Áine Greaney


Boston author and essayist from Ireland

Advice for Writers

For a full range of writing advice and author discussions, visit my blog.

Writer, Know Thyself: Keep a Personal Journal

There’s this old Irish story about a Catholic priest who tries to purge his parish and parishioners of Celtic and pagan superstitions. After many diatribes from the altar, he goes on a village walkabout to test the effectiveness of his Sunday sermons. His first stop is at the widow McGinty’s house.

“Tell me, Missus,” says Father Kelly, “do you believe in ghosts?”

“Ghosts? No way, Father. Sure that’s a God-less thing to believe!”

Satisfied with his parish’s apparent progress, Father Kelly continues on to the next house.

Then he hears Mrs. McGinty’s voice behind him: “But of course, ghosts are there.”

The Ghost Behind the Page: How Journaling Brings You There

Recently I read a novel by a popular British (male) author. It was a well-plotted and witty story. But it was unmemorable. Why? Because like so much of today’s commercial writing, the story eclipsed the author; it lacked an author’s there-ness.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no great fan of the tell-all memoir. And I hate those manipulative, tear-jerker stories that are really just literary gum-ball machines. Insert money. Get emotions.

I don’t shy away from fictional or non-fiction stories about tough things. In fact, some of the world’s best writing has emerged from repressive regimes (A Thousand Splendid Suns) or bloody world wars (Pat Barker’s fabulous World War I novels) or genocidal atrocities (Elie Weisel).

But whether the topic is light hearted or harrowing, I want more than a story. I want more than a who-dunnit or a boy-meets-girl. I want to sense that, behind these pages, there lurks a deep, thoughtful writer, a writer I will still respect in the morning.

Through his or her words on the page, I want to sense the author’s own sensibility. I want to glimpse her unique take on this mad, baffling world that she shares with me. As writers, this is one of the high-wire feats of the entire narrative process: the blundering, bashful and often botched dance between writer, narrator, story and reader.

There are writers whose entire careers I’ve followed. In retrospect, I’ve committed to that long-term relationship because of their use of language and story. But more than that, I respect these writers’ minds. And best of all,their work lets me glimpse their minds. The writer may not and should not always intrude. But I know they’re there.

Writers are supposed to be introspective people. But as we navigate the dual worlds of art and paying the rent, we live in as wired and as frenetic a world as anyone else. So it’s easy to become invisible to ourselves. It’s easy to keep staring in the public and publishing mirror until we forget our own deep hearts.

Is this what produces the uber-commercial,two-dimensional writing that leaves me asking, “Um ... can I get my money back?”

Confession time: I’ve done it. I’ve written for money or admiration or just to seem clever. I’ve let myself get so busy that I just keep marching forward without looking inward. I shush that little voice inside that whispers, “But is this really you? Is this what you really want?”

When this happens, it’s time to stop the grandstanding and pick up my writer’s journal. No, not a blog or an e-mail or an online posting--though these are wonderful ways to create a dialogue with a thousand splendid readers. But I’m talking about a dialog with yourself. I’m talking (gulp!) pen and paper. Long hand.

I’ve kept a personal journal all my life. Whether I’m in complete writer’s block or stuck in a plotting cul-de-sac, my personal journal is where I’ll find me and ultimately, where I’ll find the words.

10 tips for Journal or Personal Writing:

  1. If you absolutely hate long-hand, there are many online journal options. I recommend penzu. It’s encrypted. It simulates pen and paper. It lets you file your writing under different topics.

  2. Buy a personal journal that reflects your personality or current situation. After a family bereavement, I kept a tiny, 3” x 3” notebook by my computer. Even in my grief, I knew I could manage one, tiny page per day. Find what works for you.

  3. Many journals cater to specific life situations, such as cancer recovery, eating disorders, addiction or depression. Often, these journals are available in large book shops or online at clinically sponsored or counseling websites. If you’re going through a rough patch or an illness, this may be a great option for you.

  4. Keep your journal private. You will not write fluidly or freely if you imagine a publisher or a set of prying eyes.

  5. Stuck for that first line? Write, “Today I want to write about …” Then finish that sentence.

  6. Forget about grammar or spelling or punctuation or the “is-this-interesting/publishable?” factor. You can be as mad or scattered or profane as you like.

  7. “Yeah, but this isn’t real writing.” Pullll-ease. There are days when, if I didn’t journal, I’d write nothing at all.

  8. Set a realistic target: Set yourself 10 minutes. Or set yourself a daily target of one small page. Yes, there are days when you’d rather shop for a bathing suit than open that journal page. But just write five sentences. Then see what happens.

  9. Never leave home without it: If you customarily pick up your child from sports, or if you have a standing weekly appointment at the doctor’s, dentist’s or hairdresser’s, then this may become your allocated journaling time.

  10. Journal little and often: Like any other art, journal-writing comes more easily with practice. But the trick is to keep at it.

If you’re new to personal journal writing, it may seem strange to write to or for no defined audience or paycheck. But this deeply personal, reflective writing will pay off.

Trust me. I’m a ghost.

Copyright 2011-2014 Aine Greaney