How and Why I keep a Writer’s Journal

By Jack Gantos, keynote speaker, 2013 NC Reading conference.

Newbery winning author Jack Gantos.
Newbery winning author Jack Gantos.

When I was in the second grade my sister, Betsy, received a journal from my mother. She called Betsy into the living room and, right in front of my nose, said to my sister, “Here is a journal. You can write in it every day. Keep all your dreams, your poems, your stories and your secrets inside.” Then my mother looked down and pointed at me. “But,” she cautioned my sister, “keep it locked up because your little brother is a snoop!” Then she gave my sister the tiny key that fit into a lock on the journal.

My sister looked up at my mother and said sweetly, “Thank you Mother. You are such a perfect Mother.” Then she went to her bedroom to write.

I looked up at my Mother and asked, “Where is my journal. If she has a journal I have to have one too.”

“Leave your sister alone,” my Mother replied.

“No,” I said.

“Yes!” my Mother insisted.

I knew I wasn’t going to win a war of words so I had to resort to more immature tactics. I pitched a huge fit. I threw myself down on the floor and beat the side of my head against a concrete step and shouted bloody murder, “I want a journal! I want a journal!”

Later, when I regained consciousness, my Mother gave me a journal. “But,” she said. “You have to write in it.”

Well, I did. And I tried to write in it every day. I made it a rule to either see or hear something interesting, find something interesting (like bugs and newspaper articles), or imagine something interesting that I could either write or glue into my journal. Before long, I was writing whole stories in my journal. I was very organized, too. I kept lists of interesting story topics and vocabulary words. I drew maps of my neighborhoods and marked down where cool things happened (like when I broke my brother’s arm, or where my dog was eaten by an alligator).

Years later, as a professional writer, I returned to my childhood journals and began to rewrite the stories I had first written as a child. Heads or Tails, Jack’s New Power, Jack’s Black Book, and Jack on the Tracks are all “Jack” books full of stories from my life.

When I examine my life as a professional writer I can say without a doubt, that starting that first journal was the most important step in my career. I hope all of you get journals or diaries and get busy writing about all the interesting things that happen in your life. Remember, a lot of people think that the “good stuff” to write about always happens to somebody else. But I believe that the “good stuff” is always happening to you. Believe this, and you will always have the courage to write something other people want to read. Good Luck!

Jack Gantos is the author of 40 books. His most recent novel, Dead End in Norvelt, received both the 2012 John Newbery Award and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historic Fiction. Coming this fall with more about Eleanor Roosevelt and a range of historic and literary topics.: From Norvelt to Nowhere.