Urban Survival 101: Journal to Save Your Life




Introduction: Urban Survival 101: Journal to Save Your Life

About: I left home at 14 and hitchhiked cross country for years, but I turned back, started going to school and became that cool guy I always wanted to be.

Out here on the road, there's no TV or radio and no justification for books --- at least, if you're like me and you're on a full-time, creative, life-redeeming mission. If I find my thoughts wandering, I feel like a time thief and I have to return to, "What could I be doing to move forward, right now?" So, when my laptop goes down, I know it's time to start mapping the next phase of the journey where it can't blink out: on paper.

Journalling to save your life is writing as though it may be your last chance to write anything down ever again, so it needs to have practical use and justify it's existence. In my case, it's heading for one, big autobiography packed with ancedotes, essays, photographs, artwork, inspirational themes and Native American history of the places I've been. Bear in mind that I've already filled and lost many journals over the years - some 400 pages thick. It's been a long time coming and I've had some time to work a lot of this out.

Oh, yeah. This is Tessa. She thinks I'm smart because I use a three-tiered system of writing that begins with scribbles on a scratch pad, more organized writing in a notebook and my best writing in a leather-bound journal.

Step 1: "The Figure Is Already in the Marble... Sleeping" - Michaelangelo

I found a partially filled notebook so I went ahead and used all the blank pages I could and even started brainstorming by writing about the benefits of blank pages (I skipped the scratch pad phase and used the notebook as both. I can do that - I'm the master here). My thoughts naturally turn to what the best use of the space is and in my writing I begin to ask the "audience" what they want to hear. Let them answer and they'll tell you through your own, continuing ponderance, like asking a cat what it's trying to tell you. "What? You want to go outside? Tuna? What?". Keep talking to them and imagine what they would want to know about and why. Remember, they're you're children, but they're very particular.

Give your thoughts room to breathe. Leave a space between them so you can note their connections later. Don't worry so much about paragraph structure or making it look like something you'd find in a "real" book. Real books start with a completely different form than what you see on the shelf. It's not time for that, yet.

When the page is full, I look back to see what the main subjects are and what the big deal is about them. Then I choose one subject that dominates or is best and I write it in all capital letters at the top so I end up with at least one, good, usable thought from each page - one that can be easily located and compared with the others.

Step 2: Narrow a Topic, But Remain Open

I picked the topic of frozen beer from the four I dredged up on the last page. Whether or not any of this eventually lands at the feet of the frozen beer story is up to the book. It tells me what it wants to be by revealing it's best parts.

Let's see, the story took place in Northampton, Massachussets, it was winter, I was about to hitchhike south all the way to New Orleans with nothing but a backpack and a boombox... Hey! That's a much better story. I'll go with that instead. They'll like that. So much for the frozen beer story, for now.

See how this is going? I'm in and out of first and third person and not really caring too much about how it sounds or feels. This is the story talking to me.

Also, now is an opportunity to tighten up your penmanship - for the reader. Don't stress, just take a deep breath once in awhile, slow down and keep it legible. You'll be more inspired to continue your work long-term, as well.

For what I'm trying to do, this much information is enough for me to put it in an outline with a bunch of other places I've been and determine which stories are should be kept for further processing and which should be set aside for some smaller, colorful detail in a bigger story. I don't want to waste a lot of time developing a story that's not going to be used. I'm journalling to save my life, here.

Step 3: How-to Entries

It's not all stories and events. My favorite entries are more like instructional essays that may someday be more useful than all the ancedotes. Later, they can be dramatized by the characters in my book or added as graphic elements in a margin.

See how I use brackets to isolate subjects and then bracket the accompanying note so they match? I've gone through the previously mentioned 400 page journals and dissected them after they were full by drawing matching shapes around all the subjects in the book in order to find their connections.

Also, You'll notice that my thoughts fit the page. It basically sounds like this: "Blah, blah blah. This happened and this happened and then this one guy said "hootie-hoo!" and that was it. Wasn't that the damnest thing?" And then it ends with room at the bottom for notes later. Consider the amount of space you have and make it work for you.

These pages were written in one take with one pass at corrections. The first paragraph has a direct, challenging claim, each paragraph has worthwhile, interesting information, balanced meter and length and the first two paragraphs support the third by way of comparison. Wow. I'm better than I thought.

Step 4: Chronology

Here, I've used a "splash panel" - both pages of an open book - to uncover what stories are hidden in the places I hitchhiked through on my way to New Orleans. I've listed and numbered the places and gave them equal space on the page so they can hash it out where I can see everything at once. Then I go through each one and ask it, , "What, who, when, where, why and how?" What happened? Who was involved? When did it happen? Etc. Then I can relate the events to all the others and determine when I was there and how old I was.

This is what I was talking about earlier when I said I had enough information for me to compare the story to the others and determine if it's worth keeping.

Step 5: Systems Back Online!

