Journal Your Way to Authentic Detail

My mom gave me my first diary when I was nine years old, a birthday present that promised immortality for my brilliant observations of the world. It had a bubble gum pink vinyl cover with a picture of a teenager sitting on the floor, her body folded into a V, legs scissoring in the air, toes pointed like a ballerina’s. She held a black telephone handset in one hand (yes, we’re talking very old school here) and wrapped the serpentine cord around the other. Her pony tail flipped out in a curl. I could never figure out who she was talking to, but it was certainly someone more popular than I.

There I was, an awkward little kid with widely spaced teeth too big for my face, ears jutting like trowels from my head, jealous of a cartoon character of a girl as realistically drawn as Wonder Woman. Besides the beauty queen on the cover of my diary, one of the other things I loved was the silver lock at the edge of the pages and the two keys that would keep my words private, my inner world a secret from my prying public. As if.

The problem I had with my new diary was the same problem that faced the whole class. I had a dearth of words to write, an anemic bunch of experiences to record. My first entry reflected my life. I got up, got dressed, walked to school, sat in class and studied, stopped off at Perry’s store where my dime bought a package of chocolate Tastykakes, walked home, and went to bed after dinner and some TV time. At nine, my middle class life was predictably boring. The most interesting parts were also those I could not record because no lock would keep mom’s nosy eyes out of the pages of my diary, and no teenage cartoon coquette could heft a shield strong enough to protect my thoughts. My intuition kept me silent.

I suspect many little girls would have sensed our deepest thoughts should be kept to ourselves and never written, even in a lockable diary. The conflicts we had with our families and the worries we had about ourselves were not for public sharing. Mom might have given me a diary but she didn’t really want me to write what I thought about my world. Eventually the boring sameness that I could safely record each day even bored me. It wasn’t interesting to write or read, so I quit.

Decades later I wish I had that pink diary. I’m certain there were a few descriptions I’d love to have at hand, maybe the way the wax paper wrapper had to be gently pried from my Tastykakes to preserve the frosting, or the sound of cracking ice as I stepped onto a frozen puddle and skidded a few inches. Perhaps I recorded the yellow sky that arched over our house because wherever I looked, the blue of artists’ paintings never showed up over Trenton. Maybe I wrote about the parades that marched down Parkway Avenue, passing our corner on their way to glory. The itch of my wool skirts, the way my baby sister cooed at me, that my little brother learned jujitsu moves. I don’t know. All I do know is that I gave up trying to write in my diary. Someplace between my surrendered pencil and our family’s move first to Hawaii and then to California, the pink diary didn’t make it. Probably got tossed in a bin, another worthless token too expensive to cart from place to place.

My current journal is likely similar to one you might keep. I write on my computer, the pages protected by a password locked in a virtual file marked “Journal.” Not an original undertaking but an easy one for me to access. I can keyboard write even when the aches in my hands won’t put up with marking an inky scrawl. A close friend writes in leather bound journals using a code she created years ago. She’s diligent in recording her thoughts and vigilant in maintaining her privacy. Another friend writes in well crafted Moleskin books that will keep for decades, filling a dozen or so every year.

As a writer, the value of keeping a diary or journal is the rich description of experiences I might be wise enough to record. Journaling can be a window into authentic details I might otherwise have forgotten but can now include in my current story. The black landline telephone drawn on the cover of my pink diary is no longer a common device. Readers might have no idea what I’m writing about from personal encounter in the 1950s, but hopefully my words, culled from remembering the cover of a diary long gone, convey an image they can envision. Journals can provide detailed passages about the incidents and items that make stories ring true. They are sometimes an incentive to write. If I have trouble kick starting my writing muse, I can look to my journal as an opportunity to write every day. I get to write about anything that inspires or incites me, and about every common thing I want to record.

I might call it a diary; you might prefer the word journal. It’s writing it that’s most important. It may prove to be the source of an authentic voice, a description of an article that makes my story ring true. Readers will crow about how I, brilliant writer, drop them into the middle of my story and keep them in suspense as they read the genuine details that assure them I really know what I’m talking about. And that’s just where I want them to be, no locks or keys keeping them at bay. Just a reader and my book, tight as a teenage girl and her phone.





13 thoughts on “Journal Your Way to Authentic Detail

  1. I love Journaling! I always journal my blogs before I actually publish them. I just try to capture the essence in my own heart before I share it with others. great blog!

  2. I love this idea, Shari. It makes a lot of sense. Allt hat writing probably does create an authentic voice that is completely unplagiarized.

    Me, no locked journal there. I never had those types of secrets and still don’t. I rarely have thoughts I wouldn’t share with others. Worse, most of them aren’t that interesting! Sigh.

    • There’s also such a wealth of information about “the way things used to be.” You should see my grandchildren’s faces when I tell them about stuff like party lines on phones or getting dressed up in your best clothes to go to Disneyland. That’s the kind of info I wrote in my diary. Seemed boring at the time, but the details are golden now. Wish I still had the ones from my childhood and teenage years, but they’ve long made their way to the recycling plant.

  3. I have journaled in the past and found it valuable. At the moment I don’t do it much. It is a great way to gather in feelings, thoughts, and such.

    • I agree with you, Andrew. It’s also a great way to sort out reactions to incidents without exposing everything to the world. Later, you can pick and choose what is most relevant and still keep other thoughts private.

  4. Maybe nine is the magical age. It is when I got my first diary. Like yours, it was pink with the pages locked. I used it for a few months, then forgot about it because I wanted to ride my bike.

    • Wanted to ride your bike – that is hilarious. What a great story, Glynis. My ballet teacher in Hawaii, a tiny prima ballerina who’d defected from Russia, would scream Russian invectives at us if she found evidence of bike riding – like scraped knees. I loved ballet – but I loved riding my bike too. As my scraped knees often declared.

  5. I love writing my journal and it’s funny sometimes looking back on it because the things I thought were important twenty years ago seem so insignificant now (and some of them I don’t even remember!) 😉

  6. Dianne, I’ve had that experience also – wondering why I chose to focus on something that seems trivial to me now, and wishing I could remember more of an incident I wrote about briefly.

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