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. Outstanding advice. I’m trying to pick up writing again after many years away. Was stuck on what to do to get back into it. This will do the trick with the prompt box. I’m bankrupt / having writers block all the time