On the inside looking out – This past week I attended a question-and-answer session with a Korean writer named Kim Young Ha (the author of Christmas Carol, my translation of which is here on Liminality). He is a very interesting person and a good speaker, and the session was a lot of fun. At the very end of the session, one girl asked him if he had any advice for writers.
Half jestingly and half seriously, the first thing he told us was that we should avoid fancy note paper. With fancy note paper, you have that added pressure to write something fancy, something worthy of the note paper. He said that he himself always uses children’s note paper—the kind that has cartoon characters printed on it. That way he can write anything he wants and not have to worry about it being “worthy of the note paper.” It was amusing, but it touches on a big stumbling block for writers, the internal censor.
Another suggestion he had was something that can be done when you are waiting somewhere. He says that whenever he goes to a cafe, or an airport, or a doctor’s office, he begins to write lists: things that can happen at a cafe/airport/doctor’s office/etc. The lists generally start out fairly mundane, but the further down he gets the more interesting the ideas become. When it comes time to write a story (as he put it: “When we run out of rice at home”), he chooses ideas from the ends of these lists.
Possibly the most interesting thing he mentioned was a recent book by Michel Tournier, entitled Journal extime. The book has been translated into Korean with the title Oemyeonilgi, which means “external journal.” I had always thought that the French for “external” was “externe,” and I haven’t been able to find anything for “extime.” (Any native French speakers out there want to give me a hand? Update (24 December 2005): Reader Stéphane writes: “It must be a neologism forged by the author based on ‘Journal intime,’ a common expression in French for ‘diary’ (private).” Thanks, Stéphane!)
At any rate, the idea (as it was explained to us) is to write a journal describing what goes on outside of you, as opposed to what goes on inside of you. Most journals or diaries record what goes on inside—how we feel and what we think. With an “external journal,” you would eschew this sort of soul-diving and focus solely on the world around you. For example, if you saw a cat, you would not write what you felt about the cat, or what the cat made you think of, you would write about the cat’s characteristics.
He said that this would be excellent practice for aspiring writers. Again, in his words: “You might think that there is all this interesting stuff on the inside, but really there’s nothing there. All the interesting stuff is on the outside.”
I imagine that it would be difficult at first to eradicate all overt expressions of the inner self and focus solely on the external world, but it sounds like an interesting exercise to try sometime. It is also interesting to note that most online journals, mine included, focus extensively on the inner self, plumbing the depths of the soul to the point of tedium. If the “external journal” theory is right, what I do here at Liminality is not good practice for creative writing.
To be honest, I have suspected this for some time. Since I launched Liminality a little over a year ago, I have done quite a good deal of voluntary writing (i.e., not for study or business). Yet all the while I have known that it was not helping me in the area of creative writing at all. My biggest fear, I suppose, is that I will end up being an essay writer. Not that essay writing is evil, of course, but my first love is prose, and I don’t want to lose that.
The obvious solution, of course, is to balance my time between journal writing and actual prose writing. Maybe I could write an occasional “journal extime” entry for Liminality. Maybe I should just buckle down and finish the three (yes, three) short stories I currently have in the works. Or even just one, for that matter. I won’t lie—it is infinitely more difficult to work on my short stories than it is to sit here and pound out a journal entry for Liminality. But I have to wonder... how much of that is because I write so many journal entries and so few short stories?
Anyway, this was all a lot of food for thought. And I think it kind of ties in to what I have been learning about the world lately. Since I got my digital camera recently, I have developed a new perspective on the world. When I first got the camera, I carried it around with me wherever I went, always looking for interesting things to shoot. I still carry the camera with me, of course, but my perspective is changing a bit—it is slowly moving away from a search for photographic subjects to just a general appreciation of the world.
I find that I take the time to look at things now. Before, I would just pass them by, focused on my destination, but now I take an interest in the journey itself. After the question-and-answer session, I walked over toward Gwanghwamun to meet my wife for a tuna sushi dinner (yes, it was delicious). On the way, though, I stopped quite often. Suddenly the world was interesting. I did indeed take some pictures, but there were other things that I just stopped to look at without any intention of taking a picture.
I always used to think a lot when I walked. I was absorbed in my inner self, so to speak. Now, though, I feel as if I am opening up to the world around me. In effect, my life is becoming an “external journal.” I don’t know if this will translate directly into better prose writing, but I think I like this new direction. This doesn’t mean that I will stop thinking all together, but I think a balance is important.
I think that’s going to be it for today’s entry. Not the most eloquent of entries, I know, but I just had that brief thought I wanted to share, and I’ve said what I wanted to say. I think I’ll put the journal aside for now and spend some time on the flip side. That’s where I want to be right now: in the world of prose.