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

John Steinbeck

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.

Sue Grafton

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?

Louise DeSalvo

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.

Danielle Steel's desk
Credit: Aubrie Pick via Vanity Fair

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:

Oct. 15
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.

Notebook and Pen Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash





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  1. I am still experimenting with bead journaling. I also keep a travel journal of our wanderings. But after reading your lovely bead journal entry, I find mine pale in comparison. Not just a green-eyed monster here, but you made me want to evolve my own journaling efforts into something a little more thoughtful and, for lack of a better word, delicious! Thank you! ~ Lynn

    1. Lynn, I’m so sorry that I didn’t see this comment awaiting moderation until now. I always (except this time) get a message in my inbox. Tonight, I just happened to be in the dashboard deleting a partial draft and I saw your message. My apologies. The good news is that it shouldn’t happen again. You should be able to post freely on my site. If you find you can’t, please do let me know.
      And thanks for your comment, and compliment, about the bead journalling. I must confess that this is NOT the kind of journalling I do on a regular basis, but it is certainly the kind that I too would like to do more often. We can cheer each other on 🙂

  2. I’ve been reading The Artist’s Way and have started writing ‘morning pages’ every day. It has helped to calm me and gives me the reassurance that I have written every day, quieting the ‘shoulds.’ It is a wonderful exercise and has helped me take action in a few areas I was stalled in. This overview you’ve shared today with other authors – some of the greats – is most reassuring to me. We are all cut from the same cookie dough, it seems.

  3. Hi Molly,
    An excellent book, The Artist’s Way. I highly recommend all of Julia Cameron’s books. I recently read one of hers – It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again: Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond. It’s tagged as “An Artist’s Way Program for Retirees and Other Creative Souls.” If you ever decide that you want to write any memoir, Cameron takes you through a progress of remembering and either writing or creating in response to questions she poses for each seven year chunk of your life. Of course it’s a good read, even if you don’t decide to go there.
    I too found Steinbeck’s angst so reassuring. The more we can humanize any creative process, the better!
    Thanks for commenting, Molly.

  4. Wonderful post Karen, and so timely for me! I plan to journal daily while on vacation. I’ll be using the Day One Journal app on my phone because I will be traveling as light as possible (carry-on only), and the journal I was planning on taking is taking up too much valuable real estate in my bag, I have decided. I’m going to check out The Art of Slow Writing and Julia Cameron’s latest as well. I loved The Artist’s Way!


    1. Sounds like a wonderful plan for a vacation, Deb. And traveling light is the only way to go. I’ve done carry-on only on all of my trips. You know what’s really fun? Take old t-shirts, old underwear and discard after wearing. You come back even lighter than when you started out, or you fill up that empty space with new mementos of your vacation.
      Have an amazing time, Deb.

  5. Hi, Karen – Fascinating post! Yes — I would love for you to turn this into a series. It is easy to think of words just pouring out of the pen of John Steinbeck and other incredibly talented writers. We often don’t think of the fear and self-doubt that hide behind their talent.
    After reading this post, I did get a bit sidetracked by Danielle Steele’s desk–which led me to viewing Jackie Collin’s ‘crystal panther’ desk. A fun digression!

    1. Thanks, Donna. And thanks for the hint about Jackie Collins’ desk. I just went and looked at it. Wow. I think sitting behind that desk would make me feel like a captain of industry, someone on Star Trek’s Enterprise, or the most overwhelmed, inconsequential, insignificant of all time! I wonder if she really writes at that thing or if it’s just a showpiece.

  6. Karen, Since I morning journal I’ve started asking the bead-related question more as “what was the most important thing that happened yesterday?” (You inspired that). I don’t write on-end about it…but it does help me think about the previous day a bit differently. This morning, my response was about noticing the sunlight reflecting and glimmering through the ice-covered trees. It was a magical moment yesterday and I was happy to relive it this morning. I’ve stuck with the morning papers from Julia Cameron’s book now for almost 2 years and continue to find benefit in it. This year I added the “how will I soar today?” question as well. So far it’s also been inspirational.

