Keeping in touch and keeping track

Keeping in touch and keeping track

Gwynn’s home county, Northumberland County, Ontario, has a vibrant arts community, including the dedicated and prolific Spirit of the Hills Writer’s Group of which Gwynn is a member. The group has been publishing a blog since April: A Journal in Time of Pandemic and LockdownToday’s guest post originally appeared on July 3 on that blog, and we reprint it here with author and poet Kim Aubrey’s permission.

Kim shares her personal story of keeping in touch with relatives far from home during the pandemic, and also her new found method of journalling that works for a time when our minds aren’t as focused or creative as we’d like.

Kim Aubrey

The call for lockdown came just as my husband and I were preparing to drive to New Hampshire to care for my mother during her recovery from surgery. Her hip replacement was scheduled for March 18. On March 14, I read the Prime Minister’s online message advising Canadians to stay home, and my husband read that our health insurance would probably not cover us if we went to the States.

The next day I talked to my younger brother M. in Texas. He prepared to step in and take care of Mom.

The stress mounts

“We can’t come,” I told my mother. “Maybe you should postpone your surgery.”

“Not going to happen,” she said, determined to go ahead with the hip replacement which would relieve her pain.

But on March 16 the surgeon’s office called her to reschedule for May.

My middle brother E. survived a terrible traffic accident when he was nineteen. Since then he’s lived with a brain injury. He and Mom share a house and are company for one another, but during the past few years, he’s had trouble keeping his balance and has suffered a few bad falls.

On March 19, he fell for the second time in the space of a week. Mom called an ambulance, which took him to the Emergency Room. Luckily, he didn’t break any bones, but he was in pain for over a month. I wanted to be there to help my mother and brother, but all I could do was call by phone and Skype, remind him to ice his shoulder, remind her to take the anti-inflammatory pills the surgeon had prescribed.

As May approached, I waited for the surgeon to postpone again, but it didn’t happen. My brother M. once again agreed to stay with Mom during and after her surgery. Despite my worries, the surgery was a success, no one got sick, and Mom has had a good recovery.

New routines needed

Since mid-March I’ve been talking to her and E. every day. I used to call once or twice a week, but knowing I can’t visit anytime soon and aware of the danger the virus poses, I feel the need to check in more often. It’s become part of my pandemic routine, like working on my novel, online yoga and Nia classes, and the journal I’ve been keeping since December, inspired by an exercise in Lynda Barry’s wondrous book Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor.

Barry’s book is based on the writing/drawing classes she taught at the University of Wisconsin. I’m a fan of her comics and have been wanting to write/draw a graphic novel for many years now. To prepare myself, I started doing a couple of the exercises Barry set her students—a quick daily self-portrait and daily lists of seven things done, seven things seen, and one thing heard, along with another quick drawing.

I’m grateful I began this practice before the lockdown as it’s been an easy and satisfying way to keep track of these pandemic days.

Meet Kim Aubrey

Kim Aubrey’s stories, essays, and poems have appeared in journals and anthologies, including Best Canadian Stories, Event, Numero Cinq, Room and The New Quarterly. Her story collection, What We Hold in Our Hands, won an Honorable Mention in the Bermuda Literary Awards. Kim leads an annual writers’ retreat in Bermuda.

My non-journal

My non-journal

Gwynn Scheltema

I’ve just returned from a couple weeks’ vacation in the sun: idyllic ocean vistas, new taste experiences, and cultural delights. Lots to write about in my daily travel journal…except…when I travel, I don’t write a daily journal; I keep a non-journal.

My Non-journal

My non-journal began when I was on an extended trip back to my childhood home in Zimbabwe to look after an ill relative. What should have been a golden opportunity to stir up old memories and write screeds and screeds of material turned out to be a dry well. I had all the physical sensory impetus around me, but emotionally and mentally I was in a very different place, and just couldn’t write a word.

With that came the guilt: “I should be making the most of this golden opportunity”; “If I just start to write- write anything- I should be able to get going, so why can’t I?”; “Is this self-sabotage?”

In the end, I stopped fighting the ideal and just did what I could: lists, photos and language.

Lists

I began to make lists: a list of local flower names, a list of bird sounds; a list of signs of decay in the house where I was staying……

Making lists freed me up emotionally and mentally, because I didn’t have to craft sentences, and I didn’t have to call on memory or emotion. I gave each list its own page and added to it whenever I could. Even travelling back on the plane, I could add to any of the lists.

Now, years later I look at those lists and realize what a goldmine they are. I have details that I likely wouldn’t have recorded had I been writing a prose piece:

  • half a phone book from ten years ago
  • a dried-up bottle of cochineal
  • iron burn marks on the sheets

Photos

Sure, we all take photos, but we live in a social media age that programs us to take pictures of perfection: beauty, excitement and such—all things we would share with others. Or personal moments with people. Or the food we eat. All that is fine, but in my photo non-journal I also take photos of things for my future writing.

I don’t advocate experiencing life through a lens, so I’m not suggesting that you stop just looking and recording in your memory, merely that when you do stop to take photos, you take a full range of the experiences, not just the “nice bits” or the “Facebook worthy bits”.

I take pictures of the dirty back street one block back from the tourist route, close ups of the kind of garbage lying in that street. I take photos of the menu as well as the food. I take close-ups of flowers and leaves of trees. I take photos of oddities, both pleasant and disturbing, like the old lady asleep, wrapped up in a moth-eaten crocheted blanket on a sunny yellow porch on a thirty-degree day.

Language                                                                                    

One of the best ways to make a character or place seem real in writing is to include local idiom and language. Being unfamiliar, I find cultural phrases are easily forgotten, so in my non-journal I keep pages for jotting down things people say and explanations of what they mean if necessary.

