I started keeping a diary when I was nine years old. It was bright yellow and came with a gold lock and a tiny key. Believe it or not, I’m looking at that very diary right now. The key is long gone, and the cover has faded to the color of wheat, but it’s still decorated with carefully selected stickers. On the front is a striped kitten, a tiny chipmunk in green shorts and a little dog wearing a red winter coat. On the back are ladybirds and bunnies, plus this declaration in dark blue ink: “Harriette waz here, ’83.”
I started this five-year diary when I was a child of nine and kept it, with complete dedication, until I was officially a teenager. In 1979, I rode a short, fat Shetland pony named Ginger through verdant fields in Vermont and played The Dukes of Hazzard with the boys next door. By 1984, I was in Dunedin, New Zealand, longing for a boyfriend, occasionally fighting with girlfriends and constantly lamenting the dullness of my adolescent life.
This diary is bursting with words and mementos. For five years, I had a mere four lines to capture my daily thoughts, feelings, ideas, dreams and fears. Four lines! To compensate, I made paper pockets for the inside of each cover, obliquely labeled “Memories” and “ETC.” Today, I can carefully reach inside each miniature treasure trove and find relics of my past. Here’s an excerpt from a typed letter from a 13-year-old pal: “Today was the most boring day of my life. We’ll have to do something really hilarious to cheer evry body up, ’cause we’re all so DEPRESSED!!!!!!!!!”
Another one: preserved in the back pocket, a pledge — Top Secret — signed with a friend that we will not eat “junk food (chips, chocolate etc.) and will not snack in between meals until July 31st or until further notice.” The agreement includes a formidable P.S.: Do 20 mins. exercise each day. Make up an EXERCISE CHART and Stick To It!
And finally, set off with asterisks and all caps: *STOP BITING NAILS*
(Confession: I still make this kind of self-improvement vow, although for the most part, I have stopped biting my nails.)
My five-year-diary ushered in a lifetime of journals and journaling. I remember occasionally thinking that if anyone ever read my diaries (God forbid), they’d never suspect anything meaningful was happening in the world. I suppose you could glean some knowledge of pop culture through references like “I love Duran Duran” or “saw Dire Straits in concert.” But I guess that’s the beauty of a diary: it’s yours to fill however you want.
The last time I kept a daily journal was during each of my pregnancies. I’m so glad I did. Both diaries served as the basis for detailed letters I later wrote to my boys about their gestation and birth. Both have given me irrefutable evidence I can use against those boys, should I ever need it, about the hell they put me through while in utero. Just saying.
A final thought. I’m sure all this “diarying” — if that’s not a word, it should be — has something to do with my becoming a writer. (Also: I suck at math.) Every night for many, many years, I’d climb into bed, pull out a pen and my private book and mentally retrace my day before drifting off to sleep. Surely, my nightly writing habit helped me develop a practice, maybe even a craft, for sifting through and sorting out thoughts, experiences or events.
These days, if I’m up at 3:00 a.m. because a seed of an idea has planted itself in my brain, I know sleep will be impossible until I’ve written it down. Actually, “written it out” — of my head, that is — is more accurate.
I guess after nearly four decades of writing myself to sleep, sometimes, still, that’s exactly what it takes.
Willow Older is a nationally and internationally published writer and a professional editor. She lives in Northern California where she runs her own editorial services business and publishes a weekly newsletter called Newsy!.
Top image courtesy of Unsplash.