    I’ve got a second journal where I note things of interest in my personal development – notes and impressions from other bloggers, notes from reading, etc. That’s been inspiration for my blog posts. And I always have a journal for when I travel which keeps track of what we do each day, where we eat, my reactions to things.

    You could say I love journalling!

    Maybe someday if I’m rich an famous , my journals will be made public. Hah!

    1. Hey, you never know, Pat. Good thing that you keep up that journaling just in case 🙂
      I’m interested that you have a separate journal for personal development. When I first read that, I couldn’t imagine how it would be much different from your first journal, but then I clued in. In fact I realized that I actually do the same thing but I keep my notes from reading in a folder on my computer rather than in a journal. That’s because their final destination is my DevonThink database program. Do you have a Mac, Pat? If you do, I’ll tell you about DevonThink. It’s a researcher’s dream, but I think it’s only available for Macs.

  7. What an interesting read this post was Karen! There are so many different kinds of journals and each one has its advantages and reasons for being. I would love to see a series on this subject similar to the one you did on memoirs. Currently, I am not doing much journalling. Any time I spend writing right now is devoted to memoir material to rework later and even that is not getting added to very much lately. I have been busy tackling my YouTube channel progress which I have made my biggest focus this year. I am also practicing guitar in order to do my weekly update videos and keep up with the Powassan Jammers (another meetup happening this Sunday afternoon). I have kept journals over the years and found them really useful for looking back on to remember how I felt while going through some difficult times in life. I think the bead journal has my interest – maybe with its brevity and single focus I could find time to add that to my day – one last thing to do before bed, summing up the best thing that happened during my day. I guess you could also call it a gratitude journal.

    1. Hi Susan,
      I too used to find that I didn’t write in a journal when I was super busy. I kind of regret that now. There are times when I am trying to describe what life was like in those days but the sharp edges have all been shaved off by the glossy memory that kicks in after a chunk of time. Not to say that those really busy times were all bad. In fact most of them were exhilarating, but even so I wish I could remember the details.
      But hey, things are going so well for you that a gratitude journal before you go to bed could be just the thing. Great idea!

      1. Hi Karen,
        I hear you about the struggle to remember with any kind of clarity days long gone by. I have that exact difficulty with the memoir stuff. Yes, I have some journals to look back on to recall what happened, how I felt and get back into the headspace of that time in my life but there are times, both before I journaled and when I failed to keep a journal, that have lost their edge.
        Gratitude journal before bed might just prime the pump as it were and get me back into the habit of writing about my day like I used to. I will start out with a short time commitment and go from there.

  8. It was so interesting to read the snippets of various author’s journals (I especially liked Sue Grafton’s), it was like getting to peek inside their heads. I don’t currently keep a journal – except while I’m traveling – but I keep thinking that maybe I should try it as a way of collecting my thoughts (so maybe they won’t wake me up at 2:30 am).

    1. I find that’s as good a reason for journaling as any, Janis. My thoughts wake me up in the middle of the night far less often and, when they do, I journal then and there and that helps me resolve whatever’s bugging me so I can go back to sleep.

  9. I’ve run hot and cold on journals – and that’s partly because I noticed that I tend to run to journalling only when I’m unhappy. Spewing out all that inner angst doesn’t seem to help me at all. It just marinades it. It’s the curse of someone who overthinks … however it was comforting to read Steinbeck’s comment “I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were.”

    When I first retired, it was suggested that I keep a morning journal to help give me insight into what my ‘next chapter’ could be. Every morning I sat with a blank paper positively devoid of words. I soon gave it up. I came to the conclusion that this over-thinker should be investing more time in just doing stuff and less time thinking about it.

    1. Your approach makes sense for you, Joanne, especially if it’s helping you to stop overthinking things, and it sounds as if it is.
      I know what you mean about journaling only when you’re unhappy. I’ve just read an interesting book about what’s required when you want writing to heal something. I’ll do a post about it soon so you’ll know that you’re not alone, that all that angst does indeed marinate and make things worse… and that there’s a way around that dilemma. Thanks for the post idea 🙂

  10. The only time I regularly kept a journal was when I was in my late teens / early twenties and it did help to get my thoughts straight about having my young heart broken! I destroyed it soon afterwards (fortunately). Your posts do make me wonder though if I should think about it again. Like Janis I tend to wake up early with my head full of thoughts, a habit I thought would disappear on retirement but didn’t. I like the idea of answering the same (positively focused) question each day, and I do have several pristine notebooks … we’ll see!

