Process Journals are Invaluable, Just Ask Steinbeck
“Here is the diary of a book and it will be interesting to see how it works out.” That’s the first sentence of a process journal that John Steinbeck kept when writing The Grapes of Wrath.
As we know, The Grapes of Wrath worked out rather well–it’s a masterpiece. Because of that, it is especially fascinating to read Steinbeck’s published process journal. Titled Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, the daily journal is a record of the work “done in each day and the successes (as far as I can know it).”
John Steinbeck may be the most famous, but he’s not the only writer to have kept a process journal. Mystery author Sue Grafton had one for each novel she wrote. And author and literary scholar, Louise DeSalvo, uses a process journal for both memoir and academic works.
What to Write in a Process Journal
Steinbeck didn’t write much about his novel’s plot or structure. He gave away no trade secrets. Rather, Working Days is an inside, not-intended-for-publication accounting of Steinbeck’s creative psyche. A few entries summarize how keeping a journal helped him as he created his masterwork.
July 5, 1938
…this diary is a good idea for it gives me the opening use of words every day.
July 12, 1938
the more I think of it, the better I like this work diary idea. Always I’ve set things down to loosen up a creaking mind but never have I done so consecutively. This sort of keeps it corralled in one place.
Aug. 2, 1938
Now at least I am growing calm. This diary is a marvelous method of calming me down every day.
And a few other entries offer reassurance that even the most famous of writers suffered self-doubt.
Aug. 9, 1938
Must remember the trouble I had in Mice and Men. Thought I’d never get it done or make it work. I don’t know. Every book seems the struggle of a whole life. And then, when it is done–pouf. Never happened.
Aug. 10, 1938
I’m getting worried about this book. I wish it were done. I’m afraid I’m botching it. I think it would be a good thing to stop and think about it but I hate to lose the time. But I want it to be good and I’m afraid it is slipping. But I must remember that it always seems that way when it is well along.
Aug. 16, 1938
My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were.
Oct. 19, 1938
I’m on my very last chapter now…I am sure of one thing–it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do.
Like Steinbeck, Sue Grafton wrote a process journal every day before starting to write. Unlike Steinbeck’s bullet entry style, however, Grafton’s process journals were each four times the length of a novel.
In her journals, Grafton recorded her feelings, particularly any anxieties, so they wouldn’t interfere with her work. She also wrote snippets of dialogue, challenging parts of a scene, helpful dreams, and lines she might want to use sometime.
Sue Grafton kept her journal on computer so that she could easily search for all entries about a given topic. Every so often, she’d print out the journal and go looking for a solution to a problem she was facing in a novel. She said that, almost without exception, she’d already solved the problem in a journal entry.
Grafton shared selected journal notes with her readers after a book had been published. Here is a representative sample from the mystery, G is for Gumshoe:
I’m in Chapter 3 and feeling pretty good, but I’m wondering if I don’t need some tension or suspense. We know there may be a hit man after her. She’s currently on her way to the desert and everything seems really normal…nay, even dull. Do I need to pep it up a bit?
Ooops. In looking at the map, I realize there wouldn’t be any groves of date palms in the area where Kinsey’s driving. The date groves are all further north on 111. How can I get her up there? Or do I need to?
DeSalvo journals both before and after a writing session. Before writing, she pens her goal for the day. After writing, she finds it helpful to take a single question and journal about it for a few minutes. Her favourite questions are listed in her wonderful nonfiction work, The Art of Slow Writing. She asks herself what:
- am I happy about in my writing or my process?
- will my work give an audience?
- have I learned?
- have I done that has added to the quality of my writing or writing life?
When asked if writing in a notebook isn’t a waste of time, detracting from work on the ‘real’ book, DeSalvo retorts that no writing is a waste of time; that every word is potentially useful now or later.
Making a Modified Process Journal Public
Author Elizabeth Spann Craig decided to promote her mystery novel, A Body in the Trunk, by journaling about it as she wrote. While initially concerned that her writing process wasn’t that interesting, she found that keeping a process journal made her more observant about both inner thoughts and external happenings as she wrote.
Craig was careful not to give away any plot points, and she was writing for publication which is why I’m referring to her work as a modified process journal.
Nevertheless, Craig still found that she was able to provide readers with information on such diverse topics as how she was managing distractions, where her ideas came from, and the real life locations that spawned fictional settings. To make her book journal more visually interesting, Craig also included relevant photographs, links and video clips. Here’s a fun example:
My writing space. I always gape at the amazing writing spaces of other authors. I saw this today online: Danielle Steele’s desk:
Mine is either my kitchen counter (I do have very tall stools) or my recliner in the den. We finally got rid of the soft sofa that killed my back years ago. I used to sit on the sofa with my feet on the coffee table. The physical therapists assured me this was lunacy.
Announcing the Journal Series
Back in November I wrote about Marion Milner’s bead journals. Each journal entry answered the question, “What is the most important thing that happened today?” If you’ve experimented with bead journaling, I’d love to hear what you thought in the comments below.
This month’s post about process journals is the result of my having followed the breadcrumbs, reading first Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing and then Steinbeck’s Working Days. Are you interested in either writing or reading a process journal? If you were reading an online one, like that kept by Elizabeth Spann Craig, would it need to be for a work of fiction or would nonfiction be equally appealing?
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with journals, published and private, and look forward to ultimately writing a series, similar to the series I wrote about memoir. If there’s an aspect of journaling you’d really like explored, please let me know and I’ll be happy to move it up the priority list.