First off, find out what to write about

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Journals can act as a good tool for writers, keeping your pen moving like lifting weights in the gym. The best kind of journaling, according to Pulitzer winning novelist Robert Ohlen Butler, is a description of the sensations during an emotional moment of your day before you sit down to write. First thing in the morning, if you can. This kind of prep writing is vital to knowing what makes your writing’s heart beat.

I have practiced a journaling exercise from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. She says that the essential thing to writing is to write about something you really care about. How to know? Make some lists. Pick big emotions, according to playwright Claudia Johnson, who Burroway quotes in the chapter “Whatever Works” (Permit me to share my own answers, to illustrate.)

What makes you angry? Bullying, elitism, being shut out, cruel criticism, injustice.
What are you afraid of?
 Being abandoned, becoming irrelevant, loss of my mental and physical faculties, heights.
What do you want? Love and acceptance of who I am, supportive relationships with friends, peace and beauty from nature, the reward of service, unexpected joy, to lead, teach and nurture
What hurts?
 Being excluded, dashed expectations, disrespect for my aspirations, watching someone I love endure pain, being distrusted
What really changed you?
 My Army service, Dad’s suicide, drugs and then arrest, becoming a father, divorce from Lisa, then leaving my son’s home when he was 6, finding a partner for the rest of my life.
Who really changed you?
 Jim Lindsey, my first real community newspaper editor. Shawn Hare, an actor in the Melodrama Theatre. My son Nick. John Wilson, magazine owner. Jim Hoadley, my counselor and “provisional governor.” My wife Abby.

If all this sounds theraputic, confessional, intimate, it should. “Those will be areas to look to for stories, whether or not the stories are autobiographical,” Burroway says. Some time back I wrote a short story called Two Guys, about partners in a New York City hot dog cart business. They were breaking up. Underneath the drama and the characters was the reality of seeing my collaboration with my wife in our business start to end. I wanted a literary journal. She wanted yoga. I never ran a hot dog cart, but the emotions of a dissolving partnership felt the same. Burroway reminds us that novelist Ron Carlson says, “I always write from my own experiences, whether I’ve had them or not.”

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