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Joan Didion’s Cure for Bankrupt Mornings

Essential advice for writers on keeping a notebook.

Journal Entry by Joel Montes de Oca (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Joan Didion in 2005. Photo by Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Joan Didion in 2005. Photo by Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Sometimes words fly from your fingers into the keyboard, the ink runs from your pen in a continuous flow, and your imagination fills the screen or page as if by magic. Sometimes when you sit down to write, inspiration is absent or obstinate, hiding and refusing to surface. American author Joan Didion refers to these times as “bankrupt mornings.” She counsels writers on keeping a notebook as a prophylactic against truant inspiration:

See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write — on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there…

— Joan Didion from On Keeping a Notebook (Slouching Towards Bethlehem)

If the idea of journaling or keeping a notebook seems too difficult — set yourself up for success. Write one or two sentences each day. Feeling saucy? Go for a paragraph, a full page, or a timed exercise. Set up a prompt box and pull some ready-made inspiration out of it to kickstart your imagination.

If paper isn’t your thing, you might try out journaling app Day One, start a simple .txt file, or maybe even a new private blog to capture your thoughts and observations.

You can read Joan Didion’s full essay, On Keeping a Notebook (.pdf) at Electric Typewriter.

You can learn a little more about Joan Didion and hear her read today’s passage from On Keeping a Notebook in this trailer for We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live — an upcoming Joan Didion documentary by Griffin Dunne and Susanne Rostock. The passage begins at 4:17.

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  1. My prompt box has changed my life. A 10 minute freewrite as soon as I wake up loosely about a word or phrase in the box. The key for me is doing it IMMEDIATELY. No putting it off. I’m allowed to put in my contacts first, but no putting on clothes or checking my texts or anything. It jumpstarts my creativity, and the words just FLOW.

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  2. I do not know what I would do without my notepad app on my phone and my notes on my kindle. I’m constantly updating them and referring back to them as I write. Thanks for the post!

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  3. This is a beautiful tribute to an amazing woman and writer. I hope she will talk about “Salvador” and whether the movie was somehow based on her book (though it doesn’t seem possible).
    Sherrie

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  4. I want to reblog this but I posted two blog posts today so I will wait till another day when I haven’t posted anything else.
    Is this a Kickstarter campaign? Or some other campaign? They mention giving donations in the video so I am curious about that. I would be happy to share this with other writers as so many have talked of how they admire Joan’s work.

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  5. We’re always thrilled to read comments from the community! Just a friendly reminder to have a peek at our Commenting Guidelines before you hit the “post comment” button.

    We tend to delete off-topic comments, one word/ambiguous replies, and edit comments to remove encouragements to visit your blog/self-promotional bits that are unrelated to the post at hand.

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  6. Thank you for introducing me to the world of Joan Didion… i am now reading and finding everything I can about her… very amazing!

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  7. You are exactly right. and as you have said words truly live changes in an instant. waking up on one morning with thoughts surrounding your heads and when you take out a pen to write it down, you end up forgetting every little part of it. telling ourselves stories is another part that makes us who we are sometimes it destroys us and changes us to a typical type of person that we are not. And also it consoles us and give us several reasons to ask so many questions of how life treats us.

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  8. I always love the idea of notebooks. I carry around an “idea book” and get some sticky post ready in my car to jot down a few phrases when it suddenly come. Also useful for me: smartphone camera. Oftentimes, my idea come from the picture I snapped. That’s one reason why I love the weekly photo challenge 🙂

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  9. I just reread “On Keeping a Notebook” not two days ago to revisit my own reasons for keeping a journal. It made me think a lot about how my journaling habits have changed over the years and how having an online presence has changed what I write down. Thanks for this post.

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  10. A powerful piece. A quote of Joan Didion’s that I have treasured from “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” is about her views on self-respect: “Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.”

    As a former newspaper reporter, there is one view of hers that I do not share – also from the same source: “One last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” (I felt that when you do that you also can burn your source or harm your source in ways that you would find unacceptable if it was done to you.)

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  11. Thanks for sharing the trailer. I’m a great fan of Joan Didion.
    Unfortunately, only few of her books are translated in French.
    But I must try to read one in English, even if I won’t catch everything.

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