I just finished re-reading* Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in the context of a manuscript I’m working on. In the work-in-progress, the speaker confides in and seeks guidance from an alter ego named Gertie, similar to how Blume’s protagonist Margaret talks directly to God throughout the well known novel. “Luckily for Margaret,” as the synopsis on the back cover says, “she’s got someone to confide in… someone who always listens.”
Like Margaret, the speaker in this new manuscript has a built-in sounding board and companion. Gertie, however, isn’t any kind of god — that’s not my thing. Instead, what I’m trying to do is to bifurcate the speaker’s internal dialogue. Instead of the speaker talking to herself or to God, she’s having conversations and exchanges with an “other” (a persona: Gertie) and exploring what that may offer by way of protection, comfort and confidence.
Speaking of confidence, I’m not 100% convinced I can pull it off, but I’m following where it goes anyway. That includes consulting this terrific throwback, which I originally read when I was in middle school along with a bazillion other preteens.
Margaret’s one-way conversations with God punctuate the end of many of the book’s chapters, often as exclamations that capture the protagonist’s intense, mid-conflict emotions. These pleas (prayers, really, I guess) give us a clear sense of how Margaret is feeling about her circumstances as she progresses through sixth grade, making new friends, wondering about her faith (or lack of one) and sorting out puberty.
Here at the end of Chapter 15, for example, Margaret expresses to God her fears about not having her period yet:
Are you there god? It’s me, Margaret. Life is getting worse every day. I’m going to be the only one who doesn’t get it. I know it god. Just like I’m the only one without a religion. Why can’t you help me? Haven’t I always done what you wanted? Please… let me be like everybody else.
And here (a little bit later – Chapter 19), Margaret shares escalating emotions and doubts:
I did an awful thing today. Just awful! I’m definitely the most horrible person who ever lived and I really don’t deserve anything good to happen to me. … I’ve been looking for you God. I looked in temple. I looked in church. And today, I looked for you when I wanted to confess. But you weren’t there. I didn’t feel you at all.
As the novel approaches its climax, Margaret questions everything. Who is she? Where is God? Is anyone really there? My speaker, though certainly old enough to have her period (and actually interested in when it will GO AWAY), shares some of Margaret’s concerns. She wonders if she’s a good enough person. She wonders what there is to believe in and whether she’ll ever belong.
But she and Margaret differ on a key element: questioning whether or not the “other” (God/Gertie) exists. Since my speaker created Gertie, that’s never in doubt, but it was helpful to be reminded of that particular conflict in Blume’s book. I also was delighted to see again that, in some chapters, Margaret stops talking with God entirely. Should I complicate my speaker’s relationship with Gertie? If so, how?
Even though they were spoken, Margaret’s missives to God resemble “Dear Diary” entries, and re-reading the Blume book reminded me how uncomfortable I am with the whole “Dear Diary” thing. Please understand that I have nothing against other people’s diaries. What I mean is my own relationship with diaries has been fraught. The “Dear Diary” approach to writing down my thoughts has always made me feel incredibly self conscious.
It’s something Margaret also navigates, as she reveals early in the book (the end of chapter 2):
“My parents don’t know I actually talk to God. I mean, if I told them they’d think I was some kind of religious fanatic or something. So I keep it very private. I can talk to him without moving my lips if I have to.”
And so diaries — my diaries — embarrass me. Entries full of my worries and desires seem way too earnest. I cut Margaret lots of slack for her earnestness because she’s 12, but I don’t have that excuse. I have historically been revolted by my own earnestness, and so I have avoided the term “diary” to describe my journals. In some cases, I have avoided keeping a “diary”/journal altogether, thinking it would protect me from feeling so ridiculous.
Spoiler alert: It has not. I’m writing a manuscript about an adult woman who talks to her alter ego, FFS. The possible saving grace? She does *not* have the conversation via diary entries.
my writing journals
I’m not sure why I am so squeamish about the idea of “Dear Diary.” I do understand the value of journaling and have journaled my way through many crises, though even then I was partly mortified by the indulgence. I suppose calling a thing “my diary”** — and actually writing in it the things you’re “supposed to” write in it — makes me feel vulnerable and exposed, even though it’s intended to be private. I’ve just always been more comfortable capturing my thoughts in a different format: “writing journals.”
