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Three Re-emerged Rock Gods, One Adventurous Author: The Making of Mr. Mojo Risin

At one point or another, rock music fans have asked themselves, “What if Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or Elvis Presley had lived? Where would they have taken their vast musical talent? What would they have done with their lives? What would they be like today?”

Southern California author and musician Scott Tatum tackles those questions head-on in Mr. Mojo Risin, a satirical and oft-hilarious romp that pulls the equally mysterious worlds of the CIA, FBI, Mafia and Yakuza together — along with the White House, Pentagon, Las Vegas police, and a traveling club of retirees. Amidst these elements, set in the late 1990s, he drops in Jim, Jimi and Elvis by bringing them back to life in a conceivingly plausible way: by ghosting them in a secretive CIA program. This ends abruptly when an invisible Jimi walks away… only to soon find himself with Jim and Elvis on a cross-country trip.

From there, all hell breaks loose — often — as we follow the three resurrected legends, now somewhat ordinary people that the author masterfully presents in their most day-to-day human selves (besides Jimi, who remains invisible). He deftly overrides the images of the tortured rock gods whose songs we’ll forever listen to. The relationship between Morrison and Sparkle (Think The Doors’ classic song “Love Street” manifesting in the flesh), Elvis’ indifference to his own look-alike contests, and the various adventures feed an ever-building plot that culminates in the group’s attempt, along with the elite SEAL Team 13, to prevent a U.S. takeover of Jamaica.

Like all good novels with satirical streaks, Mr. Mojo Risin’ offers a quite serious undercurrent to this book: the government, run by a President well over his head, surrounded by corruption and self-serving politicians and military leaders.

Mr. Mojo Risin’ is a true send-up, the kind of sweeping novel into which we all love to escape. It is also the first of four planned novels by Tatum, who also is a songwriter, musical and short story author. As he sat down with us, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he broke down one of the more original novels to cross our desk in years. You can find more on the book, including entertaining back stories on characters — and a few select song lists — by going to http://www.mrmojorisinbook.com.

WORD JOURNEYS: Mr. Mojo Risin has more twists and turns than a Grand Prix course in a hall of mirrors — and each is equally farcical, hilarious, informative, and cautionary in its own way. Can you briefly take us through the story?

SCOTT TATUM: You can get a lot of mileage if you cast three back-from-the-dead rock icons as your protagonists, especially if one of them chats with God and another is invisible. But that will only take you so far. Conflict drives stories. In Mr. Mojo Risin, Morrison and company have many worthy adversaries: a bumbling President, his vainly incompetent Chief of Staff, a ruthlessly ambitious four-star General, a sleazy Mafia hitman and a seductive Yakuza assassin — and that’s before tossing the CIA, the FBI, homicide detectives, and a Navy SEAL team into the mix.

WJ: Jim, Jimi and Elvis are together again – in a way no one will expect. What gave you the idea to come up with a novel about the three as members of a ghost CIA program? 

ST: When I settled on Morrison, Elvis and Hendrix as my protagonists, I had to come up with a shared experience to account for their deaths. The CIA ruse worked because it gave an almost plausible way to account for their public disappearances and subsequent resurrections.

WJ: How did this story come together? What prompted you to write this book, and the eventual series? 

ST: Like all stories, this started with a couple questions. The first: If Jim Morrison (and eventually Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix) didn’t die, what really happened and what would they be up to now?

The second question reared its ugly head during a TV piece about the legalization of marijuana. Watching a demagogue wax poetically about the dangers of pot as a gateway drug, I wondered, ‘What if marijuana provided a strategically important advantage to the military?’

WJ: What were character aspects you embraced as you imagined Morrison, Hendrix and Presley still kicking around some 25-30 years after their demises? 

