Roots and Seeds: Journaling to grow ideas

I've been asked this question many, many times, as I am sure so have countless other writers and artists: "Where do you get your ideas?" I have a standard response: "If I knew where my ideas came from I would go there."

Truth be told, I feel guilty when I say that. There is no "there" there. There is my imagination. There is the swirling mixture of all things tangible and intangible that combine in their own unique way to create a compelling surreality that will become the seed of a concept. I can't predict where, when, how or why it will happen, but I can feed the crazy monster- give it love and inspiration, and hopefully good food and plenty of sleep- exercise helps, too, but that is another story, and then maybe that seed will germinate and grow.

What I can say from experience is that keeping a journal, journaling, whatever you want to call it, works for me. I have been keeping journals steadily since I was in high school. One of my earliest, and I'll say "successful" journals was a Japanese accordion-fold given to me by long-lost friend, painter Carol Sun. She was a counselor at Buck's Rock, an artsy camp I attended as both a camper and then a counselor. Carol lived in Brooklyn and she became a mentor of sorts. She gave me this little journal on my birthday when I turned sixteen. She told me that the accordion-fold was the best type of journal because you could never tear the pages out. If you tried the whole thing would fall apart. I took those words as gospel and to this day I hold them dear, "never tear out the pages in your journal." Save everything.

That little journal is full of teen angst and it is hilarious to read now in middle age. However, there are some small glimmers of the woman I became. Here is a poem I wrote on June 28, 1979 when I was seventeen:

For Better or For Verse

If I see you in the present future
I know the past was not too perfect
You can correct me if I'm wrong
I'm feeling tense so I'll move along

Although there was a pause in our stanza
I think we left the line open
We can write more if you care
Or we can punctuate it there

We can have rhythm or flow smoothly
Or perhaps we can be spontaneous
It's hard for me to see
Just let me know if you want to be free.

I'm not sure which "boy" I was pining for at that time. It doesn't really matter, but the poem was better than whoever had broken my heart. The penultimate entry in that journal said, "College is like holding your breath for four years..."

Maybe I held my breath because I was hoping to "burst onto the scene" when I graduated from Syracuse University's College of Visual and Performing Arts, having majored in illustration. I was ready to become that famous children's book author and illustrator and win Caldecott awards and garner great reviews in the New York Times. Not! I was definitely undercooked at that point and my story writing skills had a long way to go, as did my illustration techniques. Even though I was not gifted with a whole lot of patience, one of my college prof's, Roger De Muth constantly chided me, "Nina, patience is a virtue," I was in too much of a hurry to listen.

What I did do, however, is journal. And journal. And journal. The photo at the top of this post is a testimony to the journals I've kept for the past thirty-two (ouch) years. I didn't tear the pages out. In fact I wrote, I drew, I collaged, I taped... I created a treasure trove of my life, my ideas, my stories, my thoughts, fortune cookie fortunes, newspaper articles that could inspire books, cartoons I wish I had submitted to the New Yorker... (Like this one from 2005.) What I have is a ever-growing encyclopedia of ideas in various forms from seed to full-blown picture book text and beyond.

At an early stage I discovered that one of the secrets to journaling, at least for me, was NOT to use those fancy bound journals. You know, those "black books" or those expensive leather jobs with the 100% rag fine Italian acid-free paper. Phooey on that! I found that by using the cheap spiral bound RECYCLED Strathmore sketch books I didn't worry about what I did, or spilled, or scribbled over. It was not a precious object. It was a working tool. And speaking of tools, no... I don't use a "special" pen- no outrageous Mont Blanc fountain pens that can cost hundreds of dollars and get clogged just the same as a cheaper Parker. Back when I was in art school, we naive students used to always ask the visiting professionals who spoke to us in symposiums, "what size pen, brush, pencil lead, paper weight, brand of medium do you use?" As if by using that, it will make your work immediately professional. Yes, I was a slave to "00" point rapidograph pens for years. Now I have a drawer of clogged Koh-i-Noors, Staedtler Mars, and who knows how many other ancient ink delivering hypodermic needle-ended things. Maybe someday I will glue them to the wall of my studio as an homage to past-proto art trends.

When I'm using my journal I truly don't care if I have a pencil or a pen in my hand. Although lately I've become rather attached to these puppies.

