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.

 

 

 

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Private Thoughts: Diaries and Journals

This is not meant as a scientific poll by any means, but more of a curiosity:  do you keep a diary or journal that is just for you? In this era of social media, it seems sometimes that there is no privacy at all.  We post often and regularly to Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr (or whatever the latest one is – I can’t keep up!). Many of us post regularly to our blogs, sharing our works of art as well as our opinions and thoughts on the world.

But there are a lot of times when I have things that I need to say, but I need to say them to no one at all.  I used to keep a paper diary but that was hard to manage because A) my handwriting is atrocious, B) finding storage for all those notebooks in my tiny, little, crooked house is not easy and C) I would have to take the laptop off my lap in order to put a notebook there…and that’s just not likely to happen.

I used to use my diary as a place to “just write”. Some days it was my deepest, darkest secrets. Some days it was just me waxing poetic about the girl with the beautiful hair who wouldn’t give me the time of day. Some days it was me doodling with a new story idea that magically started to appear on the page as I was waxing poetic about that girl with the beautiful hair.  I used to be diligent about it – 30 minutes, every day, no matter what.  I’d go back days or weeks later and read what I wrote, often being able to pull a neat little short story out of the debris field of my written mind-dump.  While times and life have changed, I’d like to get back to that kind of structure where I write whatever thoughts come to mind without any particular goal or target…though I suspect most of my commentary will be about coffee these days.

Regardless of the potential topics, I’ve tried various online tools to keep my private thoughts and ideas safe and secure, but I’ve never really been happy with them.  Private blogs work okay but end up distracting me anyway as I fiddle with the look and feel (even though it’s just for my eyes only).  I find online notebooks like evernote to be clumsy and hard to use.  I’ve used Microsoft Word documents but they, too, come to a point where I get distracted by fonts and colors and formatting and tables of contents and… you get the picture.

The issue is clearly me more than it is the tools.  I have settled on a private blog for now but I’m curious what methods the Today’s Author community might be using for a modern, comfortable, easy-to-use-and-not-too-distracting journal or diary.  I’d love to hear your methods for letting the private thoughts out while still keeping them private.