say, working or relating to a group or individual. We learn to appreciate — to be aware and to understand — what we have experienced. “We become connoisseurs.” (Eisner, 1998).

According to Eisner (1998) connoisseurship involves the ability to see, not merely to look. This means developing the ability to name and appreciate the different dimensions of situations and experiences, and the way they relate to one another. It means drawing upon and making sense of a wide array of information. It means placing your experiences and understanding in a wider context. And connecting them with your values and commitments. That’s where writing and keeping journals comes in.

—Become a “Critic”

“If connoisseurism is the art of expression, criticism is the art of disclosure” (Eisner, 1998). According to Eisner, the mandate of criticism is the re-education of perception. The task of the critic is to help us see (not just look). In order to learn from what you honestly express, you must don the critic hat and analyze. Think of criticism as the “midwife of perception.” It helps perception come into being, then later refines it so you can learn from it. 

This article is an excerpt from The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice (Pixl Press, 2013) by Nina Munteanu.

The Journal Writer is the second writing guide in the Alien Guidebook Series. This comprehensive guidebook will help you choose the best medium, style and platform for your expressive writing. The guide provides instruction on issues of safety, using the computer and electronic devices, social media and the internet.

Engaging, accessible, and easily applicable…Brava, Nina, brava.”—David Merchant, Instructor, Louisianna Tech University

Straight up, fact-filled, enriching, joyful and thorough…Nina is honest, she is human and she wants you to succeed.”—Cathi Urbonas, Halifax writer

References:

Barrington, Judith. 2002. Writing the Memoir. The Eighth Mountain Press. Portland, OR. 187pp.

Campbell, Joseph. 1988. The Power of Myth: with Bill Moyers. MJF Books. New York, NY. 293pp.

Eisner, Elliot W. 1998. “The art of educational evaluation: a personal view.” Falmer Press. London.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 264pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. “The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 170pp.

Plummer, Ken. 2001. “Documents of Life 2: an invitation to a critical humanism.” Sage. London.

Schőn, Donald. 1987. “The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action.” Temple Smith. London.

Vogler, Christopher. 1998. “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.” 2nd Edition. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California. 326pp.

Cedar tree roots during rain, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

On Conducting Interviews…

Nina-SiriusXM-Radio 2016

Nina Munteanu doing an interview on SiriusXM Radio

Being a Smart Reporter

Whether you’re writing non-fiction or fiction, at some point in your research you may need to conduct an interview. It might be a local police officer who handled a case similar to something you are writing about; it might be a scientist in the university who has critical information on something covered in your story; it might be a friend who has experienced something you wish to get first-hand knowledge of for one of your characters. Either way, you need to conduct your interview professionally, efficiently and with sufficient thoroughness and accuracy to get what you need.

In other words, you need to be a good journalist.

Pillars of Good Journalism

The pillars of good journalism include: 1) thoroughness; 2) accuracy; 3) fairness; and 4) transparency.

These days, thoroughness means more than exhausting your resources, real or virtual. It also includes getting input from your readers, says Robin Good, online publisher and new media communication expert.

Likewise, says Good, being accurate may include saying what you don’t know and being open to input from your readership; this invites dialogue between you and your respected reader. The key, of course, is respect.

Which brings us to fairness: this includes listening to different viewpoints and incorporating them into your journalism. Fairness, says Good, is about letting people respond and listening to them, particularly if they disagree with you. Both learn from the experience.

And, lastly, part of being transparent is revealing and making accessible to your readers your source material.

Things to Consider When Doing That Interview

As a writer it’s guaranteed that you will at some time require information from a real person. Depending on the nature of your research and its intended destination and audience, you may wish to conduct anything from a casual phone or email enquiry to a full-blown formal face-to-face interview. This will also depend on who you are interviewing, from a neighbor to a government official.

In an article in Writer’s Digest, Joy Lanzendorfer suggests that you adopt the following tactics to get your interview further than the basics and to fully take advantage of your source (oh, I didn’t mean it that way!):

  • Do your research ahead of time: read up on your subject and include both sides of an issue (if that’s relevant). This helps you to respond intelligently with better follow-up questions.
  • Ask open-ended questions: avoid yes and no questions and get them to elaborate. Asking “why” solicits explanation, which will give your article depth.
  • Ask for examples: this provides a personal aspect to the article that gives it warmth and makes it more interesting.
  • Ask personal questions: what’s the worst thing that can happen? They can simply say “no”; the up side is you may get a gem. The personal angle from the interviewee’s perspective gives your article some potential emotional aspect that gives it human-interest.
  • Ask the interviewee for any further thoughts to share: it’s an innocuous question, but can offer-up more gems. What it provides you with is the possibility of getting something you might not have thought of, sparked by your conversation.

Don’t be afraid to confirm names, places or any facts your interviewee brings up. This will inspire confidence in them about the thoroughness and accuracy in your reporting.

