Mark Twain and the Value of Journals

“If you wish to inflict a heartless and malignant punishment upon a young person, pledge him to keep a journal a year.”

-Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

For anyone who has ever been frustrated by their inability to keep a journal, or, after keeping a journal, by the surprising gaps and useless information one finds upon revisiting those pages a few months or years later; For anyone who has ever known this frustration, we have Mark Twain.

When we think of Twain, most of us think immediately of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. But during his lifetime, The Innocents Abroad sold more copies than any of his other books. A humorous account of his travels through Europe and the Holy Land, it is one of the bestselling travel books of all time.

Among the many observations he made during the trip, one that will likely resonate with writers of all kinds is that of the difficulty of keeping a journal…

“At certain periods it becomes the dearest ambition of a man to keep a faithful record of his performances in a book; and he dashes at this work with an enthusiasm that imposes on him the notion that keeping a journal is the veriest pastime in the world, and the pleasantest.

But if he only lives twenty-one days, he will find out that only those rare natures that are made up of pluck, endurance, devotion to duty for duty’s sake, and invincible determination may hope to venture upon so tremendous an enterprise as the keeping of a journal and not sustain a shameful defeat.”

-Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Starting a journal is easy. Finishing it is the hard part. What’s more, all the value of the thing is pretty much bound up in the finishing of it. As Twain wryly points out to a young shipmate in his book…

“Yes, a journal that is incomplete isn’t of much use, but a journal properly kept is worth a thousand dollars — when you’ve got it done.”

The same can be said about writing projects in general. They are easy to start, hard to finish, and not really worth anything until you’ve got them done. So the question naturally becomes How do you go about finishing a journal? What is the “right” way to do it?

As with so many things, the answer seems to be “It depends.”

Twain himself tended to keep a single notebook in which he wrote everything from fictional sketches, to shopping lists, to accounts of his travels far and wide. During a single month-long voyage from San Francisco to New York, he filled an entire notebook with his thoughts and observations (the seventh of forty-nine surviving notebooks which scholars still study and transcribe to this day).

Hemingway, on the other hand, spent more than a month shooting big game in Africa (the trip which eventually became The Green Hills of Africa) and wrote nothing but a few jotted notes and a tally of animals seen scribbled on the end-papers of a bird-book he was reading during the trip. His wife, Pauline, kept a faithful account (which is itself worth a read, and can be found along with Hemingway’s own notes inside the Hemingway Library edition of The Green Hills of Africa) which he used while writing Green Hills.

Perhaps your style lies somewhere in between. Perhaps it’s different entirely.

In the end, it seems that great writing can come from just about any kind of journal, so long as the journal is complete from the writer’s perspective and the style of journaling jives with the mind doing the writing.

Thoughts from the Community…

There are as many ways to fill a journal as there are journals or people to fill them. I’m curious to hear from other writers…

  1. Do you have a favorite notebook which you’ve bought and filled more than once?
  2. What do you usually write in your travel journals?

Leave a comment below if you care to share!

Hemingway’s Kudu and Quitting Your Day Job

Always as a writer there is the question of whether to keep your day job. Successful writers for generations have been telling aspiring writers to keep their jobs and do their writing on the side. Aspiring writers, myself included, have spent generations ignoring this wisdom.

And then there is Hemingway, who found a sneaky way to give new advice on this, then buried it in the pages of an unlikely source: his 1935 safari tale, The Green Hills of Africa. In it, he says…

Now it is pleasant to hunt something that you want very much over a long period of time, being outwitted, outmaneuvered, and failing at the end of each day, but having the hunt and knowing every time you are out that, sooner or later, your luck will change and that you will get the chance that you are seeking. But it is not pleasant to have a time limit by which you must get your kudu or perhaps never get it, nor even see one.

It is not the way hunting should be… The way to hunt is for as long as you live against as long as there is such and such an animal; just as the way to paint is as long as there is you and colors and canvas, and the way to write as long as you can live and there is pencil or paper or ink or any machine to do it with, or anything you care to write about, and you feel a fool, and you are a fool, to do it any other way. But here we were, now, caught by time, by the season, and by the running out of our money so that what should have been as much fun to do each day whether you killed or not was being forced into that most exciting perversion of life; the necessity of accomplishing something in less time than should truly be allowed for its doing.

-Ernest Hemingway, The Green Hills of Africa

It’s tempting to believe that your day job is what’s keeping you from your writing. That quitting it would offer the long open stretches of time you crave to be creative. Depending on your means, it may.

But when you leave a job behind, you turn over an hour-glass. The grains of sand counting down the days before your work needs to begin paying for itself.

It’s impossible to say for certain whether any particular writer should or should not have a day job, or whether they do or don’t stand a chance of making it. But we can comfortably say that no writer should ever do their work in less time than it ought to take.

Most of the time, when we talk about quitting our day jobs in order to pursue writing full-time, the question at hand is “How quickly can I make money at this?”

But another question, the one Hemingway offers, is “How long should this project take, and can I still afford to give it that if I walk away from my paycheck?”