Last year, I kept a diary. From May 2019 to September 2020, I opened up the same google doc maybe a billion times (I don’t feel like counting) and forced myself to put something down. I never set rules or boundaries or anything like that, but I’d typically just write about the first idea that came to my mind—sometimes it was an actually pointless thought about a song or a record that I had in my head (looking back, I have at least two entries about Dashboard Confessional, which feels a little too on-the-nose but sometimes the truth is the truth). Sometimes, the entries were little scenes that I made up, evolving over the course of a few days at a time. Often, they were mundane reflections on whatever I was doing that day, and because I’ve always been a little bit reclusive and easily socially exhausted, a startling majority of my entries were usually centered on my daily walks with my dog Nick, mostly because that’s usually my favorite part of any given day.
This activity was basically an under-thought play on something I had vaguely heard about but failed to actively research or look much into called automatic writing, which I’m looking up right this moment and actually appears to be a more spiritual thing than I had thought, so maybe what I’m thinking of is actually called something else. But the idea was that I would sit down and write whatever popped into my brain without worrying about whether it was asinine or whether people would care about it. I’d just get something on the page and write until I was done with it. I flippantly called the google doc “free sketching,” which was probably me trying to remember what automatic writing (or whatever it is) was actually called, but I never changed it.
The first time I wrote this way, which by my record was on 5/29/19, I was really just looking for something to do with my idle hands. I was sitting at Lucky Goat on Poplar and 26th, where I went just to finish up an article I was working on (timeline-wise, it appears to have been this review of the last Get Up Kids record, which still rocks). It was already mostly done, so it didn’t take me much time to do my usual ritual for finishing a piece, a process that exists in a strange space between overly anxious picking apart of every word and an impulsive (read: reckless?) need to just get it over with and send it in.
When that was done and I had immediately erased the memory of writing the article, I still had like half a cup of coffee left and that’s when I had to face the fact that I was actually alone in a public space with nothing to do. I am typically fine being alone—I don’t mind seeing bands or reading books on public benches or aimlessly walking around by myself—but I do get this creeping unease every once in a while that I am somehow bothering other people by being alone in a space where maybe I’m not supposed to be alone? I’m well aware that my brain is doing some truly wicked backflips here, but the point is that I was starting to feel a little nervous. I needed something to stand in between this place and me for a while because I just wanted to finish my silly little cup of coffee before I headed home.
At the time I was stuck on the latest LP from The National, I Am Easy to Find, so I threw that on and opened the blank document and started moving my fingers just to stave off the panic. I ended up writing an unfocused breakdown of one of my favorite moments on the record, buried a little bit under the ecstatic highs of “Where Is Her Head.” The line I’m talking about is “and I will not come back the same,” and here’s part of what I was thinking that day:
But really, that’s a triumphant line. It’s a freedom to depart and return with a slightly different heart. It’s a freedom to leave certain people and know that maybe next time you run into each other, you’re two new people meeting for the first time. It wipes the slate clean and erases most everything that doesn’t feel substantial. The scars will remain but maybe they’ll be more manageable.
Nothing all that insightful really, basically just regurgitating the line, but I felt something gratifying in playing around with an idea like that. The good part about getting myself to write in this way was not that it churned out anything really worth much. It was that, when I was done working with this idea, I realized I wasn’t done writing. So I dug out a short story I had started a few months before and kept it going. And I wrote until that National album (which is over an hour long) was over. Then I went home and later that day, I worked on the story for another two hours.
I’ve been calling this kind of writing a “diary,” but it wasn’t necessarily a diary in the way I always defined that term in my head. I’ve been writing in journals and notebooks basically my whole life, but the way I’d write in the free sketching document was different. In my journals, I’d appear sporadically, usually when I needed them most, spilling pages and pages of god I don’t even know what, writing until I was completely tapped out and needed to go lie down. Oftentimes, I wouldn’t come back to that journal again for weeks or months.