ST: In Mr. Mojo Risin, Elvis references his earlier “resurrection” (starting with his 1968 TV special) as a cautionary tale, warning Morrison that if he’d hung on any longer, he’d have wound up fat, fringed and strung out in Vegas doing two shows a night. Morrison, who makes several references to his extended adolescence, understands that being away from his old life as a rock god gave him the space to grow up. Morrison, Elvis and Jimi are painfully aware of where they came from and hopeful of where they’re headed.

WJ: The story is a real send-up, and in many ways, parallel to some of the dysfunction we see in the White House today. Yet, you draw out something quite serious: what happens to a country when someone takes charge who is way over his head. Can you talk about that sub-theme? 

ST: Sadly, those lessons are either self-evident or they’re not. Most people understand there’s an astounding level of dysfunction in Washington in general and in the White House in particular. The rest appear pathologically incapable of figuring it out.

The Trump presidency has dramatically raised the bar on what’s out-of-bounds politically. In the book, the Hartley-Thibodeaux campaign platform had to be re-written because what I wrote in the original draft, though it seemed outrageous at the time, has become the new normal.

WJ: We’ve got corrupt politicians, resurrected rock legends, old girlfriends, renegade warriors, Mafia and Yakuza interests … How did these character choices factor into the way you wrote the book?

ST: Michelangelo said every block of stone had a statue inside, and the task of a sculptor was to uncover it. I try to create intense, wacky characters then get out of their way and let them tell their story. It probably contributes to the wild ride that I tend not to write linearly.

WJ: As you wrote the story, what surprised you most about how Jimi, Jim and/or Elvis changed?

ST: Actually, what surprised me most what was not how they changed but why. The book wrote itself. The story took some unexpected twists and turns that forced the characters to react and adapt.

WJ: You have a real talent for spotting the farcical in people, their lives and their situations. In what ways did that help you with the hilarious scenes and conversations that pepper this book? 

ST: I think that springs from a mix of my personal experiences and how I look at the world. When people asked, I used to answer, “I was a righter”. Along the way, part of my process was learning I can’t fix the world. We live in nonsensical times. All I’m doing is going with the flow and creating a read from my perspective.

WJ: Since Jim Morrison is one of the characters, you do something to show the heartful side of him – putting him with Sparkle. He was like this before, too, at times. Tell us about your love of The Doors, and why you chose to bring out the soft side of Morrison in the book. 

ST: Like I said, hopefully, eventually we all grow up. When I first met my wife, I realized she was too smart for me to fool very long. I had to become the person I pretended to be. For a guy set in his ways, that’s hard. Like Morrison when he meets Sparkle, I was so in love with her, I was willing to go through the process. I think it’s something most men can relate to. If you’re a man and can’t, either God bless you ‘cause you got it right the first time, or you’ve got a lot of work to do.

WJ: Another highlight is the fast-paced, tough-talking, colorful dialogue between the characters. That must’ve been a blast to hear all these colorful, crazy characters talking through your head while writing.

ST: One of the experiences I share with Jim Morrison, is as the son of acareer military officer, I moved around a lot as a kid. In the second grade, I went to four different schools. I was in the eighth grade before I went to the same school two years in a row. Learning how to fit in became an emotional survival skill. One of the chameleon-like abilities I unconsciously acquired was mimicking speech. Take the Mafia hitman in Mr. Mojo Risin, Many of the details of his life – Saint Rose’s of Lima in Flatbush, Newkirk Ave, the Cadillac dealership on Long Island – are familiar to me. His voice in my head rings distinctively Brooklyn. I hope it reads that way as well.

I always work dialogue out loud and standing up. I act out each scene as I edit. Several characters have catch phrases that help identify and define them, like Gladys Little’s “landsakes” or her husband Elmo’s “we better skidaddle before the blubbering starts.”

One quirk I didn’t catch until later, is that Morrison, Sparkle and Moby always say “going to” while the rest of the characters say “gonna”. Morrison and Sparkle were both English majors. Moby, as we find out in Agnew on Mt Rushmore, has his Ph.D. from Cambridge. I did that without realizing it just by keeping everyone in character.