What NOT to Say…

In an article in Writer’s Digest, Nancie Hudson gives the following excellent advice about what you should never say to a source:

  • “There’s no rush.”—never reveal your deadline. Think about it; what do you normally do when there’s a deadline? Right … If you’re going to share a deadline, say it’s sooner than it really is.
  • “I’ve never covered this topic before.”—this kind of information is inappropriate and may make your interviewee uncomfortable (and worried about your unproven abilities to properly interview her instead of focusing on herself and what you’re interviewing her about). Besides, it’s not what you know but what you learn that counts.
  • “I’ll be using what you say extensively.”—don’t assume and make promises you may not be able to keep, until after the interview.
  • “I don’t get it.”—if you don’t understand something, get clarification rather than making a negative remark that tends to stop them dead in their tracks.
  • “you can review the piece before it’s published.”—this is something that can be dealt with over the phone to confirm facts; the source doesn’t need to see the whole piece before it’s published.
  • “This is going to be a fantastic article!”—keep your tone professional; there’s nothing wrong with being positive, but you should maintain a professional attitude that inspires confidence in the interviewee rather than giddy wild energy. 

 

References

Good, Robin. “The Pillars of Good Journalism”. In: Master New Media:  http://www.masternewmedia.org/news/2005/01/29/the_pillars_of_good_journalism.htm

Hudson, Nancie. 2007. “6 Things You Should Never Say to a Source”. In: Writer’s Digest. April, 2007.

Lanzendorfer, Joy. 2008. “Interview Tactics”. In: Writer’s Digest. February, 2008.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” Starfire World Syndicate. Chapter “I”.

 

 

 

 

Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

Do Your Research

CreditRiverWalk-oct2018

Walking along the Credit River (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Research is something many writers dislike and find daunting or even intimidating. Research for your book or short story will take on many forms from subtle to obvious and from non-directed (opportunistic) to directed (e.g., library). Its form and rigorousness will vary according to your purpose and circumstance. And where you go to do your research will vary accordingly.

In truth, as a writer, you are doing research all the time: when you’re riding the bus or train to work, when you’re traveling on vacation, when you’re having a lively discussion—or better yet an argument—with a friend or colleague. Everything you experience and observe is research. This is what’s called non-directed research. Writers, like all artists, are reporters of life, actively participating and observing. A writer is an opportunist, gathering her data through her daily life experiences.

Why is Research Important?

notebook-vineyard-NOTL

Niagara on the Lake, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

You might be saying: well, that’s all well and good for a historical-mystery set in Budapest or a science fiction thriller set in the Vega system. But you don’t need to do research because you’re writing a fantasy or a memoir. Neither of these, on the face of it, appears to require research: the fantasy is based on a totally made up world, after all, and the memoir is all about you. So, why bother? As a matter of fact, they both need research. Most books do, particularly nowadays for our multiplex, intelligent and discerning readership. Readers of any fiction enjoy learning something when they read, particularly when it’s seamless and made easy through a compelling story. It’s a real bonus.

To return to the fantasy, you will find very quickly that in order to build a consistent world (even if it’s mostly from your own imagination), you will need to draw upon something real to anchor your imaginary world upon. Whether this reflects a powerful myth or forms an alternative version of a real society, you will still need to apply some “rules” to follow, so you don’t lose your reader.

With respect to the memoir, the need for research lies in placing your story in context with either some event, idea, theme or place of interest to attract readership. Unless you’re a world unto yourself (e.g., you’re a celebrity of some kind with an established following), your story will require this larger element within which to place your personal story. That’s where research comes in.

Internet as Resource and Risk

The Internet provides an excellent database that is rich with information, if you know how to get it and qualify it.

Chances are that your favorite newspaper or magazine has a strong online presence. The Internet provides an excellent platform for finding resources in a myriad of subjects. It is the largest single place where you can find current information relevant to almost anything.

With information so readily accessible and easy to find through Google and other search engines as well as giant amoeba-like encyclopedia wiki sites like Wikipedia, you needn’t suffer the frustrations of library and book searches. However, there is risk.

The risk is related ironically to the very accessibility of online information. You need to be even more vigilant of the veracity and reliability of your sources when conducting online research.

Optimizing Your World Wide Web Search

The Teaching Library Internet Workshop at Berkley University provides excellent tutorials on how to search the internet for topics. They recommend a search strategy that analyzes your topic and searches with “peripheral vision”. For instance, they suggest that you:

  • define for your topic any distinctive words or phrases, an overview of the broader topic to which your topic belongs, any synonyms equivalent terms or variants of spelling to include
  • not assume you know what you want to find. Look at search results and see what you might use in addition to what you’ve thought of
  • switch between search engines and directories and back

Verifying Your Research

Path deas park

Deas Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When doing research, particularly on the Internet (but anywhere), you should do several things:

  • Use more than one source, particularly for important things; this will give you a wider range of material from which to discern accuracy and reliability
  • Verify your sources and preferably cross-reference to measure out objective “truth” vs bias
  • Try to use primary sources (original) vs. secondary or tertiary sources (original cited and open to interpretation); the closer you are to the original source, the closer you are to getting the original “story”
  • When going to more than one source, try to get a range of different source-types (e.g., conservative newspaper vs. blog vs. special interest site, etc.) to gain a full range of insight into the issue you’re researching

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.