“What advice would you give a writer starting out?” is the question I am always asked at the end of one of my talks to high school students. I have thought about this question long and hard trying to come up with an answer that will be truly helpful. There are so many possibilities. Do I talk about developing skills or do I talk about attitude, about the mind-frame needed to write something that matters, something capable of touching hearts? In the end, I tell the young person about the one thing that helped me the most: writing every day in my journal.
I started writing in my journal when I was a sophomore in high school and have been doing it almost every day since then. I am now 65 years old. I’m too scared to do the math and count how many entries this makes. In a closet in the basement of my house there is a stack of notebooks that goes almost to the ceiling. If I were to search for the first entry, I would probably find something very melodramatic about the unbearable sadness of unrequited love . . .and a few pages later, something with a lot of restless adjectives about a new possible love. These days the entries are more like silent prayer.
I became a writer in those journals. At some point in my mid-forties there came a facility, an ease of vocabulary and imagination that allowed me to create characters that were part of me, yet were not me, and stories that were connected to yet separate from my own life story. Looking back, I see the journal as the equivalent of the scales that the pianist plays or the free-throws that the athlete repeats, alone in his back yard, one after another. My journal is where the habit needed for every skill was formed. The journal is where thought turned into instinct. The words that drip out slowly at first eventually start to flow as if they needed time and attention to feel fully welcomed.
My journal gave me the gift of unconsciousness and of consciousness. Unconsciousness, because what I really want to say to that young person asking for advice is to forget about all those things she thinks writing will bring: fame, security, lots of people admiring you and loving you. Forget about the results, which more than anything else will paralyze you, or push you to write words that will not last, and instead focus on the effort. Love the trying, if you can. Offer your work to God, or life, and let them take care of whatever happens to your work after you finish. This is what I would like to say, but instead, I talk about writing in a journal every day because the practice of writing with the knowledge that no one will read what you write will, if you keep at it, eventually give you the freedom of knowing that what you write matters even if you are never famous, even if no one ever reads your words. This is the gift of unconsciousness that journal writing gives. The journal’s gift of consciousness is the awareness that develops inside of you. The awareness of feelings and thoughts and of the universal humanity that is reflected in you and of which you are a part. You explore sadness and joy and ugly things too, like envy and anger, and when it comes time to invent the characters in your novels, you can create their souls from the first-hand experience of your own soul.
This is what I want to say to the young person that wants to be a writer. But I can tell that she won’t like an answer that involves day after day of dedicated purpose. Start now, and maybe in 10 years, or 20, or 40, you will have something that the world finally recognizes as valuable. My dear young person doesn’t want an answer that requires years of working without anyone knowing he is working. She wants something that will happen before the junior-senior prom. Still, I go ahead and tell him about writing in a journal, about writing day after day to save my soul, sometimes my life. I tell him. Write in a journal every day. Write as if your soul and your life depended on it. The rest will take care of itself.
Francisco X. Stork is a former attorney and an award-winning author of seven teen fiction novels. He often uses themes of his own life as inspiration for his writing. “The Memory of Light” is inspired by Stork’s own experience with depression, and “Marcelo in the Real World” is about a teen boy labeled as having a developmental disorder. Read more about his personal journey here.