Monthly Archives: April 2013

Keeping a Journal Can Facilitate Good Writing

As a writer, I often use my journal to play around with strategies I pick up from other writers’ work or with strategies I invent to get myself writing.  Playing around with the strategies, in combination with observing the “show don’t tell rule” (use imagery and detail that appeal to the senses rather than general summarizing words), I find my journal writing becomes valuable writing practice.


One of my favorite exercises is to play with sound in my writing. We are a very visual culture and it is easy to neglect sound imagery in writing since visual imagery comes more naturally to most of us.  To force myself to get sound into my writing, I think of a noisy place–like the street I used to live on in Los Angeles on garbage collection day–and then set about describing it in a journal entry with words that describe the sounds.  Here’s an example:

On garbage collection days, the disposal company my husband calls Loud and Early slams and smashes its way into our sleep.  We hear the sounds of garbage cans colliding with the thick rusty truck, then scraping and clattering across the asphalt and cement of street and curb.  When we hear the garbage truck grind the dregs of our existence to a pulp, we slide our feet to the floor.  A police helicopter hurls its hello from overhead, shaking the walls and shattering any memory of our dreams.

When my writing includes sounds from my environment, I find myself more immersed in the experience I am writing about and continue writing longer than I might have without the sound imagery.

Smell is another underused sense in written work. I am fond of playing with similes to help evoke smells. What I evoke leads to memories I will put on the page with vivid detail. To start evoking smells, I think of something I smell in my daily life and compare it to something else I remember smelling:

The smell of clothes fresh from the dyer is like the smell of bread baking at my friend’s house.

The smell of the charcoal grill after the fire has died down is like my girlfriend’s clothes after the fire in her apartment.

Smell of jasmine flowers as I walk by is the smell of my grandmother’s dress as I clung to the folds.

What I like about writing these similes is that I never know what leap of association I’ll make and what story I might launch myself into.  The memory of my grade school friend’s apartment building burning down is vivid to me as it comes back through my sense of smell, and I can continue a piece of writing about that with memories of standing outside watching red flames coming out of all the windows and standing with my friend and her mother feeling the heat that the flames produced as we watched fire fighters dragging heavy hoses and climbing onto the roof.

Just as forcing ourselves to write from our senses of hearing and smell can produce topics and skillfully drawn description, relying on certain sentence structures can help us be clever and entertaining.  I am fond of copying fiction writer Ron Carlson’s sentence structure when I want to add wit to my writing.  He shared his style of journaling years ago as a contributor to my book The Writer’s Journal: 40 Contemporary Writers and Their Journals, and I’ve been playing with his ideas ever since. He writes clever sentences and keeps them around for “thickening the brew” when he fleshes out stories.  Here’s one of his sentences: “They discovered that the elevator in their dilapidated building acted as a bellows for the air conditioning, so they sent the child out an hour every afternoon to ride up and down.”

When I used Ron Carlson’s sentence as a pattern, I wrote this:

Because I discovered that my cats’ scratching altered the upholstery on my couches, I let them do a patch every day and then I came with darning needles and embroidery paraphernalia and wove a beautiful array of colors into the tatters. Now people all over the world order my cat-scratched upholstery.

I have invented the beginning of a story about the way the business changed the “I’s” life. I know I could also keep on using the sentence to write about more discoveries until I evoked an interesting character who just loves to put the world together in her own way.

The beauty of playing with these exercise ideas is that you can use them over and over when you don’t know quite what to say but know you’d like to be saying it more skillfully and surprisingly!  Using the strategies again and again, you’ll find that you begin to automatically incorporate more playful attitudes into your writing and interest yourself more in putting your words on the page. And you’ll find you have spawned many opportunities for more writing.

Key to happiness and productivity? Lower standards.

lower standards

“Lower Standards” Photo and essay by Janet Grace Riehl @2013



Shocked? That’s not what a creative catalyst is supposed to be saying—especially in America. I should be telling you to reach for the stars, live your dreams, be all you can be, anyone can be anything they like, the best is yet to be, and…knock yourself out. In the last five years I’ve come to believe that all this hard-driving exceptionalism, shimmering illusion of freedom, and unbounded expectations does, indeed, knock us out…leaves us bouncing on the ropes, and down for the count.

It wasn’t until I was 57 that I stumbled across a life-altering truth that years of therapy, body work, sweat lodges and fire walking hadn’t revealed. My father was a perfectionist. And, for that matter, upon reflection, so was our family culture.

I owe it all to my mother’s physical therapist. He made house calls until he found that he just couldn’t work with us. Mother stubbornly refused. Even through the veiled mind of dementia she knew what she wanted and didn’t want to do. We alternated coaxing and bullying—but nothing would change her intransigence. She’d gone through the nasty accident that killed my sister; almost died in the hospital; survived a rehabilitation facility; and finally come home. Who were we to tell her what to do? I don’t remember what prompted his remark to me. But, he motioned me to the other room and in a low voice said, “Your father is a perfectionist.” This revelation reverberated right down to me toes. Oh! So that was it.

