The Writer’s Sketchbook

Ever had a friend who’s an illustrator? Illustrators, cartoonists, and other visual artists almost always carry a sketchbook. They can sit down in a park, a café, on a bus, just about anywhere, and draw what they see. Or draw something from their imagination. It might be a figure, a character in certain garb. It might be just an interesting face. Or the outline of a building, a tree, a street lamp — a simple scene. Whatever it is, the sketch is not complete, it’s not perfect. It’s just a sketch. It’s not finalized, colored in and transferred to a cell or rendered digitally in high-res for print. It’s just a sketch. The artist is practicing doing what she does, in a small increment.

A writer should do the same thing, using a journal. You might call it a journal or a diary or sketchbook or notebook. It doesn’t matter. I use the word “journal” for my own documents, but I like the word “sketchbook” best because it suggests a lightness of rendering, and its fragmentary nature. A sketchbook is meant to be filled with different things on every page. “Diary” is appropriate for writers, and you can call yours a diary if you want, but the word harkens, a little depressingly, of adolescent entries of unrequited love and angst. Or some bygone time in antiquity, a bored Englishwoman in some echoing manor house. The word diary is loaded. But whatever works for you.

Let’s go with journal. Many writers say to me, “But I can’t keep a journal. My life is boring!” So what? If adventures were required in order to strengthen writing skills, only swashbucklers and Richard Branson would be writers.

We could use any number of other analogies about the writer and her journal. The pianist doing scales. The vocalist singing warm-ups. The baseball player at batting practice. The dancer in the studio doing plies. Ask yourself how any of these professionals became excellent at what they do if not by practicing, somewhere, in some manner?

Things you can do in the journal.


Record your days. Even if you only went to work, you can make an entry about it. If work was boring, capture the boringness. If work was stressful, capture the stress. Maybe you only came home and ate a regular dinner, and now here you are. Write about it. Why? Because, it’s practice in finding the words. You’ll learn to type faster, and to string sentences together in a rhythm that’s natural to you. You’ll learn to pick the right adjective, and how to boil something down to its essence.

“I stood at the photocopier, listening to its rhythm, as it churned out stapled set after stapled set of handouts for the meeting. The hulking old Ricoh, with its gnashing sound, seemed to be chewing up precious minutes of my life.”

If you’re an aspiring writer who thinks there’s nothing interesting in your life worth capturing, you need to change that mindset. The journal isn’t about making something routine extraordinary. It’s a Buddhist meditation in which you remove your delusions and move closer to the essence of what your life is. You do this by finding language with truth in it.

If there’s no scene that transpired at the office that day that’s worth recreating, then making the entry will be practice in summary exposition. Cover some ground in a hurry, then. But odds are, there’s something from your day that’s worth an effortful line — some image you saw, some dialogue overheard, that is telling. In fiction, you have to find the telling detail amid scenes that you’re inventing. Here in the journal, the events have already happened. It should be easier than writing fiction. You just have to recall and attune your writerly senses.


If you exhaust the events of your day, then go deeper. Go wherever your imagination wants. It’s important to remember with the journal that there are no rules, and no judgements. A writer is a literary artist, and your journal, or sketchbook, is the place for you to discover your voice, the same way an illustrator works towards defining his style and technique through sketches and small studies.

So, if you’ve run out of things to record, reflect. You might reflect on anything at all. Say you’re writing about your bus ride home from the office and a homeless person you saw. You can enter that material in any way you like. Muse on why it is that the sight of a homeless person makes people so uneasy. Maybe imagine what it’s like to be homeless yourself. Step into the character’s shoes, assume their point of view if you like. Or imagine the homeless person’s past. Every day there are moments in our lives that spark our interest, that trigger some kind of subconscious thought, that awaken some kind of feeling. Usually we don’t have the time, or mental bandwidth, to attend to such musings, to explore their potential. Take that time now, in your journal. Savor it. Make the most of it.


Even if you’re dead, you still have plenty to write about. You have all the days that came before you! Writing from memory is a nearly endless source. Natalie Goldberg, in her book Writing Down the Bones, suggests beginning with these mere two words: “I remember…” Don’t stop, she advises, until you have 20 pages. You’d be surprised how much comes back to you once you relax into it. Just let memories come. The basic facts of your childhood, family life, the house you grew up in, your teachers, school, and schoolmates. That’s 100 pages right there, easily.

Just remember, though, that though you are free to be imperfect and unedited, the journal is a practice ground. A vocalist wouldn’t sing scales flatly or an actor recite lines without inflection. So write not just to record dry facts or create a litany of events. Write in your journal colorfully, seeking to characterize everything as a storyteller would to a new audience. For example, I might write in my journal:

“As a child I attended Pinecrest Elementary School, and my first grade teacher was Mrs. Anderson.”

Just writing those names, Pinecrest and Mrs. Anderson, brings back certain images to my mind. I know the school, and I know the teacher. But even though this document is for my own purposes and has no apparent reader, I need to write as if I were writing for an imaginary reader other than myself, someone who knows nothing about my life. In other words, I need to say all that is unsaid:

“The school was one of those one-story brick schoolhouses with a higher roof above the gymnasium, holding several red rubber balls kicked up there during recess. Out front was a sun-scorched sidewalk and a flagpole that rusted and stained the concrete. Mrs. Anderson I remember as an enormously tall woman with long legs, beautiful straight blond hair. The pride it filled me with to be the tallest in the class and stand beside her on the day of the class photograph! The special thrill of attention I got because my front tooth, long loose and wiggling, had fallen out the night before the photograph.”

