It’s true. When I was a kid I idolized my oldest sister, Mary, who’s ten years older than I am. She was (and still is) smart, well-loved, funny, and clever with words. From my perspective she was everything any girl would want to be. We were always really close and when she went to college I missed her deeply. One day, when I was digging around in the attic, I found her middle school diary. It was thrilling for me because if I could get it open, not only would I be able to connect with my sister again, but I would have access to the person she was when she was closer to my age. Sadly, it was locked and I could only read the few words at the corners of the pages when I pulled at the sturdy covers. I put it back in the box where I found it and felt tortured by the fact that she was so close and yet so far away.
Days passed, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had so many important life questions for the young Mary in that book. I wanted to know what it’s like being the second-oldest of six kids. Did she like any boys? What if a boy liked her and she didn’t like him back? What did Mom do when Mary lost something important like her retainer? In middle-school it’s so hard to find truthful answers and I was certain Mary had them all.
I went back to the attic and took the diary out of the box and I couldn’t believe it when it came open right in my hands! Okay, yes, there was a paper clip involved. Now, I wouldn’t recommend to anyone that they read another person’s diary. It is wrong and I knew that at the time as well. I don’t know how I justified it to myself but I was very lucky because when Mary came home for Christmas I told her I read it and she wasn’t mad at all.
Above is an actual photo of the diary; it’s the one one the left. Later, she let me read the other one too. And in case you’re wondering, yes, those little diaries were chock full of all kinds of tween questions and answers. The Wimpy Kid himself couldn’t have provided a better middle-school guide. Mary’s daily stories were well written, heart-felt, and amusing. She went through a lot of the same kinds of stuff I was going through at that time and it was good to see that she survived it all. I knew I would too.
While she was home during her college break that winter, I asked if she’d help me shop for my own diary, my first one. So we went to the dime store and found little, colorful, bound books with locks on them and the words “My Diary” on the cover. Each page had a date on it, just like Mary’s had, but I didn’t like the idea of being confined to just one page a day and I also didn’t like the idea of leaving pages blank if you missed some days. So Mary came up with a great solution. She suggested a small binder where the rings would open and close and I’d have the freedom to add more pages or rearrange pages the way I wanted. Plus, I could use a hole punch and add small pieces of artwork or special notes from my friends. It was perfect! And to keep it safe from busybodies (Ha! I should talk!) we bought a small lock box that came with two keys.
By the end of fifth grade that little book was overflowing with secrets, drawings, and important lists. I continued diary writing, or journaling as I now call it, all the way through adulthood. I now have a box of about thirty books which are each filled to the last page.
Mary’s diaries were truthful and whenever I sit down to write anything – a letter, a book, a blog post – I do my best to follow Mary’s example, and I know that has made me a better writer. Over the years I created a set of rules that I follow for keeping a truthful journal and it’s these rules that help me stay truthful in all my writing.
1. Be completely honest. Always. Being raw and frank with my thoughts has helped me learn how to write from my heart.
2. Keep your journal locked up someplace safe. How can you write honestly if you fear someone might read it?
3. Don’t share your journal entries with anyone. I know, you’re thinking “Why not share something with a special friend?” Because, once you share, it’s hard to write again without imagining that you have an audience and then you may start writing for that audience. Keep your writing to yourself. If you want someone to read what’s on your mind, write it in a separate notebook that you can use for sharing. Regard your journal as sacred.
4. Don’t get hung up on punctuation and grammar, unless, of course, using proper punctuation and grammar makes writing more fun for you. Some of us like that kind of stuff.
I still feel really bad about reading my sister’s diary when I was ten and I want you to know, I have never even so much as opened another person’s private writing since then. I promise!
Jennifer Duddy Gill is the author of The Secret of Ferrell Savage (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, February 2014) and in the acknowledgement of her book she thanks her sister, Mary, for inspiring her to write.