Friday, January 14, 2011

Diary 2.0

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I started keeping a diary very young, but became more inspired to tell the story of my life to those lucky people who would discover my work when I was gone after reading The Diary of Anne Frank. Of course, I was not nearly as precocious, nor did I have the devastating story of Ms. Frank. As a kid, the thing that struck me most about Anne Frank's diary was her ability to share her feelings, safely, in a world that was beyond safe. (I didn't realize more of the true relevance of her words until I was older.) While I felt safe as a child, I sure understood feeling insecure, and I thought if I had a place I could write that and leave it all to the page, I would be stronger once I closed it's previously blank pages.

That's how strongly I felt about my diary writing back then. Because I had felt something powerful in those pages from history, I felt writing my history would somehow create serious thought when read later. I followed Anne's lead and gave my diary a name (hers was Kitty, mine was Gator because of the little alligator on the front of the blank book I was using then). I found fantastic hiding places for my diary, because these were secrets--"FOR MY EYES ONLY." I declared it loudly, in caps on the first page and on the front cover.

This 'great' writing, even during turbulent times of my youth, went something like this:
"...2 days ago was Thanksgiving. Today Therese and I went sledding, it was great."
"Boy, I'm pretty depressed. I don't have a boyfriend." (I was 11.)

Diary and journal writing are both great ways to make sure you write every day, but if your entries start sounding more like checklists of your basic day (woke up, work, gym, dinner, writing, sleep, repeat), the activity that is supposed to keep your writing in shape is not helping you at all. Like with other exercises, you have to shake it up a bit to get the benefits.

Keep a diary, but don't just list all the things you did during the day. Pick one incident and write it up as a brief vignette. Give it color, include quotes and dialogue, shape it like a story with a beginning, middle and end—as if it were a short story or an episode in a novel. It's great practice. Do this while figuring out what you want to write a book about. The book may even emerge from within this running diary. --JOHN BERENDT
This is great advice when your diary writing starts leaving you cold rather than inspired. By picking an everyday occurrence and changing it into a personal essay or short story, you will stay focused by making sure you keep coming back to the issue at hand. This focus may give you unexpected depth about the seemingly simple event you are writing about. 

For example, something that shook up your day: cleaning up cat puke. Again. In writing about it, you may find that it's not the inconvenience of this recurrence, it's the fear that something may be really wrong with your cat. If you overreacted, your writing may uncover fears you have about losing loved ones around you, or your own fears about death itself. And, because you are a writer, you would be able to show instead of tell about many of these feelings through the retelling of the actions of that day, and the dialogue you shared with others, even with the cat. Is it something you want to write about? Well, you don't have to decide now. You can leave the character of you on the page, cat puke crisis diverted, ready to tackle another day.

As Mr. Berendt notes, this is great practice. Any story we tell, especially novels or long nonfiction narratives, can seem overwhelming to start. By breaking it down to its smaller components, the scenes, it becomes more achievable. Books are collections of scenes that are collections of chapters. Your day is filled with collections of moments that are collections of hours. Standard diaries would list out the events of the days without a real feel for the moments. Expanding those moments out to create a scene from your day allows your creative focus to get a workout, whether or not you decide to use it for a project.

Do you do this already? Have you found projects from it? I challenge you to do this for a few days or a week (or more). I may even post one or two on my personal blog and note it in the comments here. If you choose to do the same, feel free to leave a link to your blog if you like.

Happy Writing!

3 comments:

  1. I love the quote, and like the idea of using a diary for writing practice by expanding a recorded moment into a scene. I can see all kinds of possibilities, and should try it--my journaling has too often resulted in simply making lists...

    My attempts at keeping a diary as a child consisted mostly of "I don't have eny (sic) thing to write about today..." But I loved the lock and key, and the secretiveness of it all! I think it had something to do with having two younger brothers I imagined keeping big secrets from :-)

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  2. I've kept a diary since I was 12. Over the years, I've written thousands of pages of mostly self absorbed diatribe and bad poetry. But why not? It is my own writing written for myself. I don't imagine anyone will want to read my diaries when I'm gone (I really hope not!). But now and then something will spark my imagination that will grow and become a story or a longer essay that I want to share with others. And I really enjoy going back through my past diaries and finding nuggets of good writing hidden in them.

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  3. Tina, thank you for your offer to share your newsletter. I will appreciate receiving it. Even though my childhood and teenage diaries were more often a listing of my daily activities than they were an analysis of my thoughts and feelings, I decided a year ago to record my daily diary entries 50 years to the day after I recorded them. I named my blog Mid-Prairie High School and Park College 1960-1965, and it can be found at http://parkcollege1961-1965.blogspot.com. Keep up the good work with your own writing, and thank you for posting about diary keeping.

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