And Way Better
WRITE IN ORDER to figure out what to think.
Seems backwards but it’s true. Joan Didion, one of my idols, thought her best thoughts because her fingers were on the typewriter: “I write entirely to figure out what I’m thinking, what I am looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
I’m not advocating going into every story with no sense of where it might lead you. You can’t do that if you’re writing deeply reported magazine pieces or books. You’ll fail miserably. What I am saying is that every nonfiction writer, regardless of whether you’re an essayist or memoirist or journalist or best-selling author, should do one thing right now to help you write a lot more tomorrow, and write a lot better every day thereafter.
Keep a journal.
“Oh no!” you’re thinking. “Not ANOTHER self-absorbed journaler out to peddle his insecurities as vulnerable ‘truths.’”
I get it. For years — decades! — I read stories like this and thought: I’m a working journalist who writes enough as it is. I don’t need a record of my thoughts. I live with them.
I needed a record of my thoughts.
I’ve kept a journal for a little over a year now and it’s amazing how writing in it leads to so much more than, well, writing in it.
If you write in it every day you’ll quickly notice two things: Your writing will improve, because you’re taking the time to improve it; and by writing you will find out what you truly think. Putting muddied thoughts on the page will suddenly give those thoughts clarity. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve written something in my journal, stared at its mongrel ghastliness, sharpened the passage into something purer only to realize that editing the line crystalized my thinking too. It’s alchemy. A magic trick.
Even better, I’m smarter and more in tune with myself when I step away from the journal. This has had real-world implications for me and for so many others throughout history. Marcus Aurelius used his journal as the means to rule Rome. Ben Franklin used his to become a polymath. Meg Whitman used hers to turn eBay from a 30-person startup worth $4 million to a 15,000-employee, publicly traded firm worth $8 billion. Recording your thoughts can lead to powerful insights.
It can also lead to lots of useful material. This is especially true for writers. Drew Magary wrote about the notebook he keeps on him at all times, “like Linus Van Pelt clinging to his blanket,” because writing is not just the thing you do when you open the Word doc and stare at the blinking cursor. Writing is the thing you’re always doing. You’re always thinking about a turn of phrase or witty headline or an idea that might become a magazine piece or — who knows? — a five-volume book. Magary’s point is if you’re thinking this stuff, you need to get it down before you forget it.
The weird thing is, once you have it, especially if it’s a good jot or note, it becomes an organic and growing life form, feeding off the new thoughts you hand it, until suddenly you must represent that life as a story or essay or personal reflection. And when you do, when you move to the screen and start typing, you also bypass the most anxious part of the writing process: the blinking cursor of the blank page. That’s the second magic trick of journaling.
There’s a third, too. The more you write in your journal, the more you realize there’s actually nothing horrific about the blank page of a new story. If journaling teaches you anything, it’s that all writing is rewriting. So improving any piece of writing means acknowledging its existing flaws, and acknowledging imperfection is a great way to get something down, even when the story is capital-I Important, or personal, or a peculiar brand of daunting.
There’s always time to fix what’s not working. When you allow that, a kind of serenity washes over you, and you can write, as Virginia Woolf said, “without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest…how Shakespeare wrote.”
Who wouldn’t want to write as Shakespeare wrote?
There is one last reason to keep a journal and to think-by-writing, and this applies especially to longform reporters and non-fiction authors who I said should not write before they think. Which is true, to a point, but then not true at all, so let me explain.
The best way to tell a story that’s longer than, say, 2,500 words is to spend time outlining it and structuring what will go where before you start in. But I’ve found that when I’m too faithful to that structure, the draft is a little lifeless. I can almost see in the sentences and paragraphs the foundational beams of the story’s outline. So at some point, even in deeply researched and heavily outlined books or magazine pieces, I need to let go. Let my instincts as a writer and storyteller take over. See where the story leads me, instead of trying to lead the story to its conclusion.
This is terrifying the first time I tried it. Hell, it terrifies me still. That’s where the journal comes in though. The more often you write in it, the more comfortable you’ll be to think-by-writing in other forms. Writing in your journal will give you the confidence to let go in your longform stories. The stories will surprise and delight your audience because, well, they surprised and delighted you first.
That’s the ultimate, and final, trick of thinking-by-writing: You reach the conclusion as your readers do.
New to my blog? I'm a best-selling author and award-winning journalist who's written for The New Yorker, GQ, ESPN, and New York, among other titles. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I'm now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.
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