The other "secrets" I've discovered is that a small size journal- mine is 5.5"x 8.5"- is perfect for courier bags, backpacks, airplane seat backs, boat dry bags- but use a gallon zip lock bag to keep it mostly moisture free. Now I know there are writers with serious habits out there. I know they are religious about their writing time, their journaling time, they probably also exercise on a schedule, too. You scare me. Sorry. I'm just not a creature of habit. I'm more of an organic thing- a fungus perhaps, that grows huge ideas after the rain. Or something like that. I strike when the muse hits. I work in feverish subsections of time. And then I retreat, writing ideas down when they fall from my brainwaves and smack me in the face. I grow the ideas in my journals and they simmer on the back burner until they reach the boiling point and I have to transfer them to a document file.

Of course I'm always hoping for one of those moments of divine clarity when a fully-formed idea falls out of the sky and into my head. That was my experience with my first published book, "The Night I Followed the Dog." I was sitting in my studio, which was a bedroom in my home in Atlanta, Georgia, where I lived at that time. I was trying to think of what Christmas card to make for that year, 1989. I always make my own cards. It's a curse, really. I have to think of something clever and new every year and some years I'm just not really feeling clever and new. But this particular day, October 16, 1989, I drew Santa, and then out of nowhere, I started to write this story.

It was a strange stream of conscious thing. I wrote in one continuous paragraph as I channeled the story from my brain to the paper. I even drew a picture of the dog wearing a tuxedo, saying "That's okay Boys, he's with me." I was enchanted.

This was, of course, before personal computers were in my life. I was still a few years away from my first Mac Performa, that had a whopping 8MB of RAM! No, I had to type this on my IBM Selectric typewriter. Double-spaced, and with actual paragraphs.

I'll save the story of what happened after that, and how I eventually got the book published. But I will say that I have gone back to this particular journal over and over to try to analyze just what was it that created that moment, that opportunity for pure story to take over my consciousness and allow it to flow through me in such a slipstream of thought and inspiration. Alas I cannot reproduce the exact chemistry, and if you could find it, and bottle it, you'd be a lucky dog... or maybe J.K. Rowling.

No, I am just as imperfect as my journals. They are my constant companions, sounding boards, test rockets, and mental monitors. There are deep roots to all of my published books, and the unpublished ones as well, running through their thousands of pages. I don't think I could do what I do if I didn't have these pulpy pulpits. Some people, I know my father is one of them, carry around scraps of paper with ideas and brilliance scribbled in diners or on trains. Occasionally I have to succumb to that if my journal accidentally got left behind due to some event where I wanted to be fashionable and not carry a courier bag with me. In that instance, I just tape or glue my scribblings into my journal when we are reunited.

But mostly what I want to say, and I know I've taken up enough of your time, is that in this day and age with ones and ohs and pixels replacing good'ol paper and pen, I have two words: POWER FAILURE. We are so on the grid in so many ways for better or worse- or verse, as I said in high school. But when the proverbial doo-doo hits the fan, and it stops spinning, we will be left with our imagination, a pen and paper. It makes life so simple, and it makes your carry-on bags so light. I can't say enough how this will help those of you who want to write, or illustrate, or do both, or do none. I can say it helps me. I'd love to hear your thoughts on journaling.
With Love-


  1. I've been keeping a journal on and off since 1979. Some years I will write in it every day. Other years I will just write in it once a week. And there are gaps of year and months where I found sketching in books far more appealing. I don't tend to do both. But I have learned a couple things from my journals and sketchbooks.

    1. I've found that the most interesting thing to read in my past entries is not what I was thinking or feeling but my interaction with other people. This in turn caused me to write more about the people who fill my life. And that in turn led to even more people filling my life.

    2. When I sketch, I don't censor myself. I will draw anything, even badly, and just force myself not to care about how badly I did it. This has led me to keeping sketchbooks a lot more sketchbooks.

    3. I can always tell when I'm wound up about something because all my sketchbooks end up drifting back into my home office rather than being scattered around the house.

  2. Great blog ... but what else would I expect from someone who is very in touch with her creative muse !! ... my astrology teacher always said some of the most successful people are those who keep a journal - maybe I should try one :-) !!!

  3. My journal from early college days was tossed into a bonfire as a symbol of burning the chaff. I still remember some of the entries—they were extremely emotion-laden and dramatic. But then, so were those years. Instead of burning the thoughts to ashes, they remain bright little embers, not always in the forefront, but still a part of who I am today.
    Thanks for the reminder. I will dig out my 9 x 12 version and use my favorite ultra-fine point Sharpie.


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