  • dumb as a cow’s arse
  • she flapped her lips
  • give it to Old Pisquick over there
Southern ground hornbill walking in the high grass in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

I also record foreign language words and phrases that locals pepper their conversation with.

  • names of things – utshani = grass
  • exclamations of surprise—ini indaba? = what’s the matter?
  • orders—faga punzi = put it down

Hidden Gold

Initially, I didn’t have great expectations from the jottings in my non-journal. I think I did it more to assuage the guilt of not writing. But I was wrong.

Those “meaningless” jottings have a peculiar effect when I reread them. Even the smallest snippet has the power to take me back to the time I wrote it. If I open my mind, whole scenes and sequences come back to me. I can use my lists or photos as prompts to write.

And it goes beyond that. For instance, that item in the list above “a dried-up bottle of cochineal” doesn’t just take me to the house where I observed it, but also back to memories of days doing ballet and using cochineal to dye our pointe shoe ribbons pink.

Each non-journal entry is a quiet tendril, moving slowly through my mind encircling memories for me to use now that I am home from my travels.

Is One Journal Enough?

Is One Journal Enough?

Gwynn Scheltema

Like a lot of teenage girls, I kept a diary for several years. Entries are a hodgepodge of the trivial: (we didn’t have the geography test today), funny: (my blue dress seems to have shrunk and Daddy is not amused!), and, on occasion, surprising: (I found myself sleepwalking last night).sad-woman-1055092_640

I wrote strictly about my life, what happened and how I felt about it. The diaries were hard-cover, date-at-the-top-of-the-page books, and fifty years later, I still have them. I’m glad I have them. But I know I likely wouldn’t if they had been soft-cover spiral-bound notebooks.

And now?

Yet these days, I do journal in spiral-bound notebooks—and tiny pocket notepads, on the computer and in large books with unlined paper. So why the difference?

What prompted me to think about my different journals, was a comment from Heidi Croot on my post To Edit or Not to Edit, where she mentioned the Steinbeck style of journaling (a guest post by by Kendra Levin on Brian Kelms blog) where Steinbeck had a “companion journal” chronicling his progress on his novel. I don’t have a Steinbeck companion journal (yet), but I do have a variety of journals that serve different purposes and their physical form does seem to influence their use.

female-865110_640Sadly, I have several beautiful journals—handmade paper, illustrated, filled with wise sayings, beautifully bound—and I will likely never write in them. I’m afraid I’ll “spoil” them, like everything I write in them needs to be perfect. Silly, maybe, but that’s me. Many writers are inspired by beautiful paper or pens, or illustrations and bindings. Just not me.

So here’s what I use and why:

Journal for Morning Pages

After the teenage years, I didn’t journal for decades. What got me back into it was Julia Cameron’s creative self-discovery book The Artists Way, where I discovered morning pages—three pages of uncensored writing done first thing in the morning. No rules, don’t overthink, just write three pages of something. When I first started, a lot of it was ranting or wishing and even to-do lists. But now, it’s a mix of personal and creative. Most of my poetry starts in mornings pages, and I use it to “talk out” fiction problems too, and start fiction scenes.

leather-refillable-journalI tried various sizes, lined and unlined, and finally settled on a 6 x 9 lined. It fits easily on my bedside table and filling 3 pages doesn’t intimidate me. The reality is, I often fill far more. They fill up quickly, so I invested in a leather refillable version that closes with a tab and has a pen holder. Refill notebooks are cheap and easily found at the dollar store, because it is a standard size. I’m not forced to buy refills from the original manufacturer.  As I finish each one, I label it with the dates it covers and store them on a shelf in my writing room.

B.I.C. File

Morning pages are done by hand on paper before I get out of bed. If I wrote everything by hand, however, I would waste a lot of time typing it up. So I have a computer journal too.notebook-405755_640

I house it in Scrivener, and the project name is BIC (bum in chair). I write here with the same uncensored writing attitude as morning pages: sometimes timed freefall sessions, sometimes writing prompts, all in an attempt to stay ahead of the internal critic. It works. Many blogs and fiction scenes have been birthed here. When I create something I think is useful, it’s easy to copy and paste it to the relevant writing file and keep going.

Journal for Anytime – Anywhere

This notebook has to fit in my purse, so it’s much smaller, about 3 x4, dollar store quality. In it, I record odd thoughts or observations that come to me when I’m out and about. It has no organizing method, and I make sure it doesn’t have too many pages, because if it stays rattling around too long in my purse, it tends to fall apart. This forces me to take the contents and do something with them: type them up in appropriate computer files (blog ideas; scenes for the novel; poetry ideas etc.), add them to projects, or discard them.

Visual Journal

maple-leaf-638022_640A good friend of mine keeps her journal in a large blank-paged artist’s sketch book. She writes in it, draws in it, sticks photos and leaves and feathers in it too. It’s like a giant scrapbook, and she says she likes the freedom of not having lines. I’m not so good with things that don’t have boundaries—safety edges—but I do keep a version of this. I have one for my novel, with newspaper clippings, photos, magazine cut-outs, maps of towns or plans of houses. Visual stuff. Electronically, I use Pinterest (a board for each novel) and Scrivener has great research capabilities for keeping visuals and web links.

Teeny-tiny sentence-a-day journal

flowerets-577081_640Quite by chance, I was given a pocket journal, about the size of a credit card. I wondered what on earth I could possible use it for. I decided I would force myself to observe through all the senses and each day write just a single line to describe something in a different way. The sentence-a-day part didn’t work out, but those single lines have inspired poetry and been a great exercise for my creative mind.

Whether you want to keep the personal separate from your fiction, or hate margins, or need space to draw, it’s all your choice. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong form for a journal. What’s important is that it suits your way of creating.

What journals do you keep and why?