Bucks County Writers Workshop

Bucks County Writers Workshop


The Art of Keeping a Journal and Making it Public

by Don Swaim

Many of us whose memories extend beyond 1975 were given diaries as kids, small books with leatherette covers (often with tiny locks and keys) in which the would-be author was expected, even encouraged, to register his or her inner-most thoughts.

I must have started keeping a diary a dozen different times as a kid, chucking it at the point when it became tedious or a chore. (Now, of course, I wish I had sustained all those early attempts.)

It wasn't until 1985, when I acquired my first computer, that I began a serious effort at keeping a diary -- or in the more adult idiom a "journal." The computer makes it easy because one can write as much or as little as he or she wants, simply using the keyboard and a continuing file.

My journal would be a bore for most people to read, even if they could decrypt it (it's password protected), because I rarely pour my heart out into it. Much of it consists of unadorned lists of recent events. Sometimes I go for days without updating it, if little of interest to me has happened. Other times I might write into it daily, sometimes more than once a day. Since each entry is dated, it's a marvelous way to keep track of personal events: the date on which you closed on the house, the name of that fancy San Francisco restaurant where you loved the osso buco, the time you unexpectedly bumped into Liza Minnelli on West 52 Street, the events surrounding your first meeting with a new lover.

Some diarists maintain deeply detailed journals.( H. L. Mencken did, and when they were published long after his death they revealed he had an ugly racist and anti-Semitic streak.) Diaries dating to the Civil War became prime sources for updating the history of the era. Journals by famous authors often give wonderful insights into the creative process.

The awful truth is that, like poetry, most diaries are painful to read. America's poet laureate, Billy Collins, said on National Public Radio recently that eighty-five percent of poetry written today isn't worth reading (excluding his own, presumably). When it comes to journals I suspect that figure rises to about ninety-five percent. And for the same reason. The fact is, few people care about Aunt Minnie's poetic notions regarding sunsets or much of anything else. Poetry is considered more worthy if the reader is interested in the poet. In other words, a well-structured poem by a nonentity carries far less weight than if that same poem had been written by a celebrity. You might recall a tiny book of nondescript verse by actor Jimmy Stewart that became a best-seller several years ago. If Aunt Minnie had written that book it would still be in her drawer. (Even Jimmy Stewart couldn't imagine why anyone would be interested in his jottings.)

Most diaries of the past were kept under wraps (the old lock and key). But now a new form of journal keeping has emerged, thanks to the Internet: public diaries. They're called Blogs, short for "Web logs," and many of them read suspiciously like the endless meanderings posted on online message boards or chat rooms.

Anyone who has a computer and an Internet connection can, of course, post a journal on their Website, assuming they've created a Website. But Bob Tedeschi in the New York Times writes:

"The difference is that the technology behind Weblogs makes it easier to post a few lines of text at a time, so instead of feeling obligated to compose a tome, before going through the sometimes arduous task of updating a Web site built with conventional home page software, bloggers can fire off thoughts on a whim, click a button and quickly have them appear on a site.

"The result is that Weblogs frequently look like online diaries, with brief musings about the days' events, and perhaps a link or two of interest. Some bloggers include daily notes from novels in progress; others rant about the president, or the television networks, to whoever might be listening."

Blogs represent a community of diarists, some of whom add pictures and other sorts of graphic designs to their pages. Many of these online journals are quite confessional, others, as PC Magazine columnist John Dvorak put it, are "uninteresting, uninspired," and filled with "blatant exhibitionism."

Here's a diary entry from a young woman named Rachel:

"After saké tasting, we had one of the five best meals of my entire life! Each of us enjoyed a full order of vegetable momos and a bowl of lentil soup (daal). In addition to the normal spicy topping Matthew enjoys, they had a new condiment called "apple sauce" which was some apple and horseraddish thing ladden with spices and amazingly tasty. I was so stuffed when we left. We caravaned back to our place, again talking on our walkie-talkies the whole way."

Exciting, huh? And from a 26-year-old woman named Javina:

"Today I woke up in a great mood - happy to be alive and unemployed on a beautiful day. Did some errands, went shopping (bought workout gear), got into on the new business, then went to Akbar's at 4:00 and worked on writing a business plan. Around 9:00 Dick arrived, and sat and chatted with me. Still don't get it with him. Then I went home, and Ahmed and I went out till, oh, 3:00. Then I had the brilliant idea of hooking to make some bucks. On the street. Picked up 4 men, made $120 (would've been $220 but one asshole gave me a counterfeit $100 bill), talked to a cop, didn't get harassed, came home. Easy money, definitely. Maybe five minutes each."

There are many Blog search engines on the Web. One allows a search of Blogs by title, author, topic, location, etc. It's called: Globe of Blogs. Here are some others:

Eatonweb Portal
The Diarist
Diaries & Journals on the Internet

Google, of course, is a prime searcher of Blogs. In the online magazine Microcontent News, John Hiler reports that Google gets more than a billion searches for Blogs a week. A quick look at Google (which can be accessed from the BCWW's main page) found directories of Blogs for Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Australia, Boston, Michigan, Jewish, redheads, bipolar -- you get the picture.

You don't need your own Website to initiate a Blog. Here are two sites that will do it for you:


Amazon.com is even selling a Blog instruction book: The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog by Rebecca Blood.

Keeping a journal is a noble pursuit. So spill your heart out -- in public or private. But as for me I think I'll keep things to myself for now.

Bucks County Writers Workshop