Recently I was quoted in a U.S. News and World Report article about affordable Mother’s Day gifts. My suggestion was, of course, writing-related: Buy her a journal.
A written account of your days on Earth isn’t just a chronicle of the way you work, eat, love, parent, spend, vote and play, however. It can also be:
A safety valve. Write down what happened at work/on that first date/as you walked past a construction site, or risk having your head ’splode.
A historical document. Some day your descendants will be startled that you once earned only $50,000 per year or that you had to hold your phone in your hand in order to communicate. Preserving these memories will add to your family history.
An intimate friend. You can tell your journal anything, although it might be wise to have a stout lock on the thing.
Sometimes the most interesting people in the world don’t feel they have much to say. So if you’re trying to get your mom or grandmother to start writing things down, the following information will prime the pump.
The same tips will apply to you if you’re starting your own journal.
If you’re writing family history
It’s always fun to write about intriguing and colorful characters. Great-grandma Ruby was a cowgirl with her own ranch in Wyoming. Uncle B was a transvestite who opened a dress shop for big and tall men. Cousin Janet was married eight times before giving up on love and becoming a hermit.
Remember, however, that your family’s story is also about challenges and perseverance. If your grandmother was the first in her family to go to college, ask her to write about that. How did she manage to buck tradition? Did she pay for it herself? What kind of job market was waiting when she graduated?
Suppose your dad lost his job during the 1970s recession and your family had to move in with his mother. How did your mother handle that? Was there friction, or was Grandma delighted to have all of you there?
Don’t forget to include what things cost. My dad made me laugh out loud when he told me that our family’s mortgage in the 1950s was $42.95 per month. Then again, he was earning only $1.44 per hour (which at the time was considered decent pay). Some day your own children or grandchildren will chortle at the idea of a $1,200 mortgage payment.
And, of course, there’s that thrilling topic of you. Were you the first, middle or last child? What was it like to have a baby back then, e.g., what kinds of advice did people give your mom? What sort of equipment (if any) did your mom buy or inherit? Did your dad ever change a diaper or was that strictly women’s work?
If yours was a multi-child family, how did your mother cope? What was it like raising a toddler, an elementary-ager, a teen? What sorts of dreams did she have for you?
If your chronicle starts today
Suppose you want to begin a journal of your own. Don’t make it a dry-as-dust document about work-lunch-home-dinner-bed, or write only on the days when something startling happens. Go beyond dutiful recitations of how you filled your 16 conscious hours, and well beyond the cute things your kids said or your pets did.
Compare what you thought adulthood would be like vs. how it’s turning out for you. Be frank about the search for love, for jobs, for meaning in life.
Worried that you’re not saving enough for retirement? Say so, in writing. Putting it on paper might help you parse out some solutions.
Write about the last-minute work project that had you pulling 60-hour weeks. When you look back on this entry six months later you might not remember all that angst. Heck, you might not even remember the project, which in turn could help you start keeping things in perspective.
Write about what’s happening in the world at large and how you feel/fear it might affect your family. Fret over the increasingly explicit material available to any kid with Internet access and no parent over shoulder, or about the social pressures for children to grow old too soon and acquire too much too fast.
Remember that you can be honest about anything – working, your social life, choosing not to have kids, struggling to help your parents as they age – because your journal will never tell.
Lock the book in a box when not in use. Let your heirs be fascinated and/or scandalized. Right now, you have the absolute right to keep those thoughts private.
Unlock the block
As all writers know, even the most interesting topic can induce performance anxiety. Where to start? How to put it all into words? What to leave in and what to leave out? If this happens, use some of the following questions to get your mom (or yourself) going:
- Describe a typical weekday in your life. (Once you’ve done this, you may suddenly understand why you’re so tired at the end of a typical weekday.)
- What was the leanest financial period in your life? How did you get through it? What were some of the ways you stretched such money as you had?
- Why did you decide to get married/stay single?
- Did you choose your career path or did it just happen?
- How did you meet the people you dated?
- You stopped at one child. Was that planned? Or: You had six kids. Was that on purpose or was there no access to family planning?
- What did you do for fun when you were little?
- What do you do for fun now? How much of that is your fun vs. fun for others, and do you see that changing as your kids grow up or your ideas of fun change? (Parkour is fine for a sprightly young thing, but 50-year-old you might not have the same relationship with vertical surfaces.)
- Compare where you are now in your life to where you thought you’d be by now. Any differences? Good ones or bad ones?
- Do you see yourself making major life changes in the future, or are you pretty content with what you have?
Note: Such questions will also work if you’re using the journal as a creative nonfiction outlet vs. a straight-up family history. You may wind up with some great essay material, or maybe entire essays. Since the journal is a private place unless you choose to share, don’t feel you need to sanitize your feelings or pussyfoot around issues. Write down everything the way it feels right now.
Later on you will probably be less enraged/despairing/frustrated by what your boss/partner/child said or did. But capture those issues while they’re still raw. Use language that truly conveys how you feel and why you feel that way. When you want to return to the topic, reading your journal will remind you how important that issue was at the time (even if you can barely remember it now).
Always choose words with power vs. namby-pamby ones like “good” or “bad.” Don’t just write that you are “happy” to look into your fiance’s eyes or “excited” to see the pregnant line appear on the pee stick. Tell us how such feelings affect your life and change your dreams.
Remember, though, that your heirs may be reading your scandalous posthumous memoirs. If your word choice is really powerful and your life experiences more dramatic than average, you might want to appoint someone to burn the book upon your death.
Electronic vs. paper diaries
Not everyone wants to write longhand for an hour straight. Fortunately that’s not necessary, since journals can be created as Word documents. Just make sure to back up the entries now and then onto a flash drive or store them in the cloud. Bonus: No illegible-handwriting issues for future generations to decipher.
And what is a blog if not a big ol’ journal? If you or your mom have any interest in starting a website – which can be done as a private or invitation-only blog – then you need to talk to my tech buddy Grayson Blair at iMark Interactive. Grayson offers free installation for WordPress blogs.
Yes, I said “free.” You do have to sign up for one of four specific site hosts, but again: free installation!
I can attest personally (and fervently!) that Grayson is helpful and patient. He’s walked me through the process of setting up a site, building the Write A Blog People Will Read online course and starting a newsletter. If I were still of an age to have children I might name one after him.
Finally: In honor of Mother’s Day I am offering a blogging course discount. Through the end of May, use this link to get Mom (or yourself) going at 30 percent off:
I’m also offering a Mother’s Day discount for the writing-coach side of my business. Through the end of May you can purchase a modified coaching package for just $125. Here’s how it will work:
- You send me an article you’re working on that you just can’t get right. (Alternate version: You send me an e-mail with a few basic questions you want to discuss.)
- I read the article and critique it, and send you my thoughts. (Alternate version: I send my answers to the questions.)
- Finally, we have a 30-minute phone chat about the article/the questions.
This special isn’t limited to mothers. Feel free to purchase it for yourself or someone else who needs a fresh set of eyes on his or her work. Inquire at Coaching@WriteABlogPeopleWillRead.com.
Readers: Do you keep a journal on paper or in the cloud? Why or why not?