Our family is populated by high-achievers. My great grandfather E. A. Riehl was a horticulturalist of note. My father says he was one of the 10 most prominent horticulturalists in the country. We have a Gold Medal certificate for fruit that he was awarded during the St. Louis World Fair (United States of America Universal Exposition MDCCCCIV).  My sister Julia Thompson was a world-class physicist. My niece is one of the top 5 experts on predatory lending and the mortgage crisis. She’s testified before congress, been in the room with Bernanke, and been interviewed by Dan Rather. That’s way too much to live up to. A family saying when we came home with good grades was “No more than I would have expected you to do.” That could be taken in several ways. The best of which is a vote of confidence.

Before 2004 I lived a nomadic life for decades. After my sister’s death, I came back home in earnest to walk the long road toward belonging. During my mother’s last illness my father and I were her primary caretakers. I traveled  between Northern California for 3 weeks and then Illinois for 6 weeks. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it worked and contained many gifts along with the melt downs. We lowered standards. I wasn’t as brave or kind or patient as I would have liked to have been. But, I was there until she died on May 1st 2006.

In summer of 2007 I came back to the Midwest to stay. I continued to live between two places: country and city; Pop’s place and my place; the past and the present and the forestalled future. I call it “bi-locating.” In our family care team each of us has our own portfolio which matches our particular talents. My brother—an Eagle Scout who keeps on earning those merit badges—handles our property and family business. My niece meticulously deals with my father’s medical treatment to the extent that she could no doubt pass the practical nurse exam. I do the younger daughter stuff, the soft skills stuff, styling myself as my father’s executive and social secretary, publisher, publicist, creative catalyst, confident, and who knows what. I did my best to live up to my father’s expectations with his never-ending agenda of what could be done—and, gosh, wasn’t I just the right person to do it?

In 2011 I began my journey of stepping back and progressively letting go. I lowered standards. I resigned from my unofficial position as Executive Director of the Thompson-Riehl Lineage and Heritage Society. I told my father I had no juice to produce another book for him. I stopped traveling, going to conferences, and rarely gave talks or workshops. I maintained membership in very few professional associations—Story Circle Network is one of my last hold-outs. Nothing seemed very important any more.

In 2012 I parked my blog-magazine Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century with its mission to create connections through the arts and across cultures. For seven years it had been the heart of my labor of love. I’d wanted to become a player in the “blogosphere,” and in a small way, I had. But, my postings had dwindled drastically. In November I signed a contract with a techie who’ll keep my site safe, and stopped posting entirely. I stepped away. I lowered standards.

This year I continue to step away. I’ve resigned from all sorts of things that cost me more energy than they give: support groups; email notifications of all sorts, sending birthday cards or even wishing my friends “happy birthday” on Facebook.  I’m an over-responder. I’m doing my best to soften that reflex, and it turns out it’s okay.

My creative life flows in an underground stream, not as a spring-swollen creek. I’m coming back to violin again with music buddy who is also coming back to her violin. I’ve made 1,150 Doodles on my phone since October 2011, and taken 450 photos with my phone. Rather than a blog-magazine I micro-blog on Facebook. Each of these art paths are possible because of lowered standards. I’m playing for the sake of playing, not to be concert mistress. With my phone as my Doodle studio and camera my equipment is always with me. The small canvas is so friendly that I do not scare myself off.

And, I stay loyal to my once-a-month Creative Catalyst column.This is the 55th post since November 2008.  For 23 of these I collaborated with my long-time friend Stephanie Farrow—one of the most exacting editors and clearest thinkers in the world—who’s always brought out the best in me. We worked in cycles on creative topics such as: What is creativity, anyway? How to use fear. Collaboration. Multi-talented. Harvesting. These were structured as tightly written (but friendly!) tips articles.

Stephanie and I spent weeks brainstorming and crafting posts that were ready well-before the deadline. Let it be said that Stephanie is a perfectionist. Would I be able to write Creative Catalyst without her? Well, yes—but not in that format or style. Since then I’ve written 32 columns on my own which are still good, but not even trying to be perfect. I’ve reverted to my seat-of-the-pants style, often writing the column the morning of posting.  Twice I’ve asked to slip my deadline to later in the month. I’ve lowered standards. Good is good enough. And, every once in a while something better than good comes through.

Lowering standards doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the quality of the work. For the “Lower Standards” photo that illustrates this column I snapped six takes with my phone-camera. Then, as is so often the case, I chose the first one. Stephanie, as she has so often, inspired  this photo. She shared photos of writers giving advice that fit on one hand.  What I want to say is: Care. But not so much that you are a keen disappointment to yourself all the time. Find some way to make it fun.  Then find some way to let what needs to go, go.