Michael A. Griffith teaches courses and workshops in public speaking, communications, and creative writing at the college and adult continuing education levels. His essays have appeared in Teaching For Success, Ripen the Page and Lehigh Valley Woman’s Journal. His poetry has recently appeared online on sites such as The Blue Nib, Dual Coast Poetry, Stanzic Stylings, Poetry Quarterly, and Dissident Voices. He resides in Somerset County, NJ.
I always enjoy going back to my notebooks and reading, then revising or copying my poetry scraps, recordings of dreams I’d had, title ideas, character sketches, and all the other miscellany waiting to be rediscovered and, one day, used.
Most writers I know keep journals and/or notebooks as I do. The form and format of these may differ: I tend to use spiral-bound notebooks and texts to myself when I am without my notebooks. I have also recently taken to starting poems or recording ideas on my phone’s voice recorder. I know one poet who jots down drafts of poems on napkins or sales receipts, then works the drafts over on computer. Another writer puts ideas in a fairly pricey leather-bound hand-stitched journal that looks like a prop from a Lord of the Rings movie.
Whatever your method for writing and keeping notes, I encourage a few things:
- If you do NOT yet record your fleeting ideas and scraps of poetry or overheard dialogue lines, START NOW! As you can see, it can cost nothing (napkins at diners are free, and you can “borrow” pens anywhere or use your ever-present smartphone to get ideas down), to a few dollars (I buy a couple of notebooks during back-to-school time when they’re on steep sale), to as much as you’d like to spend (that aforementioned leather-bound journal must have cost my friend nearly $70, his fancy pen about 15 – Go Gandalf!).
- Jot down EVRYTHING that could be of possible future use. I’m sure you’ve heard how Inuits use every part of every whale they kill. Nothing goes to waste. In like fashion, nothing, no dream, no random line, no snippet of heard conversation which strikes you as funny, no title ideas for future works, EVERYTHING that can become part of a larger work, a more final piece, should be committed to a notebook. Don’t trust your memory to hold on to this flossy gossamer; it will float away, probably lost forever unless you record it somehow.
- You can go about working on these notes in two ways: Right away or wait a bit. The Inuit would sometimes need to save up scraps of whalebone and fat until they had enough to use them as tools and fuel. Unless your thoughts are already pretty much self-completed, you should wait and re-work them at some later date. Forcing an idea which is not fully-formed is like serving a meal which is not fully-cooked – The end product will be at least a disappointment, at most lethal.
- After letting your notes alone for a time (days, weeks, months, even years), go revisit them like the old friends they are. Get caught-up on what has happened in-between visits. Do you still feel the same emotion you did when you wrote the idea down? Have you matured as a writer and what you wrote previously is just not holding up? Look and re-see what you wrote and may have forgotten. (This last bit happens to me all the time, and it’s usually enjoyable to get reacquainted with my older yet younger self.)
- Consider other notes from your past: letters and cards, emails and texts you have received and saved, or perhaps sent. Old diaries are rich sources of memories to reflect on and write about, as are notebooks from secondary school and college, if you still have these. Yearbooks bring back floods of memories to swim through and pluck ideas from. And these items need not be your own. You may have access to these and similar items from an ancestor. You can now write a more full and meaningful poem or short memoir piece about times from this person’s life. I have bought used books where the prior owner had jotted notes in them, the book had been inscribed as a gift, or a photograph was used as a bookmark. These snatches of the past lives of strangers have formed poem ideas for me.
In closing, I want to offer two exercises that I hope will help you in your journaling and writing.
Record yourself reading one of your recent poems aloud. Listen to the recording. Take a day or two off from this exercise and return to it with a notebook and pen or pencil. Write out the poem from memory. Read THAT version aloud, recording it. Now listen to both, back-to-back. Did your memory capture the most important bits of your poem? Can the new version stand on its own as a poem? Leave this new version sit in your notebook for at least two weeks. Revise it, not to purposely add elements of the first version you recorded aloud, but to re-work this as a different, equally valid poem.
Find some picture from your past as a child or some child you don’t know, using Google searches like “children in the park, 1970,” “Communion class, 1985,” or “children’s birthday party, 1990” and print the picture for future reference. Tape it into your journal or download it. Refer to it as you construct a poem about one of the kids, the parents – who, like in a Charlie Brown cartoon, may be present but unseen –, the event itself, etc. Let your imagination go loose, not trying to get every thought or idea down in one sitting, The picture and your notes are there to help you as you complete your piece.