Last night, I wrote in a journal for the first time in years.
This is where my writing began, when Mrs. Graziano in Freshman English at Nutley High School handed us little blue pads and made us write for ten minutes in the beginning of class every day, and hand them in for her to peruse. She used an egg timer, and I remember writing a silly poem called "The Magic Egg, it Ticks so Sweetly," to the beat of "My Guitar Gently Weeps" for one entry. I kept this habit in homeroom throughout school, using a Mead notebook to write cruel parodies about students and teachers I disliked, a stupid cartoon called "Dog Haters Column," which was a response to a book of evil dog cartoons called When Bad Dogs Happen to Good People, and my Douglas Adams ripoff teleplay, Your Tour Guide to the Universe (really? Yes, really).
My friends loved reading it, so I had the equivalent of instant online validation. I soon wrote a 400 page space fantasy disaster called The Immortalist, sort of Highlander meets Spellsinger meets uh, the Traveller RPG I think? It made no sense, it was wish-fulfillment with a Mary Sue protagonist, and I think I threw it out and I am glad if I did.
Until last night, I never wrote in a private journal.
To be fair, I had scribbled in a "writing notes" pad last week, and forgot to continue. So I stopped in a local stationery store and bought a new blue Clairefontaine pad—such silky paper, even my stolen Hilton hotel pen glided over it like a seabird skimming the waves—and debauched it last night before bedtime, with a class of High West distillery's Jimmy Red bourbon, made from a corn favored by moonshiners.
I highly recommend both.
But if you think I'm selling a load of hooey, ask Joyce Carol Oates. In her classes on fiction writing, she has her students write a journal. (You can take her Princeton course syllabus online at Master Class for ninety bucks, and I plan on it after I'm done editing Riff Raff). I thought it was a silly affectation that would cut into my word count, as if words were an unrenewable resource to be rationed. (Notably, I do not count tweets against this count...) And true, I didn't edit last night. I gave myself Labor Day off, but I worked Sunday, and finished off a pivotal chapter, so I deserved it.
And the journal writing paid off. I finished reading Maggie Nelson's poetic-philosophical memoir Bluets yesterday after the rain, sitting outside. I enjoyed reading it, she is a masterful writer and a fount of knowledge, and the book ties her obsession with the color blue to a devastating break-up with a "ghastly" cad, which I found difficult to relate to. I've been married eight years going on nine, to a soul mate with whom I've gallivanted all over New York and the world, and before that I was in a long relationship drought that I will eventually novelize into an incel story. So I couldn't remember heartbreak, only loneliness. That's a large part of her book as well, so I followed along.
And then when I sat down to write my thoughts on Bluets, I remembered a brief fling with a romantic psychopath who played paramours and friends against one another, and found other people's feelings to be "unfortunate," and their own to be real. It's a memory I buried deeply for a long time, chalking it up to experience: the heartbreak came at the right time, and helped me escape a rather toxic "lost boys" Peter Pan world in a strange section of animation fandom where the people I left still reside. I am very glad that MRA/incel culture did not exist on the level it does today. It was certainly there, I'd seen some of it, but the rabbit holes were tougher to fall into unawares, you had to make the jump yourself. This all helped develop an idea I'd been kicking around, a sort of In a Lonely Place for the incel generation, which will move to the top of my project list.
All from the freedom to write—with pen and paper—a single journal entry, as I listened to Lucinda Williams sing "Blue," while sipping whiskey and writing about Bluets.
Give it a try, even if you're skeptical. So much of our writing is policed, by ourselves and others, that the freedom to write something no one is meant to read may unleash ideas you never knew you had, let you plumb experiences long forgotten, and make writing a joy again, when it can feel like work.