    And John Steinbeck thinking he couldn’t write. Wow!

    1. I know, right? As much as it must have been horribly painful for John Steinbeck to have those thoughts and feelings, I am immensely reassured by the reminder that even the great writers are human.
      I understand that there’s really no place for regrets over destroying old writing – we do what we do and it makes sense when we do it – but if you had the choice to destroy that journal all over again, would you do it? That question will make a good topic for my journal series. Thanks, Anabel.

  11. Two takeaways for me from your post is the similarities between the process journal for writers and for visual artists. I have a notebook in my pottery studio but never really used it too consistently. Rod’s youtube presentation hit home its importance. I will use my notebook more consistently now as a part of the routine of working in my studio!

    1. I appreciate you drawing out the similarities, Fran. I was going to talk about visual journals as an artist’s process journal in my post, but it was feeling too unwieldy and making the post too long.
      It never occurred to me, however, to connect the journalling Rod talks about in his video with this process journal post. Duh. Thanks for pointing it out!!

  12. An interesting concept. It doesn’t surprise me that writers keep a journal of what is happening in their mind, book, or day. I take from this post that the writers mentioned are very focused and write a lot (and quite fast)!

    I keep notes about thoughts and what might provide good stories and topics in separate Word documents and put them in folders based on the theme. In my daily diary, I sometimes write about my memoir and what I am struggling with, but not often. I think these diaries would be good writing exercises to get the juices flowing, before a writing session. They could take the job of “writing prompts”.

    In December I added the question “What is the most important thing that happened today?” to every day in my diary. I’ll share some of those answers another time. Maybe when you share yours! 🙂

    1. Eesh. I’m so sorry that I’m so late to be responding to your comment, Liesbet.
      I appreciated reading it, especially (I confess) because I’ve always been curious about your process.
      John Steinbeck was definitely a very focused writer. He decided he was going to write 2000 words a day and, with few exceptions, did just that. If you ever want to read a quintessential American book, read The Grapes of Wrath. It is a work of art, universally recognized as a masterpiece.
      I’m keen to hear how the addition of the bead journal question is affecting your journaling so, okay ,I’ll provide an opportunity for us to share our perspectives on that soon 🙂

  13. I have kept various types of journals over the years, for different purposes. The main one, which I have written in since I was a teen, is a series of hard-cover journals that I write in about every 3 weeks or so, in a diary style -mostly updates, life traumas, plans, and reflections. I have also kept research journals for the last 30 years, which includes ideas for studies, plans, and progress (pencil and lined paper, stored in binders). For a couple of years, during a difficult period of my life, I kept a dream diary. As well, during a period when I was just starting to paint again, after a ten-year break, I kept a visual journal.

    In terms of my creative writing, I haven’t formally journalled, although for my current novel, I have a number of associated electronic files that I keep with the manuscript, which include backstory, character details, ideas for sequels/prequels, and so on. I don’t have a formal outline, but a do have a bullet list of upcoming scenes at the bottom of the manuscript. I delete each bullet point as I write that scene. I also have a list of things to go back and fix/research. I put those things in a list so that I don’t lose my writing flow. When I am having trouble getting started writing, I go back and start rereading and fixing things on the list, and that helps get my head back into the story.

    Finally, although each blog post is more well developed and polished than a journal entry, over the years the blog does kind of function like a journal in that it represents what I was happening and what I was thinking about at different periods in my life.


    1. Thanks for this, Jude. I really appreciate learning about your process. I imagine that writing a journal entry every three weeks or so would mean that the entry is more considered and more thoughtful than many of my daily jottings. I was just rereading a journal from a few months ago and quickly grew tired of the notations from my to do lists and the trivia that was occupying my brain at the time.

      1. No, it’s completely unstructured— just a brain dump. I most often journal when I’m trying to work through a problem, when I’ve just had an insight, or when I’m feeling upset about something. So it is a very spotty and partial account, with most of my key life highlights missing!


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