Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pros And Cons Of Journaling For Screenwriters

Some screenwriters can’t write unless they keep a journal. For others journaling is a distraction or even a waste of creative energy. Some thoughts.

Opinions seem divided about the benefits or otherwise of screenwriters keeping a journal. In general, those in favour of journaling see it as a means of finding or keeping focus, putting problems and worries into perspective, or even overcoming writer’s block. On the other side, are those who believe journaling is a self-indulgent displacement activity, and even a waste of your creative resources. Here are some of the common claims about journaling for writers, make of them what you will.

Journaling Helps You Keep Focused
Describing what you think and feel about scenes or characters you’re planning to write, evaluating what you’ve already written, identifying specific story problems you’re wrestling with… these are the kinds of journaling activities that help you distinguish between important and marginal issues. Often, when you’re immersed in a project—especially if you work alone—it can be difficult to sense the relative importance of a scene or a beat. Journaling can help you step back, see the bigger picture and choose which battle to fight, as it were. It’s also a great way to explore your own emotional connection to the story, to check that the story is still exploring or portraying what you intend it to. Also, if you’re like me and you work on multiple projects at once, then journaling can help you decide what not to do on any given day, which can be an important part of formulating your writing and career goals.

Journaling Depletes Your Creative Juices
An often heard warning, which frames creative work as being driven by a kind of fuel that gets used up and needs to be replenished. There’s something to be said for this, as the act of sitting and formulating coherent sentences, requires focused attention and energy. I know from experience that if you love writing, then it really doesn’t matter what you’re writing, you just become immersed in the process of translating your thoughts into written text, and before you know it, it’s time to pick the kids up from school. So it can be useful to set yourself a limited time to journal, because once you’re warmed up (see below), you’ll be ready to get back to your story. Whereas, if you carry on too long, you’ll just be spent when you finally stop.

Journaling Helps You Overcome Distracting Thoughts and Fears
Sian Beilock documents this wonderfully in her book Choke, which describes the research she’s done into performance under pressure. One of the numerous conclusions she’s come to, is that people who are prone to freeze up or be distracted by intrusive thoughts during activities where they need to focus intensively, can benefit from writing about these intrusive thoughts before they start the activity in question. Sometimes, the mere act of articulating clearly what’s on your mind, without necessarily going into any deep analysis or speculation about the underlying causes, can reduce its impact on your performance. It’s as if writing about your concerns is a way of shrinking them and putting them to one side for a while.

Journaling Encourages Self-Obsession
Definitely the flipside of the above and a very real danger of journaling, especially if you’re struggling with self-doubt. It’s very easy to get carried away and wallow in self-pity. Much, much easier, in fact, than doing something about whatever’s wrong. At least, that’s how it can feel if you let yourself get carried away, penning reams and reams of reasons to be miserable. One of those famous and by now thoroughly debunked myths of popular psychology, is that punching a boxing ball gets rid of your aggression. On the contrary, it evokes aggression. The same is true for going on and on about how unfortunate you are. Rather than making you feel better, it usually makes you feel worse.

Journaling Gets The Writing Muscles Moving
This idea frames creative writing as a kind of sport, and views journaling as similar to warming up before engaging in sports. Just writing something, anything, even complaining about not knowing what to write, can get you into the zone, and help overcome writer’s block. But if you extend the sports analogy, at some point you do have to finish the warming up and actually get to the sport. Otherwise…

Journaling Wastes Valuable Writing Time
Here’s an obvious disadvantage, especially if you only have limited time to write besides a day job, kids and other time-consuming, non-writing responsibilities. There’s definitely something to be said for using small windows of writing time for short, intensive spurts of writing, whether that be brainstorming, outlining or even writing pages. Several people have written convincingly about this, including Adrian Mead and Pilar Alessandra. The knowledge that you only have, say, half an hour or even ten minutes, can sometimes really get your creative brain in gear, and it would be ironic, to say the least, to spend that time pondering what’s stopping you from writing.

Journaling Helps You Track Your Writing Progress
This can be pretty confronting if you’re not making good progress, but it’s a great confirmation when you are. I recently read back some early entries in a journal about a screenplay I’m writing, and I was horrified to realize I’d been going round in circles, wrestling with ideas I’d played with before and rejected! At the same time, it clarified some story problems and helped me leave certain ideas behind for good and move on. Plus, keeping a record of your progress is also a way of compiling a (digital) paper trail, especially if you regularly back up your files on a distant server. If nothing else, you have a dated record of when you first started working on a project.

So, those are just a few of the arguments for and against journaling that I’m aware of. I come down on the side of journaling as a generally positive thing. I find it helpful to keep different journals for different projects I’m working on. These tend to be mostly notes about issues that relate specifically to the story at hand, but they can also touch on more general methodological or personal issues that come up. I also keep a more general writing journal, which helps me keep an overview of all the projects I have going at any one time. It’s a good place to identify similar problems that crop up in different projects, and it’s a place to reflect on priorities too.

But the main point is to avoid using journaling as an excuse for not working on your project(s). Journaling is best when it helps you keep a healthy balance between reflecting on your writing and… writing.

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