Process Journals and The Art of Slow Writing

I’ve been an advocate for and practitioner of “slow writing” for decades though I never knew there was a name for it. Others can have their NaNoWriMo or their finish-your-novel-in-six-weeks or -a-weekend or however speedily they want to go. A daily practice of anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours with an occasional long weekend or even longer retreat thrown in is what works for me.

Recently, I began reading The Art of Slow Writing, by Louise DeSalvo, and apparently, I’m not the only slow-writing practitioner. DeSalvo includes stories from some of my hero-writers like John Steinbeck and Henry Miller along with Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence, and a impressive library of other “slow writers,” including DeSalvo herself.

The chapter I read this morning, and what prompted me to write this blog is Chapter 13—Process Journal. This was synchronistic because just yesterday I had gone to the art supply store to buy a new blank book to begin a process journal about my current writing project, which has really taken hold.

The first time I learned about the use of such journals was years ago when I read John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, which he created while writing East of Eden. Each working day, Steinbeck warmed up to the work with a letter to Pascal Covici, his friend and editor at Viking, in which he described his process, his plans, story and character explorations, and more personal notes. (Recommended reading)

process journal 2I’ve used process journals for both my fiction and nonfiction writing. In them I copy quotes and excerpts; list books or articles or websites I want to research; plan, organize, and order scenes, chapters, and timelines. I draw maps of settings and jot down character descriptions and lines of dialogue. Weather. Historic events. Plot and chapter ideas. I noodle out notes when I’m stuck and try various approaches to get unstuck. I write outside the story to explore possibilities and backstory and deepen my understanding. I pose story or character or structure problems and sometimes solutions to problems. I write encouraging notes to myself and whiney paragraphs of self-doubt. I start my writing time with the journal and keep it beside my bed at night.

process journal 1When I was actively working on my novel, All That Isn’t Singing, I even titled my companion journal “Notes on the Process,” and decorated it with an image of a cover I’d created for the book.

In describing Sue Grafton’s process in Chapter 13 of her book, DeSalvo calls it “…a record of the conversation [Grafton] has with herself about the work in progress.” Both DeSalvo and Grafton keep their process journals on the computer. During the writing and pre-writing of Wild Women, Wild Voices, I kept both a hand-written process journal and a sort-of process journal on my computer using Scrivener, which was great for posting images and linking sites as well as outlining and structuring chapters.

The process journal is helpmate, friend, and companion along the way as well as documentation of our process and our work. It’s part of the art of “slow writing.” DeSalvo writes, “Our process journals are where we engage in the nonjudgmental, reflective witnessing of our work. Here, we work at defining ourselves as active, engaged, responsible, patient writers.”

Do you create a process journal for your writing projects?

Writing Yourself as Character

Last night in our Wild Women, Wild Voices writing group, our focus was on Body Writing: Voice of the Senses. The session included several writing explorations, and as always, there wasn’t enough time to write all we wanted to write, discuss all we wanted to discuss, and share all we wanted to share.

One of our writing exercises, which I hadn’t done in a group before and which I found more than a little interesting, was to write a character description of ourselves.

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