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 arched into a V, her legs scissoring into the air, toes pointed like a ballerina’s. She wore black Capri slacks, a white blouse with the shirt tails knotted across her waist, and a pink scarf tied around her throat. She held a black telephone handset in one hand and wrapped the serpentine cord around the other. Her dark brown pony tail flipped out in a curl. I, who wasn’t allowed more than a minute or two on the phone once in a while, could never figure out who she was talking to, but it was certainly someone more popular than I.
Even more than her graceful beauty and flirtatious nature, I envied the thick bangs that draped across her forehead. Though mom had given me the diary, she wouldn’t allow me to have bangs. So there I was, an awkward little kid with widely spaced teeth too big for my face, ears that jutted like small trowels from my head, jealous of a cartoon character of a girl as realistically drawn as Superman. Besides the beauty queen on the cover of my diary, one of the other things I loved about the little book 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.
I’d gotten my diary at a perfect time. Our teacher spoke about personal writing to record events and tried to explain to her class of squirrely scholars the difference between diary and journal. It was a concept beyond our life skills. None of us led lives extraordinary enough to warrant a journal’s more serious and detailed nature. It hardly mattered. Most of us completed our assignments with more fanciful detail than a true journal would sanction. All we cared about was getting good grades, and all our teacher cared about was that we follow an acceptable format. For the purposes of class, we had to mimic a journal with writing that met her standards. They were focused on spelling, grammar, and imagination more than critical observations of the world. After all, what was a kid in a city school going to witness that was worthy of writing about?
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 my brick 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 eating dinner. At nine, my middle class life was predictably boring. The most interesting parts were also those that 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 that many little girls would have sensed that 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 to read and 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 crack of ice as I stepped onto a frozen puddle and skidded a few inches in my boots. Did I record the color of the sky that arched over my two story house? I recall coloring New Jersey’s sky with yellow crayons because wherever I looked, the blue of other artists’ paintings never showed up over Trenton. Did I write about the parades that marched down Parkway Avenue, passing our corner on their triumphant way to glory? I don’t know. All I do know is that I gave up trying to write in my diary every day. Someplace between my penciled defeat 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 write even when the aches in my hands won’t put up with marking another inky scrawl. A close friend writes in leather bound journals using a code she created years ago. She is diligent in recording her thoughts and experiences every day and vigilant in maintaining her privacy. Another journalist 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 have been 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, but hopefully my words, culled from remembering the cover of a diary long gone, convey an image they can envision. Journals can provide the detailed passages about the incidents and items that make my 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. Mom can’t sneak it out of the back of my closet or break the lock to pry into my world. I get to write about anything and everything that inspires or incites me, and about every common thing I want to record for posterity.
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 my most authoritative voice, the genuine 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. And that’s just where I want them to be, no locks or keys keeping them at bay. Just a reader and my book.