The kind of diary keeping I’m talking about here is somewhere between that and something like the amazingly tiny daily updates that John Wilson meticulously enters into his little yellow notebooks, as seen in How To With John Wilson. While the purpose here is not to keep track of everything that I do or eat every day, as it is with Wilson, the idea is that the stakes are low enough to write an entry as often as possible without the massive wipeout that my more intense diary would bring me.
The day after that first productive writing session at the coffee shop, I opened the free sketching document again and I wrote about a daydream I had earlier that morning. “I’m warming up,” the entry starts. I put on the National record and, when I was done with the diary part, I started working on the story again until the record was over. I carried out this process for four of the next five days. This glorified journaling acted as a proverbial throat clearing for this other, bigger project. It seemed like the simplest, most obvious method in the world, but it allowed me to ease myself into this other thing that meant so much to me, this thing that was so intimidating when it stood on its own, waiting for me to get to work.
For the next 16 months, I did almost everything the same way. I’d type in the free sketching document until I didn’t have anything left to say. And then, I’d feel clear headed enough to get into the main project. I even listened to that same record more often than not (as a result of this habit, I Am Easy to Find was my top-streamed album in 2019 and 2020). And in September of last year, I finished writing the first draft of my first novel, something I had started to think I would never have the persistence or resolve to do.
There are a few reasons why I’m telling you all of this although maybe none of them are clear to you at this point, which I’m sorry about. The first is I guess a kind of impulse to give advice, even though I’d never claim to know what I’m doing. This kind of exercise is not something I invented or will claim any ownership over. It’s something that, if you’re the type of person who writes, you’ve inevitably come across a million times before in some form or another. Hell, my fifth grade teacher used to have us write a random word over and over on a piece of paper before we had to write an essay, just to get our pens moving. But I want to add to the already stuffed chorus because it really did help. If you’re like me and you have an anxious, wandering mind and you’re having trouble focusing on something creative, give yourself a little space to empty out the clutter. You may find something to like in what you make during this time, but that’s not the point. In a six-month period of doing this almost every day, I only ended up producing a handful of entries I thought were worth sharing. But it’s worth it to give yourself a chance to warm up before getting into the real work.
The other reason I’m talking about this is I guess by means of intent and introduction. Another thing I liked about doing this free sketching or automatic writing or whatever you want to call it was that, over the course of those 16 months, I felt like I was writing all the time. Even if I didn’t end up getting substantial work done on my book after writing in that google doc, at the end of the day I still felt like I had done what I could to clear the space for getting into that creative zone. I was more consistent than I had ever been in my life. And I felt proud of all that.
So I’m starting this newsletter in part because I feel my absolute best when I’m working on something all the time. This week, I’m planning to brush off my little fear demon and start really editing my book. There’s still so much work to be done there, and I’m excited to get back into it. But I also think I’ve been missing the thrill of building something from scratch, that same feeling I had on that first day at Lucky Goat. I want this newsletter to be the next project I create a little space for. I write about music for The Alternative and for Slant Magazine, so most of my formal thoughts on current and relevant music will still go there, but I want to use this space to flesh out ideas about all kinds of other things—books and movies and other little narratives like this one. Music eventually bleeds into everything I do (it has already bled into the name of this newsletter, which I’m borrowing from one of the best Braid songs), but it will likely take a different form here. In this space, I want to take some lessons from my year of keeping a little digital diary. Here, I want to be a little more open to bringing an impulsive idea to places I haven’t entirely thought through, just hoping we end up somewhere worthwhile. Of course, I’ll be giving myself a little time to warm up first.
Thanks for reading I Keep a Diary.
My name is Jordy (or Jordan, both are cool with me) Walsh, and I’m a writer based in Philadelphia. I write about music for The Alternative and Slant Magazine. I Keep a Diary is a newsletter about music, books, writing, and probably a lot of vague emotions. You can follow me on Twitter for more thoughts on all that stuff and also a lot of pictures of my dog. Thanks for joining me.