On Writing: Heyen Journals His Life
by Danie Watson
“When I look at my old entries, I realize how much life wouldn’t have been recorded, would have been completely forgotten, except for my journal,” says William Heyen, author of The Candle: Poems of Our 20th Century Holocausts, which hits shelves on November 15, 2016. The Candle is Heyen’s sixth Etruscan title.
In addition to writing books of poetry and books in other genres, editing and contributing to hundreds of anthologies, and serving as a Fulbright lecturer in Germany, Heyen also keeps a daily journal, three volumes of which have been published by H_NGM_N Press.
Heyen received his first journal as a gift from his wife as a Christmas present, over fifty years ago, and has been journaling ever since. He says, “[Journaling] keeps track of me, and often composes me.”
Each journal entry Heyen writes can surround his innermost thoughts, or even what he did that day. He doesn’t carry his journal with him all the time, but always knows where it is, and he says that he watches over it just as much as his wife or his grandkids.
Heyen does not use his journal as a writing notebook to prompt poems or stories, but rather a place to organize his thoughts, and emphasize what his priorities should be. “[The journal] reminds me of time, and how lucky I’ve been to have the life I’ve had—love, teaching, writing, earthquake and flood and fire free—and to have met the writers I’ve met,” he says.
When asked what role journaling plays in his writing process, Heyen says, “The journal keeps everything company. I’ve learned how to free myself toward getting words down. The point of my journal, in my mind, is part of the wholeness of my whole writing life.”
Thinking about his journal as a companion, Heyen calls out the word journal itself. “What’s in the middle of the word journal? Urn. I see it as future ashes, or something that we can revere.”
As for what he writes in the journal, Heyen says he isn’t worried about the type of language he uses. He sits down in his writing shack in his backyard, in Brockport, New York and writes the date, followed by whatever comes to mind. He says he never wants to think that he has to wait until he has something important to say before he begins cursive communion with his companion, his journal.
After he finishes a journal, Heyen takes the completed book to one of his friends who works at the UPS Store, and he gets two spiral-bound copies made. He keeps one of the copies in a garden shed, and one in his writing cabin at the back of his Brockport acre. “I’d be more than glum if I lost one of these notebooks. From the time I drop a notebook off at the store, until it’s copied for me in a day or three, I’m nervous. ‘Guard this with your life,’ I say to my pal Ron, who watches over it.”
Even as his current journals are copied and stored, Heyen is typing up his older volumes for publication. Right now, he’s up to the year 1999 in his typing. He says that it takes him two to three years to type up one of the giant journal volumes that Nate Pritts is publishing at his H_NGM_AN Press. Pritts is a former student of Heyen’s who took on the lifelong commitment to publish Heyen’s journals. Each of the three journals published so far is about 550 pages. However, Heyen does not edit his journals. “As I type, I’m letting it all be what it is. Maybe I’ll add a last name, or fix a spelling error, but I will not try to sanitize myself,” Heyen says.
“For those who are looking to begin a journal, “ Heyen says, “do what I do: open your notebook, put the date down, and write something—anything.” Heyen urges writers to do what makes them comfortable, in what they’re writing, how they’re writing it, and even what the journal looks like. “Over the long run your journal will become what you want it to be and what it wants to be. Don’t censor yourself and think about who might be reading what you’re writing.”
Heyen’s journals are his companions through everything. “If I were on that proverbial desert island and could only have certain of my own books with me, I think I’d chose my journals, the life therein as lived, and not books of poetry. “
Danie Watson is pursuing her M.A. in fiction from Wilkes University and serves as a graduate assistant with Etruscan Press. She currently resides in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.