Word for Word

I've started keeping a journal recently. Or, more accurately, I’ve picked up an old journal and written in it recently. I bought the notebook three summers ago when we moved house and, in those new days, when everything felt fresh and beginning again, I set out to keep a record. I’ve never been good at keeping a journal. They tend to fill up with stories rather than events, and then they just become like any other working notebook for me – a mishmash of things to type up and edit. But this journal would be different, I thought. Not only did I have a new home in a new city, I was also plunging into a shiny new writing project, determined to make it through a draft of a novel within in the year. The journal would keep me on track. It could be a discipline that would keep me writing even when I hit a block, and it would be a record of all the daily observations and errant fictional ramblings. For a couple of months, I was diligent. And then I wasn’t. Now I’m picking it up and trying again. 

I write down the date and the weather. The name of the book I am reading. The games the children played and what we ate for dinner. I’m trying to build a habit. Like saving small bits of string. There is something useful about this old practice of saving all the bits and pieces that make up a life. 

But I’ve found something new. This time around, the physical pace of journal writing is holding me. Date and weather, and my galloping mind is reined in. Book title and children and I am slowed to a walking pace. This writing creates rhythm as the words step out one after another like footsteps or breaths. One at a time, words slow me down.

When I’m typing, I tend to edit as I go. Backspace, delete, insert. Shift F7 for thesaurus. Cut and paste and rearrange. Back and forth and back again. It’s not pretty, but it gets the work done tidily enough. In my journal, though, I can only write in one direction. Words are slow and linear, one after another. After another. And another.

In her poem “Spelling,” Margaret Atwood calls this power. She describes watching her small daughter play with brightly coloured plastic letters on the floor, fitting them together and making simple words. The poem closes with the realization that our first spelled words are our own names. As we slowly learn language, we spell out who we are. 

A word after a word after a word is power, she writes. Paced persistence brings out our strength.

Walking pace
This walking pace of writing also makes it easier to see what is around me. I don’t need to invent anything for my journal. I just have to notice. It feels akin to listening, and maybe to prayer. I feel my way forward, one word at a time, and feeling slowed and held, find myself stumbling on a word that surprisingly sheds light. Something shining. Something that clarifies and is true. Like every other metaphor, this slow writing feels difficult to pin down. What really happens? What can I honestly accomplish by making small notes at the end of a day? It’s hard to say. But in a time when the world is loud and crowded with bad news and too much stretched information, it feels good to pay slow attention to the simple facts of one day and to set them down in a slow and quiet moment when I am alone and not alone. 


  • Katie is an Ottawa writer living in Cardiff with her spouse and three growing children. You can also find Katie on Twitter @messy_table.

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