A Fine and Messy Room

Sometimes I think my mind has many rooms, and each of those rooms has windows wide open to the world. Things blow in there, through those open windows, all the time.

So, maybe—

—I watch as the mop bucket spills, the janitor trips, and she utters a soft curse word—and that whole little incident, neatly videotaped, flies through one of those open windows and lands in a mind-room.

—A catchy tune from a movie snags on one of those window sills, with the image of a perky young star, dancing, attached, and it dangles, half in, half out, of the window.

—Clamor from the morning’s meeting, a distressing discussion among friends, the need to make medical appointments, reminders of upcoming events—all these things go flying through those windows.

—Snippets from books, ideas about events, hopes for the future, plans with the family—ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk: thought-lobs landing in those ever-filling rooms.

Stuff is rapidly piling up.

Then I go wading in there, looking for a clear, bright, pristine idea—looking for something to write about. But the rooms are so cluttered, so jam-packed with weird and unmatched odds and ends, I am lost and discouraged.

I give up without diving into the thought-debris. I decide it would be a good time to read a book instead.

No writing gets done that day.

Unless….I’ve done my work in my journal.

I used to enjoy reading books and articles about author’s journals. They would show this lovely handwritten page, with amazing, almost calligraphic penmanship, and often there would be these witty or poignant drawings that illustrated the text. Those would be the work of the author, of course, and if the writing didn’t give me an aha! moment, the picture surely would.

I want to write journals like THAT, I would think.

So I’d go out and buy a wonderful journal, with lined pages if possible, and hang the cost. Maybe something in the moleskin line; maybe even something with a hand-tooled leather cover. I’d search out a wonderful pen, an expensive pen—I went through a fountain pen period, and I went through a refillable gel pen period.

I would take these amazing supplies home, carve out quiet time, and then stare at the page. What exactly did I want to write? On pages so vellum-y, with ink so erudite, whatever I wrote had better be something good.

I might go so far as to scratch off a sentence, and then I’d look at it, appalled. How could I write something so stupid?

My journal experience would quickly die a-borning. But my mind-rooms were getting more and more cluttered.


But sometimes words were scrambling, almost busting, to get out, and then, wherever I was, I would grab the closest paper, pick up a reliable pen, and I would write. My fingers would fly; I wouldn’t stop to read. I would just let it all flow. It might take 15 minutes or an hour, but whatever was bunching up against those windows—all that clutter pressuring the bulging walls of my mind—well, it HAD to find a way out.

It was messy and lumpy and whiny and dull. It was sloppy and the spelling often slipped and, oh, heavens forgive me, sometimes I didn’t even use the proper punctuation.

It was what we English teachers call (technical term ahead) LOUSY writing.

And it had to be done to uncover those clear, bright, pristine ideas I was always looking for.

And finally I realized. Despite those lovely self-conscious pages I revered in stories of authors and how they write, a journal should not be a beautiful thing.

If it’s going to work, a journal needs to be a regular old mess.


Journals are meant to clear out the rooms. They are vacuum cleaners, sucking all the ick and all the gack and getting it out of the way.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t bear to dump ick and gack on the pages of a $25.00 journal. Whiney self-indulgence is not enhanced by the quaint flow of a fountain pen.

I put the fancy journals away and bought a couple of packages of cheap loose-leaf lined paper. I prefer the college-lined variety, the kind with smaller lines; I can squeeze a whole lot more on a page that way. I do still have to have a reliable pen, but NOT an over-priced one. I settled on Pentel RSVP’s or Bic Stics. (Nothing is worse than trying to write with a cheap start-and-stop pen—it completely derails any flowing thoughts I might have.)

I repurposed a binder, and that’s where I store the journal pages. I decided I would write every morning when I get up—first cup of coffee accompanies the first word-spilling of the day. I have, for the most part, stuck to that plan.


You would not want to read my journals—they are florid and self-pitying and wordy and annoying. But thank goodness I have them—otherwise, I’d have all that awful, whiney verbiage traveling ‘round—fermenting!–in my cluttered head.

The journal writing is like sweeping and airing a musty, dusty room; it feels so GOOD when I’m done. And the room is ready then—ready for company, ready to be used.
And sometimes, after frantically sweeping all of that gack out the mind-windows, sometimes, I find that pristine idea I’ve been searching for. It is there, pulsing on the bare floor of the newly emptied room. I pick it up and examine it, and the thoughts start to flow. This is the germ of an essay—or maybe even a short story. This, oh, this right here—that’s a poem-seed, ready to be planted and watered.

THEN, in the newness and the clear space, I can write.

I have found a journal to be an essential thing for me, but I have given myself permission to have it also be a sloppy, slovenly thing, a place of mess and muddle, of whines and self-wheedling. Journaling clears my passages, unblocks a window, and opens the way for real and thoughtful discovery.

Do you journal? Does your inner critic demand that you produce a neat and readable, organized product? If so—if that works for you—ignore this post. But if you need a way to clear out the clamor, consider keeping a journal in which you allow yourself—even encourage yourself—to make a mess, dump the gack, open up your mind-ways.

For me, this kind of journal is what lets me keep the windows open and the pen finger ready. It is the house-keeping tool that cleans out all those cluttered rooms and that helps me, finally, discover the things I really want to say.



#creative writing