When I was a kid, a standard stuffer I’d often find in my stocking would be one of those little diaries, with four tiny lines allotted for each day along with a tiny gold key that ensured my secrets would remain … well, secret.
Admittedly, I didn’t have too many secrets to keep at the time, but still, one of the major disillusionments of my life was several years later finding out that any tiny gold key that came with any of those little diaries could open any one of them.
I’d always start off with the sacred intention of writing every single day, which wasn’t too hard, after all, with my 4th grade cursive I could only fit about six words altogether in any of those tiny daily spaces. By New Year’s, though, I’d invariably falter, and once I missed a day or two — game over. Guilt 101.
My brothers never got diaries in their stockings, just baseball cards, or caps, or harmonicas, maybe, but then, it was the 1950s and boys didn’t have feelings to put in diaries anyway.
For the next few decades, as a failed diarist, I turned my attention to failing at other forms of writing — articles, poetry, short stories and the first chapters of at least two novels. I only wrote about myself if some emotional meltdown or another forced me to, such as during a divorce or a crisis with one of my kids. The pressure-cooker approach, and the writing was messy, miserably exploding on the page just so the top of my head wouldn’t blow off.
I still find one of those pages of pain now and again, randomly tucked in a book or on the back page of a not-quite-used-up legal pad.
My attitude toward diary-keeping, however, underwent a radical change as I was approaching my 50th birthday (now there’s a story that needs a lock and key). My kids were in college, I’d just started a new job and things were good. A friend suggested I read the now-classic “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.” The author, Julia Cameron, strongly recommended writing “Morning Pages” on a daily basis for at least three weeks. She promised, “It will change your life.”
Maybe because she didn’t call it a “diary,” I took her advice and found out she was right. At first I wrote for only 10 minutes a day, but then I found myself waking up at 4:30 a.m. so I could dedicate at least 30 minutes to … what? Witnessing my life, I guess, giving it half an hour of my undivided attention — unheard of!
Those pages became a trusted friend, a dumping ground, a treasure chest, a launching pad for ideas, a refuge, or whatever I needed them to be at the moment, uncensored.
The multiple benefits of journaling have long been well-known, but just in case, here’s an excerpt from a recent article from The Seattle Times:
“Journaling is beneficial in so many ways — but did you know it can help sharpen your mind? By remembering and then recounting events and subsequently writing them down, you’re concentrating and documenting important experiences, which will help you recall them more clearly.
Noting as many details as possible about an event — including who you were with, the time, day, and place, the words you exchanged with someone, the smell of a room — exercises different parts of your brain.
Recording happy times can bring you joy, and creating a historical account of your life is a gift you can give to your loved ones. Plus, the physical act of holding a pen and filling pages with words activates different areas of your brain, exercises fine motor skills, and engages your senses. One study even showed that journaling helps wounds heal faster.
You can also fill your journal with drawings and doodles, set goals, track your progress, list your dreams, or write a short story. The creative and practical benefits of journaling are endless!”
It’s always available, inexpensive (unless you go leather and gold-edged), and potentially life-changing. You don’t have to be an Anne Frank or Samuel Pepys to make it meaningful, as long as it’s meaningful to you. I asked the daughter of the former and much-loved custodian of this column whether he’d kept a journal.
She said she didn’t think so, but readers who so enjoyed his sharing of personal recollections, canny observations and entertaining vicissitudes of his life, might agree that, in a way, that’s exactly what he did, kept a journal, which, yes, he chose to share with a few hundred of his closest friends.
You, of course, can keep your journal as an inside job. If you’re looking for privacy, I might have an extra key or two lying around.