When I first met my wife, I warned her anything she says or does is fair game for a book and she strongly influenced Sparkle. I frequently take notes whenever I hear or say something I think I can use. Sometimes I try out dialogue on her to see how she reacts. Little tricks like that keep each character’s speech authentic.

WJ: Tell us about the mother-daughter dynamic of Sparkle and Honey, and how that plays into both Morrison’s opening and the story itself. 

ST: As a man, writing from a woman’s perspective is hard. I didn’t grow up with a sister. My grandfather was one of thirteen children and had two sons of his own. His only sister died before he was born. When my parents got married, he presented them a bottle of Napoleon brandy to toast the first female addition to the family line in over half a century. But my mom and dad had sons. My brother has two sons. Another half a century later, after I had three sons, my wife and I found out she was pregnant with a little girl.

Not surprisingly, I relied heavily on the relationship between my wife and our now teenage daughter in crafting Sparkle and Honey’s characters. Because Sparkle was a teenage mom herself, they grew up almost like sisters. It’s hard, particularly with a mother and daughter so close in age, to be friends and still set boundaries. That dynamic is a telling part of their story.

WJ: Mr. Mojo Risin’ is the first book in a series you are planning. Tell us briefly about the stories to follow.

ST: You can get a lot of mileage if you cast three back-from-the-dead rock icons as your protagonists, especially if one of them chats with God and another is invisible. But that will only take you so far. Conflict drives stories.

In the second book, Agnew on Mt. Rushmore, Morrison and company confront a thermonuclear weapons designer who rolls into Vegas with a trunk full of suitcase nukes and a plan to extort billions from Uncle Sam. Along with his co-conspirators, a deranged U.S. Senator from Mississippi and the Prince of Darkness (Satan’s spent the last two decades moonlighting as a Vegas lounge singer), he’s threatening to turn southern Nevada, including some very expensive casino real estate, into ground zero.

In the third book, The Boys From Pahrump, lingering questions surrounding JFK’s death are answered when our heroes match wits with the love child of Marilyn Monroe and Adolf Hitler. Neither the Cubans, Kremlin, Mafia nor CIA were involved in the assassination. There was no sinister conspiracy. In my story, JFK got caught up in a good, old-fashioned love triangle, cuckolding a sociopath with a silly moustache.  Meanwhile, Adolf and Marilyn’s son is poised to fulfill his father’s dream of world domination. He’s smuggled thousands of vials of frozen Fuhrer sperm from a super-secret CIA vault, the first step in his master plan to breed an army of baby Hitlers and create the Fourth Reich.

I’m thinking about writing the fourth book (working title Erebus ex Machina) from Gladys Little’s point-of-view. That way I can shamelessly steal Vonnegut’s opening line from Cat’s Cradle (that he shamelessly stole from Moby Dick):

Call me Mother. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me Gladys.

I’m only a hundred pages in, and the story’s still writing itself, but I will tell you it ends with a burning Viking ship sendoff in the Bellagio Fountains.

I hope readers enjoy reading my books as much as I enjoy writing them.

 

 

 

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15 Common Points Between Writing & Running Marathons

(Part 1 of a two-blog series)

Just finished watching the Ironman 70.3 in Oceanside, with the athletes running the last of those 70.3 miles right by the house. Now, gearing up for this weekend’s Carlsbad 5000, the world’s fastest 5K road race. And, in two weeks, the marathon world turns its focus to Boston for the Boston Marathon – which I plan to run for the fourth time in 2014.

Running_01Speaking of marathons, authors often compare writing books to running marathons. The usual line: “Writing a book is not a wind sprint, but a marathon.” They often don’t really think about why that is (except that writing a book usually takes a long time, along with all the mental energy you can muster). I speak about this when teaching workshops. Readers and writers alike can gain great insight into how your favorite stories come together, and how the author got there, by drawing comparisons to the most celebrated of all long-distance races.

