Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writerhead. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.
“Why keep a journal? Because when you’re writing an essay about the winter you spent in a pieced-together fishing shack on the Gulf Coast of Texas in 1999 and you think you have a finished draft, you unearth your journal from that four-month period and discover a treasure trove of details that deepen the essay in ways you hadn’t even imagined possible (like the fact that Mrs. Garrett–the passionate fisherwoman for whom the house was built–had used fishing line for all the light-pulls with buttons tied at the ends and had installed a paper-towel holder on the porch so that when you pull that unbelievably heavy 28-inch redfish from the San Antonio Bay, you can clean up a bit without mucking up the house).”
I’ve kept a journal since I was eight years old. I’ve got boxes and boxes of them. Much of the stuff is embarrassing gobbledygook about boys and longing to be published and crap like that. I’d be mortified if anyone other than myself read them. BUT those journals are also full of rich details that f’in blow me away.
As an expat in China, I wrote detailed blog entries (here and here), but I also kept a journal. Handwritten…usually in a black Moleskin journal (most often, this one). And so, expat writers around the world, should you.
- No matter how amazing your memory is, you’ll never remember everything. You’ll forget the details…the ones that will deepen your work. The fury of the wind. The color of onion. The intonation of the shopkeeper. The tilt of the stairwell. If you write the details down in the moment (or shortly thereafter), you’ll have them forever. Years later, when you’re working on a novel or essay or memoir, you’ll be able to crack open your journal from October 2007 and go right back to those moments you would have otherwise forgotten.
- Keeping a journal will help you maintain your sanity. Anyone who has lived outside of her home country knows that no matter how awesome it is, it can be bloody challenging as well. Write it down. Complain on the page. Work it out. Work it through. And voila! A precious bit of sanity. (And to answer the burning question, no, no, no, you do NOT have to keep a handwritten journal. Write entries on your computer, your iPad, your phone, your arm, the bottom of your foot, as an email, etc. Whatever works for you. Just make sure to back up your work.)
- And finally, keeping a journal makes you a better writer. The more you write in your journal, the more closely you see the world. It teaches you to pay attention.
To get a little inspiration, check out the journals of famed diarist (and expat!) Anaïs Nin (pictured right). Her journals are a testament to why writers who are passionate about place should be keeping a journal. Here’s an excerpt from an entry she wrote in “Winter, 1931-32”:
“Louveciennes resembles the village where Madame Bovary lived and died. It is old, untouched and unchanged by modern life. It is built on a hill overlooking the Seine. On clear nights one can see Paris….
“My house is two hundred years old. It has walls a yard thick, a big garden, a very large green iron gate for cars, flanked by a small green gate for people. The big garden is in the back of the house. In the front there is a gravel driveway, and a pool which is now filled with dirt and planted with ivy. The fountain emerges like the headstone of a tomb. The bell people pull sounds like a giant cowbell. It shakes and echoes a long time after it has been pulled. When it rings, the Spanish maid, Emilia, swings open the large gate and the cars drive up the gravel path, making a crackling sound.” [The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume One, 1931-1934]
The whole damn entry makes me ache to go there. To Louveciennes. To stand at that gate. And to pull that bell. God, I love that friggin’ cowbell sound.
Q4U Expats: Do you keep a journal? What do you write down? How does it play into your writing process?
Image: nuttakit / FreeDigitalPhotos.net