My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Each of us have an infinite arsenal of writing material to wield at our own discretion. Whether we recognize it or not, every moment that passes is crammed with writerly inspiration, and the onus is on us to seize this fodder and alchemize it into art. Alexandra Johnson’s Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal, The Art of Transforming a Life into Stories shows us exactly how to do this. I first read her work probably ten years ago. Her book The Hidden Writer: Diaries and the Creative Life is wonderfully inspiring, covering the diaries from the likes of Katherine Mansfield, Sonya Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Alice James, and Dorothy Wordsworth along with other luminary voices. These stories, journal passages, and diary excerpts have haunted me since as each artist silently battles with the written word in the shadows of their more renown male counterparts. Leaving a Trace coaxes us to follow these brilliant writers and diarists.
Filled with practical exercises and useful guidelines, Johnson leads us through the mire of our own life and lights a clear-cut path, so that we may view ourselves objectively and weave stories from the chaos of experience. Taking advantage of the clarity of hindsight and encouraging us to exploit our confusions, wrest with our fears, and tackle our struggles head-on, Johnson thankfully doesn’t dip into self-help or spout quasi-therapeutic mantras, which so often render writing books useless and impractical for the working writer. Her goal is fixed, professionally and artistically devoted to the craft of writing though readers do not have to be professional or emerging writers to adopt her practices. All of her exercises aim to shape a wonderful lens for our inner selves whether we’re dabbling or committed.
From “Chapter III: Ways of Seeing the Present-Tense World”
Lists limber the mind, focus its material, tap deep into the unconscious, finding its hidden interests. I often make them when I’ve got a cold. It clears the head immediately. Make three columns. In the first column, randomly list ten separate years in your life. Next, ten places. Last, ten people. Without stopping to think, go across the columns, circling four key items in each category. Make columns from just those. Now select one in each column and put them in a final list. That’s where you begin. In front of you is a master list, some code of memory, you’ve given yourself to decode. Trust your instincts. Your hand, like a magnet, simply found what I call the hot spots in the details. Write quickly to know why these three items won out.
From Exercises and Journal Prompts section of Chapter III
If you’re just beginning a journal, which of three memories would you never forgive yourself for not setting down? (78).
From “Chapter X: Living to Tell the Tale: Writing about Others”
There are several quick ways to get started when writing about others. Create a quick list of questions to spark specific details that are the core of the character portraits. Others are first defined by what they desire, fear, and own. Here are a few examples: describe four things you’d find hidden in their medicine chest or bathroom drawer. Which food would they most be ashamed to be found eating? Describe a single outfit or an article of clothing in their closet they’ve only worn once. Why? (205)
Johnson gives real life examples from students and fellow writers she’s worked with and been inspired by and stitches quotes from the heavyweights as well. Her book is well-organized into three units that first introduce us on how to start becoming more aware of our life experiences then shows us how to dig deeper into the past, and finally, instructs us how to deal with real life delicate matters such as staying mindful and respectful of our loved and close ones by morphing identities, characteristics, and physical attributes.
Providing effective strategies to gain objective perspectives on the personal. Sometimes these methods can be daunting, like archiving and indexing your journals, but all of her suggestions are entirely reasonable and useful with the sole intent of reflecting over our relationships, our private moments, and our daily routines. She commands us to cannibalize our thoughts and turn them into artful narratives. This writing book is definitely a keeper. Writers will find this a necessary user’s manual on how to constantly mine from within and never take for granted those fleeting moments that make us who we are. Nothing is sacred when it comes to writing. Its a free for all, and the story goes to whoever dares to seize it.