Since I’ve run eight marathons, along with writing ten books and ghostwriting seven others, thought I’d share 15 points in common between marathons and the writing process. Lace up your shoes, boot up the computer, and toe the starting line. Away we go…

Enter the race well prepared: Marathoners know better than to enter a race ill prepared. If they are not prepared, they will become very intimate with agony. Most marathoners train for 12 to 16 weeks, and work out every nuance of the race in their minds before lining up. Same with writing. Make sure your research, thoughts and rough outlines are in place before firing the starting gun for Chapter 1. Let the material mentally percolate for weeks, even months. Play out the scenes or sequences in your mind. Move them around. Sketch them out. Then write. The better prepared going in, the better the finished result – and the happier the reader.

Read the Race: All races are different. The courses, competitors, dynamics and conditions change from race to race. So does the way you feel, what you think is possible, and how you will run the race. Likewise, all stories are different. They require different approaches, paces and characters. That goes for subjects, too, especially when writing non-fiction books and interviewing. When interviewing people, read their faces and expressions, and listen for what is not said as much as what is said. Go into every article, book or story knowing it will be unique – and read it as it unfolds.

Vary your pace: A lot of people thinking racing marathons is a matter of finding a pace and sticking with it for all 26.2 miles –  or bob at skywalker-lores until fatigue and sore muscles slow you down. Not so. Good racers change their pace several times, pushing hills, speeding up for a half-mile in the middle, surging at the end, or even throwing in a 100-meter pick-up just to change the stride. It helps – a lot. Likewise, good writers vary their pace within a book, switching from fast-dramatic-action sequences to slower-thoughtful-contemplative scenes. They do it within dialogue, as well as the way they write sentences. Changes in pace reflect real life. Vary your pace.

Enjoy the process: About 10 years ago, during an arduous 20-mile run in the desert mountains above Tucson, ultramarathon star Pam Reed told me something: “It’s going to hurt, you know it’s going to hurt, so just relax and enjoy the process.” Likewise, whether writing or reading, enjoy it! Writing is very hard work, but what could be a better vocation than sharing stories and subjects with a reading audience? And communicating directly with them through the written (or electronic) page? Feel the creative buzz. Write from a place of love – love of process. No matter how tough the work, try to enjoy every moment. Trust me: readers will notice, and beg for more.

Make tight, well-angled turns: Road races often feature a lot of curves and turns – sometimes, hairpin turns on out-and-back courses. Good racers know to stay clear of the inside on hairpin turns, to swing a bit wide, lean into the turn, and then find a direct line to the next straight section. So it is with writing transitions from one scene to another. Make your transitions lean and mean. Lean into them, using the momentum of the prior scene. Write tightly, carrying us into the next scene, but don’t write them abruptly unless that is part of the dramatic tension of the story. Learn the art of the turn. Write transitions, metaphors and similes that connect – instantly. My all-time favorite comes from the late Los Angeles Times sports columnist extraordinaire Jim Murray, describing a picky home plate umpire: “He had a strike zone the size of Hitler’s heart.” That’s the art of a well-run turn.

Pick your way through the crowd: Good racers know how to anticipate traffic on the course, and pick their way through runners without breaking stride.  Likewise, as an author, you will have a crowded field of other writers in your genre. Distinguish your work by content and voice, identify the crux of every scene among the myriad thoughts pouring through your mind, and run to the exact sentences and words to best capture your scene. And do so without breaking form.

Make your move: Commit yourself fully: At some point in every race, runners make their move to ensure the best finish. They pick up the pace, tap into their inner reserves, and lay themselves out. These surges are beautiful to behold. And readers love it as well. When you commit to a character action or a line of argument or discussion in a non-fiction book, commit fully. Give it everything you’ve got, the fruits of all the hard research, interviewing, deep thinking and planning. Write every sentence as though it were your last. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to “save it up for a knockout punch.” Be like Ernest Hemingway: pour your blood, sweat and collective life experience into every sentence you write. Commit fully.

