From diary to writer’s notebook


I cringe when I hear someone talk about journaling, or when I learn someone has died and left behind a diary full of intimate details.

I remember my first diary so clearly. It had a textured, green leather cover and pages edged with gold. I was 8 or 9 and thought it was super cool because it locked. I catalogued all the mundane details of my days, and the only time I wrote something private, I was so worried my sister would pick the lock and read it that I scribbled feverishly over it with a black pen.

In my teens I called my diaries “journals” because that sounded more sophisticated. I used those five-subject, college-ruled school notebooks. I doodled the MTV logo all over and wrote things like, “I am sitting here in history and all I want to do is listen to John Lennon.” (I got a D in that class.) Again, I never wrote anything too personal; what if my mom snooped around my room and read it?

I kept diaries faithfully until sometime in my 20s, and I lugged all of them with me every time I moved over the years, which was often. I sincerely thought the insights they held were just too fabulous to throw away. Thank goodness I actually reread them and saw them for what they were.

The thing is, I never actually wrote anything real about myself, probably in part because I had no idea who I was or wanted to be. I just wrote what I wanted someone else to read, and I wanted to sound cool.

I threw them all away in 2003. What a relief it was to be free of all that drivel!

I have tried to write about my feelings since then, but it always seems so self-indulgent and sounds so goofy that I usually end up with a shopping or to-do list. I just can’t do it, though I know it can be a healthy outlet.

Well, on Saturday I got a great idea from children’s author and poet Rebecca Kai Dotlich, who has written some 35 books. It’s such a no-brainer, but I’ve never thought to do this: Rebecca keeps a journal of ideas related to her writing, whether it’s specific words she thinks sound good together, possible picture book layouts, drawings, maps, and more.

She showed the audience at her talk at a Young Authors conference some of her pages, and I noticed she had even jotted down the correct spelling for lilies (“one l”). I loved that.

Her system seems like such a fun and efficient way of keeping track of what’s rolling around in her brain. It’s much better than the scribble-on pieces of junk mail and post-it notes I have stashed in my bag and around the house.

I decided to copy her. My writer’s notebook has already come in handy; I wrote a list of words I like that never make it into my writing, and “drivel” was one.

By the way, check out Dotlich’s new release, The Knowing Book. It would make a perfect graduation present.





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