photograph of fountain pen and notebook


My habit of keeping a creative journal started by accident. I was writing the novel that would become Nights In The Asylum, and it felt as if it was going badly; I needed somewhere to express my doubts, not to say have a heartfelt moan and sometimes a little weep.

Since I didn't want to exhaust the patience of my family, I confided details of my good days and especially my bad days in a notebook. I didn't go out and buy one for the purpose but used an old black book that happened to be lying around the house. Years later, when I was still writing in it, I wished I'd had the foresight to choose something sturdier.

The first entry was made in February 2003 and I had filled the book by January 2013, ten years of noting down what I was working on and charting its progress. There were gaps, notably in the years when I pursued a doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide. That was because there were so many opportunities for writerly conversations with colleagues that the notebook became superfluous.

It wasn't until, in recovery from academia, I began another novel and found it going badly that I turned back to the old journal. In there I found plenty of days when I had only managed a couple of hundred words. When I read it from the beginning I discovered to my surprise that I have always found writing a first raw draft slow and difficult, yet the novel had been published. It was a comfort to know that I had done it before, which I took to mean that I could do it again; I hadn't (as I'd begun to believe) lost some indefinable mojo simply because I'd spent a few years surrounded by people keen on the theories of literary criticism.

Years can pass during the writing of a novel without much to show. It's a bit like the imperceptible movement of a glacier. Work done at the in-progress stage tends to disappear into the word document, but I have kept on charting my writing days, and the other benefit is that I now know where the time goes. I can track changes of thought throughout the extended time frame of writing a novel, and I have a better understanding of my own writing habits.

I always advise other writers to start a creative diary. Those that do have told me it has made a difference. It's not a quick fix but a long term strategy, an extended conversation with yourself about the business of being a writer.

I also start a workbook (like the ones in the photograph) for each new project. Covering an exercise book in sturdy brown paper, putting my name and mobile inside the cover, has become part of the ritual of beginning fresh work. I always carry this with me and scribble down anything and everything to do with the novel. When the workbook needs a new coat of brown paper I know I'm close to finishing the first draft, and although they start out plain, each one ends up wearing the distinctive marks of its journey.