READ PART 2 of “15 Common Points Between Writing & Running Marathons”

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30 Books (Plus One) Every Writer Should Own

Since the holiday season is upon us, thought I’d create a “gift list” to use when shopping for your writer friends – or yourselves.

This list is very simple: 30 Books (Plus One) Every Writer Should Own. I realize this is subjective, but it encompasses the type of material we need when working on our books, articles, essays or other projects. This list is also designed to spark new ideas, or to further exploration of ideas you already have.

In the list, you will find several self-help writing books, collections of conversations with authors, memoirs, technical books, books addressing other creative genres (music and art, specifically), and works written by some of the greatest authors.

While I would love to include my own writing books in this list – Writes of Life and The Write Time … that’s not for me to judge. One day, someone might create a list that includes them.

In no particular order, here is the list, with personal impressions from my experience as an author, poet, journalist, editor and writing teacher. You can order them through Amazon.com or your local bookstore. Take this list with you during Black Friday or Online Monday (or whatever they call it). Also, let me know what you would add to this list – I’ll run your suggestions and any comments in a future blog.

1 & 2. On Becoming a Novelist and On Writers and Writing, by John Gardner. We start with a bang – a two-for-one. No novelist has ever conveyed the craft and writing life better; then again, he was perhaps the nation’s most refined fiction writer and teacher of fiction at the time of his death in 1982.

3. Writers Dreaming, by Naomi Epel. Conversations with noted authors on their dreams, plots or ideas that came from dreams, and how they work with their dreams. A vital read if you, like me, believe the 6 to 8 non-waking hours of the day contribute mightily to the writing process.

4 & 5. Storycatcher: The Power of Story to Change Our Lives, by Christina Baldwin. Reading and working the prompts in this book is like drinking nectar, further flavored by your own words when they spin together perfectly. In other words, this book does magical things to one’s ability to journal, write an essay or story, and heal. Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest is another Baldwin title worth owning.

6. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. After nearly a century, this book remains a staple of working writers and teachers. Its greatest value might be in emphasizing the need to write tight – crisp, concise, to the point.

7 & 8. Punctuation for Writers, by Harvey Stanbrough. This book deserves a spot on every writer’s desktop alongside The Elements of Style. It presents punctuation as a timely, valuable asset to every written sentence, rather than the necessary evil we first met in grammar school. Whenever I write a book, this gem sits on my desktop. An alternate Stanbrough pick: Writing Realistic Dialogue & Flash Fiction.

9. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. In my opinion, one of the best memoirs ever written. I’ve read it 10 times, and counting. This masterpiece brings together nature, voice, observation, listening, creating, inner feelings, outer environment, hubris and hope … and every word sparkles with brilliance. What else is there? If you want more Dillard, go with Three By Annie Dillard – a collection that also includes An American Childhood, and The Writing Life.

10. A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman. This is a tremendous book on how the physical senses play out in the natural world, and how we can attune better to our own senses … a critical aspect of deep writing. Some of the stories of how animals use their senses are breathtaking – and reminders of how much more sense-itive we can (and should) become as writers.

11. Color: A Natural History of the Palette, by Victoria Finlay. This book contains a history of primary colors, how they were mixed for artists since prehistoric times, and the fascinating stories behind the substances and creators of these colors. A great book of observation, journalism and craftsmanship. Good writers always form close alliances with color and tone; here’s a wonderful map into that journey.

12. Library: An Unquiet History, by Matthew Battles. I believe every writer should know basic library science and library history – and this book provides a wonderfully off-beat account of both. From Sumeria to your local library, the adventures of the printed word and its storage – and the wars fought over books – could not be better told.