There are lots of ways to keep a writing journal. Here’s one from The Writing Cooperative and another from Writing Forward. And here’s what I do: I fill my writing journals primarily with free writes*** (riffing on bits of inspiration). I also make notes about where I am with my writing practice and what I’m working on.
It’s safe to say that my writing journals are the most essential part of my writing practice, and they’re the most significant source — both in terms of imagination and quantity — of lines/phrases for my poems.
Here’s the basic structure of my most recent writing journals:
- On one of the first pages in the front of the journal, I list (as a reminder) some of the items I can write out when I need help getting my extra fine Pilot Precise V5 Rolling Ball pen (black ink) moving on the page. I use two columns:
- In column 1, I list these categories out by hand: free writes, letters to Gertie, thoughts on projects (new directions, challenges, questions, etc.) and writing process, notes from workshops and readings, happenings (usually related to writing but not always, treading dangerously into diary territory LOL), lists/brainstorms, mind maps, American Sentences and quotes.
- In column 2, I write out this list of, well, *other* lists I can consult as needed: Song of Myself (Whitman), Howl (Ginsberg), Milles et un sentiments (Duhamel), Midwinter Day (Mayer), I Remember (Brainard) and I Am Waiting (Ferlinghetti)
- On the next page, I make… another list! This one is for themes/obsessions I seem to be (or want to be) exploring in the current journal. Here’s what’s on page 2 of my current journal: cohabitation, disembodiment, protection, alter egos & avatars, ventriloquism/bots, self portraits, letters, grief/trauma, the grind/capitalism/climate change, boredom, clumsiness, self acceptance and belonging/comfort. Right now, many of these explorations are related to and part of my Gertie manuscript.
- Jumping to the very back of the journal, I list everything I’m reading during the period of the journal. This often ends up being one of the most valuable records in my writing journals. (See “a little something more about Gertie” below.)
- The rest is the meat of the journal — regular entries. I number the pages (which makes me feel accomplished as I fill them up) and label each entry with the date, day of the week and where I am when I’m writing. When random ideas come to me (like lines/images, titles/topics for new poems or “to do” items unrelated to what I’m doing in the main part of the page), I create little bubbles/pop-outs, as in the photo on the left at the beginning of this section.
This journal is a paper journal. I went digital for a while, but in spirit only. I used an app on my iPad and wrote longhand there. It was similar, but I find that I really need a break from screens. (My day job is writing, as well, so I am in front of a screen all day long even without working on my own stuff.)
a little something more about gertie
My writing journals help me create the raw material for the poems and gain momentum on projects. As I noted, the reading lists are hugely helpful. Most recently, I’ve been referring back to these reading lists and making note of those that I think have helped (or could help) me find my way with the new poems I’m writing for Gertie. I’m gathering up the influences and calling them “the Gertie lineage.”
Here’s an in-progress list:
- (Some of) The Adventures of Carlyle My Imaginary Friend by Dennis Hazners
- The Wynona Stone Poems by Caki Wilkinson
- Dead Wendy by Richard Carr (publisher website links here)
- Instructions to the Double by Tess Gallagher
- The Visible Woman by Allison Funk
- The Naomi Letters by Rachel Mennies
- Oculus by Sally Wen Mao
- The Falls by Emily Mohn Slate
- frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss
- The “Betty Superman” stories by Tiff Holland
- Madwoman by Shara McCallum
- Constellation Route by Matthew Olzmann
- The “Sarah Kay vs. Sarah” episode of the VS podcast
- Girlhood by Melissa Febos
- Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
- The Stranger Manual by Catie Rosemurgy
The mix of books has heavy focus on either epistolary poems or recurring, persistent characters/personas.
how do *you* use writing journals?
So, I’m curious: How do you use diaries or writing journals? Do you capture daily goings on, early drafts or both? or something else?
How integral are they to your process?
What’s your preferred format: analog or digital?
Are there any art journalers reading this? At other times in my life, I’ve done some sketching or collage in my writing journals but never in a sustainable way, and I have serious envy!
*In addition, it’s *always* good to keep previously/current banned books in the spotlight. (Women coming of age are sooooo dangerous LOL) Another good reason to re-read? It’s being turned into a movie!
**Interestingly, my aversion to “diary” does not include some of its variations (Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages,” for example).
***I mostly free write using Natalie Goldberg’s Rules for Writing.