From Journal to Memoir: Killing the Internal Editor

From Journal to Memoir by Rita Jacobs

Editor's Note: In this multipart series, Signature and Rita Jacobs, PhD, will walk you through finding the inspiration and motivation to start – and keep – a journal, and will later offer some approaches to transforming journal entries into memoir. In part three of this series, Dr. Jacobs moves on to the topic of getting unstuck in your writing in an unconventional way. See earlier posts in the From Journal to Memoir series here.

Everyone who has ever tried to write knows that it is hard work and it’s also no secret that most writers get stuck now and then. This is as true of journal writers as it is of essayists, novelists, technical writers, poets, and students who just can’t get that term paper written. Since getting stuck is endemic, I’m going to devote several of the next posts to ways of getting unstuck by suggesting a variety of jumping off places for writing.

As novelist Bernard Malamud said, “The idea is to get the pencil moving quickly,” and writing quickly is one way to get your thoughts out without the interruption of the internal editor or critic. How many times have you said to yourself, “No, that’s not the word I want,” and then gone back to reread from the beginning of the sentence to find the word you thought you wanted and then decide to recast the entire sentence. By the time you’ve done this, you’ve most likely lost the thread of your original idea.

Writing quickly without giving thought to finding the right word or correcting your grammar or punctuation is essential to getting your authentic thoughts and emotions – not to mention your own voice – on the page. Certainly you can go back and make corrections if you decide that this is a piece of writing you would like to rework, and I would be drummed out of the English professors’ club if I suggested you give up on grammar and punctuation in a finished piece of writing. But this is the point I want to make: A journal entry is not a finished piece of writing. More frequently, it is a way of getting to what you want to write about – and writing done quickly, without thought to immediate revision, may surprise you with its force and content.

In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster wrote, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” He could have been talking about journal writing for many of us use our journals to learn more about what we think. Fortunately, the clarity we often gain can help us to move forward or to make decisions. But writing also helps us to come up with more ideas we might want to write about. Killing, or at least suspending, the internal editor is difficult, but with the following writing exercise you may be able to cut him or her off for a while.

Writing exercise: In Peter Elbow’s classic writing text, Writing without Teachers, he coined the term freewriting, a technique that teachers often use to enable students to understand that they do have something to write about. In this exercise, I’m suggesting using freewriting both to kill the internal editor and to find out what’s on your mind. So this week, write for ten minutes (you might want to set a timer) at least five separate times with no acknowledged topic or destination in sight. Just sit down, pick up your pen, and write as quickly as you can, spilling out what’s in your head as it comes. You may find that you reach a point where you have a clear topic and it is okay to stay with that, but even then, don’t correct yourself. Reread what you’ve written each time and see if it has a different quality, in voice, spontaneity or imagery, from what you might have written while the editor was alive in your head.