So indulge. Be thorough. And use all techniques you would use in a short story. Once a student shared with me a journal exercise he had done as an assignment for me. He was describing a former teacher, a math teacher. The math teacher was at the front of the classroom, insulting the students for being dumb, which evidently was his way of cajoling students to work harder. I suggested that the writer put the teacher’s words in direct dialogue. Let him speak. Let us hear his voice. “Oh, yeah!” the student said. “I was going to do that, but I didn’t think I should because this is a journal, not a story.”

That’s where nomenclature helps a bit. It’s a sketchbook. Would an artist skip shading because the sketchbook page is not hanging in the Louvre?

Use dialogue. Paint scenes. Capture conversations. Use metaphors, similes, imagery, and all the rest. It’s still story. It’s just informal story. It’s a sketchbook.


The other thing that’s important to do in the journal is have fun. Try things out. Go on rambles. Free associate. Invent words. The journal is a record book, a sketchbook, and a playground. Enjoy it. Suggestion: play with Forms and play with Voices.

Forms. Playing with forms is one of the most interesting ways to tap the unique qualities of your writing. You might:

  • write a letter as your craziest self to your regular self, giving advice
  • draft obituaries for people you have no use for in your life anymore.
  • Fantasize: write the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of your best-seller.
  • Write a poem — just any poem.

If you’re having indigestion, write as a newsman reporting live at the scene inside your stomach. Describe what your find in your dream house. You’ve won the lottery, and two years later, here’s what your office looks like, and all that’s found there. There’s really no limit to the things you can play around with.

In my journal, I’ve written a press conference as if apologizing for a future deed, mocking the false sentiment of the politician/celebrity public apology. I’ve written satirical newscast segments. I’ve written about a lion being brought on The Oprah Winfrey show, then subsequently mauling everyone in the studio audience. I’ve imagined the lives of rabbits and frogs and blue herons. I’ve written a scene of Big Bird at the unemployment office. I’ve written a one-act musical theater piece in which the CEO of a corporation leaps to his death. I’ve mused on the phenomenon of inverse meaning in political rhetoric. My proudest moment is an poem: “Ode to the Men of Erectile Dysfunction Commercials.”

No one told me these pieces were fair game and belonged to an accepted category. I was just playing around.


The journal is a sacred space, and it belongs to you and no one else. In it, you should dare. Write about things that are forbidden to be spoken of in your family. Express those opinions that would create awkward silence at a party. Draw a character with all his or her flaws on gruesome display. Delineate the hypocrisy of someone you know. Take some people down a peg, if they deserve it. Go on a rant. Rail against injustice, if that helps. Or write effusions, professions of love and adoration, for I don’t know, maybe Gwen Stefani from the “Don’t Speak” video, for example. Ahh, but that was a lifetime ago.

If you don’t find your voice in your journal, where will you find it? No visual artist stretched up a big canvas, washed it, set it up on an easel and proceeded to make a big, brilliant, ambitious “Guernica” without doodling bulls and guitars first.


If you don’t want to do any of those things (reveal your opinions, examine your past, write a poem, look at homeless people), then if nothing else, use your journal to strength descriptions of the world and being in it. Part of writing good fiction is inhabiting your character (protagonist) through imagined circumstances and writing about it. And practice for doing that comes through writing about yourself in the world as if you were a character. Here’s me writing in my journal, November 3, a regular day in this writer’s life at that time; working freelance editorial at my desk in the morning, doing other chores in the afternoon:

Nov 3

Ahoy. Back at my desk after doing some work outdoors. Showered. Made a cuppa, it goes without saying.

Making progress on cutting up trees. Cut more stumps today. I back up the truck with the hatch down to the spot I’ve been working these past weeks — a clearing in the woods with a mushy-thick blanket of pine needles, branches, and tree bark. I’ve talked before about how it’s easy to roll an ankle. Well, I sliced off bits of this damn tree, which takes 5 minutes at the very least — often close to 20, depending on how the saw’s working, which saw I’m using. The last few days, I’ve been working with the Pulan, which is longer, with an 18-inch bar, and probably the size I should be using on a tree this size — diameter of 30 inches, I’m guessing. Let’s not talk about the Husqvarna being out of commission again.

“Do you enjoy being a lumberjack?” my wife asked me recently. I do, I admit. I’m out there in jeans and a t-shirt, leather work gloves on, and protective goggles up on my head. I’m no poser, out there, let me tell you. Ha! I enjoy it because it gets me away from these two computer screens, where I click and scroll for hours in the morning, sucking coffee, making trips to the kitchen for yogurt, then later, a sandwich. It’s a grind. But in the afternoon, I’m out there, breathing the fresh air. I spend as much time dragging limbs out of the woods and hauling wheelbarrows of kindling as I do gazing into the treetops, into the sky. In the afternoon, the quality of light at this time of year is exquisite. The sun sets on a high ridge to the west of the house, a ridge that’s out of sight behind the thick forest. But for twenty minutes or so, the last of the day’s direct sunlight hits the tops of the trees from an out-of-view source, on the bank opposite the creek. I have no supervisor when I work at making firewood, and it’s a good thing because I’d often be found looking idly around long after I’ve wiped the last sweat from my brow and caught my breath.

The question is begged, is it not? — for whom am I am describing my own attire on a day when I’m seen by no one but my wife and some forest critters? Myself. For myself, of course. But not for my own edification, but for the sake of my writing practice. I’m putting in the appearance details that I’d put in if this lumbersexual dude were a character in a story, essay, or novel.

It’s good practice.