13. The Browser’s Book of Beginnings, by Charles Panati. As writers, we should know the origins of every subject about which we write – and the etymology of the historical words we use. The incredible material can either be used in your works – or prompt little “archaeological” digs of your own. An alternate selection: The Book of Lists, by David Wallechinsky.

14. Writer’s Market, by Writer’s Digest Books. Between the great articles on marketing, editing and craft, and the thousands of publishing listings, how can any working writer not operate with this book close at hand?

15. 1001 Ways to Market Your Books, by John Kremer. John has been teaching marketing workshops to writers for a long time, and this book has become a staple for working writers nationwide. In this era of online communities and direct author involvement in promotion and marketing, its importance has never been greater. Writing today means doing good business; you will find a number of strong marketing strategies for your book in here.

16 & 17. Dimensions of a Life, ed. Jon Halpern. Written to honor great poet-essayist Gary Snyder on his 60th birthday, this collection of essays, stories and poems by more than 70 contributors focuses on aspects of Snyder’s life, work, personality, cultural influences, and more. It’s like taking 70 gemologists, peeling a diamond open, and seeing how that diamond comes together, one side at a time. Alternate selection for fans of Beat poetry and literature: Lighting the Corners, featuring the works and conversations of Michael McClure.

18. The Language of Life, by Bill Moyers. The subject of a 1995 PBS special, this book features conversations with 25 great current poets. In it, you will see how writers and poets develop voice, and read priceless insights on observation, imagery and craft.

19. Henry Miller on Writing, by Henry Miller. This book changed my writing life; I learned to really finish my book manuscripts after reading it. One of the 20th century’s most prolific writers and artists shares his take on the art and craft of writing – and the insights and tips fall from every page like fruit trees perpetually in season.

20. The Crossing Point, by Mary Caroline Richards. Every writer, teacher, artist, artisan, poet and those concerned with the creative process would do well to own this book of essays, talks, poems and musings by one of the 20th century’s greatest purveyors of personal creativity (and part of the famed Black Mountain literary movement). My copy is hopelessly ripped, underlined and dog-eared from extensive use; I can feel my creative electrons jumping each time I open this book.

21. How To Think Like Leonardo DaVinci, by Michael Gelb. Here it is, in a single hardback book: the visual imprint of the creative mind and creative process. Its exploration of the ultimate Renaissance man brings out the creator in all of us. This book is filled with page after page of creative inspiration; I can’t last more than four pages at a time without putting it down and writing to exhaustion.

22. A Writer’s Diary, by Virginia Woolf. The beauty of this diary is that we truly see the inner triumphs and struggles of a great literary figure – but also how every minute of every day was spent writing or gathering the seeds for future works. A great look at the inner world of the perpetually working writer.

23. The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, by Marc Weingarten. The story of the New Journalists – the writers to whom every current journalist, memoirist and narrative non-fiction author owes a debt of gratitude. Beginning with Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, these were the pioneers of incorporating fiction-writing and deep inner personal feelings into non-fiction work.

24. The Language Instinct: How Mind Creates Language, by Stephen Pinker. During our growth as writers, we realize more and more how vital it is to understand the nuances of language, its im-pressions as well as ex-pressions. This book, written by a renowned linguist, shows the way. Read it, and you will find yourself listening to every person’s spoken word more closely – and capturing it more completely in your next piece of writing.

25. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. A modern classic for writers seeking the deeper, inner places from which to write, and the relationships of their feelings and perceptions to the outside world. The vignettes and essays in this book are tight, concise – and built to prompt you to write.

26. Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music, by Glenn Kurtz. Music and writing are so closely linked, structurally and creatively, that it behooves every writer listen to music deeply, if not play or study it. But this stellar memoir is about more than music: it is about the art and hard work of practice, and how practice creates ultimate attunement with one’s instrument. In the case of writers, that means written vocabulary and voice.

27. Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott. Anne’s deeply felt, highly observant look at the little things in life – a prime topic of both her fiction and non-fiction books – informs this collections of essays/prompts. In it, she shows how she invents verbs to suit the action of the moment – reminding us that we, too, can invent words.

28. Cultural Literacy, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. While this book is somewhat limited, in that it spells out “only” 5,000 cultural facts or subjects people should know about, I consider it vital reading to every writer who wants to make an imprint on society – and in particular, younger readers. Due to breakdowns in education, funding and the like, writers are in a particularly crucial position of helping to educate and advance our culture. We can develop a strong base with this book.

29. On Writing, by Stephen King. The man who re-invented the horror genre – in both books and films – wrote this heartfelt, deeply informed book to the writer who fights, struggles, bleeds, perseveres and stops at nothing to write … then comes back for more. In other words, a book for all of us.

30. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee. The author put 40 years of screenwriting experience into this book, which rises far beyond the world of the screenplay into something much more universal – the art and craft of writing a compelling story by visualizing a moment and then drawing it out. This book works for all writers. Alternate selection: The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby.

The Bonus Book: On Being a Writer, by Theodore Strickland. This Writer’s Digest Book Club selection is now 20 years old, but just as much of a treasure as the day it was published. It features wide-open conversations with a number of best-selling authors; between them, they canvass and discuss every nook and cranny of the writing process.

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Your Journal, Your Goldmine

Here We Go!

Since blogging has become the preferred form of open-faced journaling for so many, I will open this blog by sharing some of the ways writers can use their journals to further their skills, ideas and works.

I’ll start with an admission: About 200 of the exercises in my new book, The Write Time: 366 Exercises to Fulfill Your Writing Life, began as seeds in my journal. I jotted down a few words, let them germinate, then worked them into exercises that I later presented to students in workshops. But they began in the safe, quiet environment of my journal.

I teach a workshop called, “Your Journal, Your Goldmine.” The premise is pretty simple: every writer should consider his or her journal not a diary or rote recitation of events, but a chemistry lab of sorts. Only in this lab, you don’t put on the protective white smock; you take it off. Use your journal to practice various forms of writing, test out techniques or character voices, and grow the ideas that you have germinated. I find that writers who test out their countless ideas through journaling sessions avoid much of the later frustration of starting a book or essay, only to see it wither halfway through when the initial emotional steam is gone.

Seven ways in which you can make your journal work for you:
1) Experiment with character voices and dialogue. This includes dialects, colloquialisms, slang and accents particular to your character’s locale.
2) Experiment with words, phrases, similes and metaphors. Similes and metaphors are all about painting visual connections through language.
3) Flesh out your ideas; see if they go somewhere. If they do, write them out!
4) Explore your deepest feelings and observations, and don’t stop if it gets uncomfortable or intense. Go all the way; reveal, reveal, reveal. The deeper you go, the deeper you write – in your point of view, as well as your characters’.
5) Write about something new every day.
6) Experiment with genres. Try writing a poem instead of a short story, or a memoir-like vignette instead of an essay. The more pliable you become with genres, the more you can shape the form your pieces take.
7) People-watch, especially when traveling. Capture their faces, movements, feelings you have when watching them.

You can also use your journal as a way to heal from physical or emotional injury or trauma. Though it was originally written to address survivors of traumatic brain injury, a fine new book by my friend, Barbara Stahura, really captures this mode of journaling: After Brain Injury: Telling Your Story ($30)

Journal every day, if possible. I’ve been journaling in my journal, “A Day In The Life,” almost daily since 1977; it’s now up to about 70 notebooks in size. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is the collection of life, observations, experiences, adventures, riffs on other authors and poets and their works, unfinished stories and poems, people, discovering new means of expression, word experiments, notes from writer’s conferences and workshops, and all the hours of practice that lie within. Once you’ve journaled for awhile – say, a year or two – you will be able to look back and find ideas, or writing “riffs,” that went nowhere at the time … but “hit the mark” for something you seek to write.

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