Using a Process Diary in Your Writing Life

The special notebook author Leigh Stein uses to dive deeper into her writing projects.

Leigh Stein’s novel Self Care was among my favorites of 2020. The story of a fictitious wellness start-up with major Gwenyth Paltrow vibes, this novel simultaneously delighted and roasted me. (I’m sure all my millennial woman counterparts who’ve read the book feel the same.)

While promoting Self Care during a Zoom reading last year, Leigh mentioned the process diary she’d used while writing the book. My ears pricked up at the phrase—I’d never heard of a “process diary” before! Fortunately for me, Leigh was willing to answer a few questions about what she gains from using this special tool while writing.

What is a process diary? How did you get the idea to start keeping one?

I swear I got the idea from Alexander Chee, but I’m struggling to find the original source. In this interview, he talks a little bit about his process journal. The process diary I kept during Self Care was a place where I did the following: kept a list of books I wanted to read, collected words and phrases from the wellness industry (aura spray, tincture, chakra-restoring balm, pomegranate seed lube... at some point I confused both myself and the book’s copy editor re: what was real and what I had made up), wrote down all my ideas as they came to me (“thinking about the way confessing something opens the door for others to confess to you”), kept notes from calls with my agent or my writing workshop, quotes/potential epigraphs (“I have a lot of female hostility. It's very trendy.” —Kathy Griffin). It's basically like a live scrapbook for the book I'm writing. Sometimes it's a time log of my day: wrote for this many hours, was weak, checked email, etc.

Have you kept a process diary for other book projects? If so, do your interactions with your process diaries vary from book to book?

Yes, I’ve started a new notebook for a gothic novel I'm working on. It has all the notes from the classes I’ve been taking from Emily Stone and questions I have to figure out in my plot (“Is the wife alive or is she dead?”) Each notebook is really organized around an *obsession.* I’m so old that we didn't have laptops in high school or college (well, I mean, people HAD laptops when I was in college, I just never brought mine to class!), so taking notes by hand is a very familiar habit. I am certain that I remember the information I write by hand more than I remember what I type. I only read print books for similar reasons.

When you look back at your process diaries after finishing a book, what do you learn about your process?

I was shocked to realize, the week after Self Care came out, that the title of the novel was on the very first page of my process diary. I didn't realize this was the book’s title for more than a year (it went through two other working titles). I also save a lot of articles (in print) while I'm working and keep those in boxes. (I have a box for everything I read while writing What to Miss When; it's like a time capsule of the pandemic.) I like having tangible relics of my process, when I'm on screens so much.

What advice do you have for writers who’d like to start using a process diary?

Buy a notebook you’ll actually write in; not an intimidating, expensive one with archival paper or whatever! Make it a habit to put all your ideas in the same place (the notebook). If you feel the urge to complain about how hard it is to be an artist, that's what your diary’s there for.

Leigh has a new book coming out this summer, a collection of poems she wrote during the Coronavirus pandemic that she describes as a 21st-century version of The Decameron. Pre-order What to Miss When, and in the meantime, don’t miss out on Self Care.

Do you journal about the things you're trying to write? If so, what do you discover from writing about your writing?

“Occasionally if I get stuck. I tend to discover that though I don’t have a ton of confidence in my writing, I do have more ideas than I think I do.” —Chelsea

“I don't write about writing. Maybe because when I write I get in the zone and just stay there focused and have trouble remembering the small obstacles I had to get through.” —Lisandro

“I journal about life sometimes; sporadic self-loathing entries, mainly. It helps my memory sometimes, when I read it later. Sometimes it inspires stories.” —Pete

I’d love to hear about your writing life. Answer my reader questionnaire and I may include your response in future issues of the newsletter!

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Really Digging This

Here’s what I’ve been reading and loving lately.

Detransition, Baby — Torrey Peters’ debut novel is getting loads of hype, but it honestly deserves even more. Ames, who has recently detransitioned to live as a man, misses the familial trans bond he had with his ex-girlfriend, Reese, who’s always wanted to be a mother. When his new girlfriend (who is also his boss) gets pregnant and isn’t sure if she wants to keep the baby, Ames wonders if there’s a chance he could bring Reese back into the picture so the three of them can raise the baby together. This book pushes the boundaries of the evolving definition of the word “family” in a thoughtful, loving way.

It’s Not All Downhill From Here — In her brand new novel, Terry McMillan updates what the aging process can look like. The 68-year-old protagonist, Loretha, has a wonderful life (fit with a German Shepherd named B.B. King!), and when she faces a heartbreaking loss, she decides to take the reins on her health and outlook. The dialogue is snappy, and Loretha’s friends and family wound up feeling like my own by the book’s end.

Tell me about your lonely victories.

“I *FINALLY* finished the novel I've been working on for the last six years on and off, and pretty much nonstop for the last two. All that work for just 234 pages!” —Spencer

“Sharing a draft with my twin sister. She sent back thoughtful, kind remarks about the story, how I wrote it, how it felt sincere, how she remembered bits of it from our childhood. It meant a lot to me, because she means everything to me. The story may not go anywhere, but sharing it with her made it matter to me.“ —Pete

I want to hear about your writing achievements! Answer my reader questionnaire and I may include your response in future issues of the newsletter.

Tell me about your lonely victories.

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Interested in working on your writing with me? I’m hosting another round of writing workshops for fiction and nonfiction writers this summer. Sign up for my workshop newsletter to be among the first to learn more.

Special thanks to Becca Wucker for editing this issue and to Aysha Miskin for designing the Lonely Victories banner.

“Writing alone can give you a very deep sense of satisfaction and lonely victory.” —Greta Gerwig