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.





A little birdie taught me the value of keeping a journal

DOS-based PC journal of the 1980s

DOS-based PC journal of the 1980s

Last week a little birdie taught me the value of keeping a journal.

I was driving to work down Whitehorse Avenue at seven forty-five in the morning when I came across an injured sparrow in the road.  He was flapping and fluttering his heart out, yet all he accomplished was to tumble and propel himself in circles.  It reminded me of a child wearing swim floats on his arms, splashing wildly while drifting helplessly into the deep end of the pool when his feet no longer touched the bottom.

From twenty meters away, I instinctively positioned myself in the lane so that I would straddle my car over top of the little guy.  As I closed in within ten meters I thought whether it be best to put the little fellow out of his misery, but within five meters decided it wasn’t my place to intervene.  As I passed him I looked in my rear-view mirror and continued to watch him spin in circles.

At thirty-seven years old I suppose I’m middle aged, and I continue to recognize I must be getting soft in my old age.  A few years ago it was recognizing the awww factor of playful kittens, and now, the heart-sinking feeling of watching a painful death to a wildlife species that can fit in my hand.

For the next twenty minutes of my drive to work I contemplated life and death.  Specifically, I tried to understand (unsuccessfully, I might add…) how some men can rationalize that they have the right to end the life of another man through methods like propelling bombs or firing guns.  How can this savageness come from a species who yet can also be touched by a small injured bird?

All this deep thought naturally led me to conclude the value of keeping a journal.

As students we all at one time experienced the assignment of keeping a journal, shrugging the feeling of having nothing important to write nor recognizing the therapeutic value.  As adults, and specifically as adult writers, a journal captures the most important story we can ever hope to write in our own lifetime.

The Lingering Romance of Time and Distance

When I was 17, my family and I moved from California to Wisconsin, where I would be starting college. Though part of me felt at the time that my mom, step-dad, and siblings were following me across the country for the obnoxious reason of keeping tabs on me, I begrudgingly acknowledged another, more reasonable, purpose for their move. My mom had grown up in Milwaukee, and just as I was beginning a new chapter in my life (college, dorm living, new friends), she was returning to her roots for the support and the closeness of her family.

We drove cross-country with two cars and two babies: my sister was nearing three years old, and my brother was not yet one. It was not a quick cross-country drive. Our pace was set, in part, by the needs of the babies, and the interior mood of the car was determined by their crying, sleeping, eating, and fidgeting.

For me, at 17, all of it was torture. Since my mom was driving, I had to be navigator and babysitter. I kept an eye on the map, and I fed, played with, and tended to my siblings. What I wanted was to be left alone to read (The Mists of Avalon) and to journal. That summer, before leaving California, I had met a boy who I was desperately in love with. I was sure, against all sense and logic, that I had found the person I would be with for the rest of my life. And this move, though I wanted it, though I looked forward to college, was tearing us, literally and figuratively, apart. My heart was breaking with each additional mile. And this is what I wrote about.

Time and distance were my themes. The distance became a character; it had substance—it was malicious.  Being pulled and stretched were common images that appeared in my journals of that time. I wrote poetry, I wrote prose, I wrote creative nonfiction (and yes, it was creative, since I re-imagined the relationship I had just had—all two weeks of it—and turned the both of us mythical, iconic.) Everything that took place within the space of that car, during that drive, served as backdrop for my own sadness. I really got into metaphors and similes. The features of the landscape filtered into my writing. Desert and greenery meant more alongside my moods. When the babies cried, it was because they sensed my own suffering; when they laughed, they mocked it. When my mom and I fought, I felt determined in my love. The splintered relationship, as I saw it, between my mom and me only served to clarify how deep and strong this other relationship was. I could handle the bickering, the crying babies, the interminable miles cast against the hyperbolic idea of my great love.

After we reached Milwaukee, and I started my first semester, I would sit in my classes, watch the clock tick sluggishly, and will the hours to pass. Time was heavy. I felt mired in it. It was like breathing, walking, talking through molasses. I was sluggish. I remember in one of my communication classes, I was writing a poem about time—something about rope and knots and pulling—and my tablemate reached out and grabbed my notebook, demanding to know what I was writing. She began to read, and I pulled the page out of her eyesight. I made some comment about it being a poem, and not ready to be seen by others. That was partly true. The other part was, at that moment, I believed myself to be the only one who could understand this heartache and the way time was working for me. I remember distinctly her mannish hands as she tugged the notebook, and her tightly cinched ponytail—both somehow further indicating that she could not possibly understand my mood. Or, for that matter, the depth of what I was writing.

Now, at 34, I find that time and distance are still things I write about. I think because of that big move at 17, and because of other moves from childhood onward, distance is something I think about a lot. The way time changes with distance and new sights is also something I think about. Self-imposed distance, in particular, is interesting to me. I chose to move to Milwaukee at 17. I chose that distance. I chose to wait a full year before visiting California again, that boy I loved having moved on by then. And since then I have made other choices that have inserted a physical distance between myself and familiar things. I moved to South Korea for a year, for example. There is a certain tension that comes from this, a certain challenge. Life just can’t be boring inside that challenge. That’s something I learned at 17. My emotions were taut, exposed, hyper-charged, and within that there was so much to write about. So, maybe that’s why I move so much—not just for the challenge and the thrill, but for the material. I imagine that when I’m 68, double my age now, I’ll still write about time and distance. Those themes will be just as fresh, most likely because I’ll have moved again and have a new distance to contemplate and pine over.