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diaries, journals, and revelations


Diary (Photo credit: Barnaby)

I filled numerous diaries during elementary and high school, divulging my deepest secrets alongside the mundane details of everyday life. I had one-year diaries and five-year diaries. Some were gilt-edged, while others were plain. But no matter how simple or ornate, they all had locks.

When I was 11 or 12, one of my younger brothers rummaged through my dresser drawers and managed to find, unlock, and read my diary. When I complained to my mother, she told me to put it somewhere he couldn’t find it. I thought this unfair and unreasonable, so I consulted a higher authority: Ann Landers. Ann did not publish my letter, but she did write back agreeing with me and suggesting how I might approach this issue with my mother. I showed the letter to Mom, but she was not moved to alter her position. At least I felt vindicated.

Those old diaries are long gone. I switched to college-ruled spiral-bound notebooks somewhere along the way and started referring to them as journals rather than diaries.

My mother used to read excerpts to me from the five-year diary she’d filled between the ages of 16 and 21, which I think was the only diary she ever kept. The passages she read revealed a rebellious streak it may have been unwise of her to share with me, given her ongoing attempts to get me to conform to various social standards.

After she died, I got custody of her diary and read all of it in the course of a week. I’m so grateful to have it for the glimpses it provides of the young girl and young woman she was before becoming a wife and a mother. She missed writing only two or three days in the entire five years, filling every narrow line with both facts and impressions in her tiny, precise handwriting.

My own journals have been much less devoted to facts than to speculating, imagining, complaining, whining, planning, philosophizing, analyzing, rationalizing, and wishful thinking. Although I wrote in my notebooks regularly for years, it was in a very undisciplined manner. Some entries are so self-indulgent they make me cringe to read them. I’m mortified at the thought anyone else might see them. Twice I’ve ritually destroyed all the journals in my possession (once melodramatically and once thoughtfully). Even so, those journals were my faithful companions, and I derived much benefit from them.

After I encountered Ira Progoff’s book At a Journal Workshop, I began using journal writing in a deeper and more creative manner. I’ve subsequently gotten inspiration and direction from many other books and courses. When I worked as a substance abuse counselor, I realized that the practice of writing might be beneficial for my clients. We experimented with writing first in one group and then in another. Initially, some people were skeptical of the process and diffident about their writing ability, but journal writing doesn’t require talent, only willingness and honesty. Almost everyone responded positively to the writing exercises, and a few began keeping their own private journals. Sometimes the results were absolutely breathtaking, surprising both the writer and me.

When I returned home to California after my mother’s funeral, I wrote to her in my journal every night for several weeks. It helped me say good-by to her, which I had not had the opportunity to do before she died. It made me aware of the connection that will always exist between us. I did the same thing after my partner of nearly 30 years died. Journal writing has helped me get through the most difficult losses of my life.

I’m still writing in college-lined, spiral-bound notebooks. Still using my journals as a way to sort things out, understand myself and my world better, and gain perspective on whatever issues I’m dealing with. I’ve cut down on the whining, complaining, and rationalizing, but I haven’t eliminated them completely. My journals are still my faithful companions—a little reproachful from time to time, but generally nonjudgmental.

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