Turns out it was a simple, $2 cable that kept me from powering up. Good thing. I never would have gotten this far with the project, which now has blossomed into a 30 page outline from my earliest memories to the present and will have an accompanying Native American history component for all of the places I've been. That ought to thicken things up.

You know how to type an outline, right? You're just listing details about subjects in an indented list, like this, except there is no indentation feature in this data field.

My Life
First Girlfriend
Mean Father
Tattoo on forearm: "Send 'Em Back"
Loved to knock everything off the table

When these list items start resembling paragraphs, you're nearing their finished form. What more to say about dear old dad? I'm making all this stuff up and even I can see where this is going. The next entry is going to sum up this little story and prepare it for the next big shuffle of all the subjects. Here's what it would look like:

One day she came home with a "no war" t-shirt on and he did his famous one-armed table sweep of everything on the table, but this time, a bottle hit Aunt Ruby and gave her a concussion. Ruby still has a scar on her forehead that makes him bite his lip whenever she walks by.

What do you think? It can be blown up and used for something. In the mean time, there's much more to do. Cut, print, next.

Step 6: Figure Out How to Use It

So, I've been jamming on this book thing. I keep cranking out more and more stories from my past by slowly dusting off the layers of time in a way I can see them; geographically and on paper. As I continue to remember things, I find I have already prepared a place to put them in the outline instead of letting them slip away. They, in turn suggest headings for their own details. When I can no longer say, "So what?" about the subject, then it's time to move on and keep filling the "word hoard" as Kurt Vonnegut used to call it.

At the top of the page I've described what I'm trying to do in order to keep me moving in the right direction.

All that's left is to keep rolling through this thing from end to end, like an assembly line and keep on filling in details and finding creative ways to tie all the characters and events together until you have what you feel is MORE than enough material than you'll need (what's going to make it exquisite is slicing away all but the very best on the way to publishing).

For example, I've noticed a dumpster fire in one end of the journal and a fiery dream at the other and a shady character with a notorious car in the middle - all unrelated - but then it occurred to me that maybe HE was the guy who started the fire and he tried to get away in his CAR but it was so NOTORIOUS that...

But that would be giving it away before it's wrapped, now wouldn't it?

See how that works? Now do that with everything.

Step 7: Read My Follow Up: Advanced Journal to Real Book

Even I don't know how I'm going to do this, but I'll go over more advanced editing of your journal, choosing and preparing artwork, page layout, web and print publishing and self-promotion with conscience. Give me a minute.

BTW The Instructables.com community the reason I'm actualizing this dream of writing my book. Your 16,000 hits on my article, "Urban Survival 101: Mobile Computing on the Fringe" https://www.instructables.com/id/Urban-Survival-101-Mobile-Computing-on-the-Fringe/ and numerous, (mostly) supportive comments have been the approval I needed to drive this stake and I'd like to thank you all.

One more thing. THIS is what I'm talking about when I say journalling to save your life. By scribbling in that notebook I not only got my book started, I also wrote a cool article on Instructables.com about the process itself and it may help others write their books before mine's finished. I'll leave you with a tale about Hippie Bill that you'll read about in the book.

Step 8: And My Movies Are on YouTube for Free Now

I'm presenting the sequel first, because it's the masterpiece, for now. The movies are split into 10 minute clips that you can see on my channel, http://www.youtube.com/user/johnnyallenshaw These are their respective first parts. Here's "ANOTHER Big Fat Homeless Berkeley Movie" part 1 of 9 :

Here's "My Big Fat Homeless Berkeley Movie" part 1 of 7 :

And the trailer for "Last of the Big Fat Homeless Berkeley Movies":

Have fun. If everybody wants to send me a dollar, mail it to Johnny Allen Shaw c/o NOSCW PO Box 11406, Berkeley, CA. 94712-2406.

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    8 Discussions


    11 years ago on Introduction

    6,066 views and only ONE comment before mine?!?!? Goes to show how lazy people are to read.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    vitruvian8807 says:
    "6,066 views and only ONE comment before mine?!?!? Goes to show how lazy people are to read."

    Eh, not especially lazy are we,
    with so much said- hard to add much worthy.



    we are alot alike, well except i am female:) i appreciate all of your instructables. thank you.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Wow. So what do you feel is most important: searching for purpose in life or finding purpose in life?


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I guess I'd have to go chronological; if you don't seek, you won't find. You must WORK your troubles out in order to solve them. Don't just sit there and expect an answer to come along. Even it it does, you may be too weak from sitting around and unable to deal with it.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    Oh, poh Hippie Bill. I gotta love your mindset in general. I hope you live a nice life, and know that you have inspired me greatly. :D


    wow... this really got me thinking about how my life is gonna turn out. the generic "go to college, forget about adventure" lifestyle doesnt really appeal to me. im still gonna go to college, but i wanna go on some kind of a cross country, hitchhiking crazy movie worthy expidition before i settle down.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    Once more a great instructable Johnny! Keep them coming, I enjoy reading them.