Keeping Your Journal Private Might Be Easier Than You Think

A friend left the following comment on my post, A New Kind of Journal:

I am interested in hearing where people who write their “whole truth” in journals actually PUT these journals? Do they lock them in a safety deposit box at the bank? Keep them in the glove compartment of their car? In the attic under an old mattress? Where??

Your Car
If you hide your no-holds-barred journal in your car, it probably would make sense to write in it in your car as well. Otherwise you’d have to go back and forth with it: Bring it inside the house or cafe or library (somewhere comfortable to write), write in it, then take it back out to your car. Back and forth. Too inconvenient. And all that coming and going could appear silly and surreptitious to anyone in the vicinity.

Pink tulips under our hedge

Pink tulips under our hedge

I don’t lock my glove compartment, though, so anyone with a key to my car (like my husband or my mechanic) could, if he were interested, read my most personal stuff. So, a car wouldn’t work for me.

A Safe Deposit Box
This would be better, but you’d have to go to the bank, get into the box, then sit writing in that bare little room where you’re supposed to be looking over your important documents, then put it back in the box and go home.

Fine, I guess—if you only want to write in your journal occasionally and can get to your bank during the hours it’s open. But, maybe you could pack it away in a home safe . . .

Under a Mattress in the Attic
That doesn’t seem secure, either. There’s always a chance someone’s going to prowl around it looking for an old, well, an old something they lost track of. In the process they think, “I’ll just move this old mattress out of the way . . . Hey what’s this? A diary! Well, why don’t I sprawl out on this same mattress and read it?”

I don’t remember any of the authors in Writers and Their Notebooks covering this issue . . . I guess they don’t worry that someone will peek inside their journals and steal an idea they’re working on. Now that I think of it, I don’t believe the question has ever come up in the journaling classes I lead, either.

How to Keep Your Journal Private
Actually, the solution to the problem of keeping nosey folks out of your journal might be way simpler than hiding it in a car, locking it in a bank, or secreting it in your attic.

Maroon and yellow tulips against the house

Maroon and yellow tulips against the house

Kristin (no last name given) writes in her post, Keeping a Journal Private, that she feels her journal is secure because “I surround myself with people I trust implicitly.” So do I. My husband isn’t suspicious of my writing, so he doesn’t look in my journals, which are stored in open boxes in the attic and stacked in plain view on file cabinets in my office.

So that’s one method: keeping company with trustworthy people. Sneaks and snoops give me the willies in general, so I don’t give them free run of my house.

Kristin has a whole list of ways to keep your journal private, such as using code words or a kind of shorthand you create. Years ago, when I was single, I practically invented a language just for my journal.

But here’s what might be an even easier way to secure your journals: electronic journaling, which Kristin points out “enables you to secure entries with a password and ‘hide’ files” on your computer. Et voila-—your words are safe from snoops.

If you liked this post, please tweet it and share it on Facebook. And comment on your strategies for keeping your journals private.

Coming up: My next post will be about setting down your truths in your memoirs, which are intended for the public. Now, that’s a scary prospect.

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Writers: BUY . . . THIS . . . BOOK


Click the cover image to learn more about this book

[Note: I know Diana Raab only through our online connection, and have no relationship with the book’s publisher.]

Even though my creative writing and journaling students hint that I browbeat them, I’ve never told them to buy a book. As a rabid supporter of libraries, I typically urge people to borrow books before buying them. But I want you to trust me on this one. Writers and Their Notebooks, an anthology edited by Diana Raab, is a book you’ll want all to yourself. So, I urge you to just go ahead and buy it.

You’re going to want to read and reread it; write in it; draw stars beside passages; and exclamation marks next to those that are so apt they could have emanated form your own pen, your own heart.

The collection will introduce you to writers you didn’t know before; and you’ll want to read their published work and compare those to what they say about the relationship of their notebooks to the final products. For example, writer James Brown states in his contribution, “For me the journal is. . . a stepping stone to a larger, more refined work… [W]hat you originally thought you wanted to say and what you actually end up writing aren’t always the same thing.”

The Basics
It’s taken me a long time to write this review; the collection is so rich, so perfect I had trouble figuring out who and what to highlight. So, here are the basics.

Writers and Their Notebooks consists of entries by twenty-four highly accomplished contemporary writers of long and short works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays. The book is divided into five sections: The Journal as Tool; The Journal for Survival; The Journal for Travel; The Journal as Muse; The Journal for Life.

I’m pleased that Raab didn’t confine this book to just journals, which like diaries suggest daily entries, while “notebooks” covers a broader field. In this collection, we see little of the actual journals or notes. Instead we salivate over glimpses of the secret lives and work they chronicle.

The Many Names of Notebooks
Some of the writers call their notebooks wailing walls. Others, junk drawers. Still others, mirrors. They write in fancy blank books, or in those childhood “copybooks” with the green or black covers, and a big, empty white rectangle for the owner’s name surrounded by squiggles like paint peeling off a wall. Some of the contributors write in tiny old spiral notebooks small enough to stick in a back pocket, and even on tired scraps of paper, as when mental institution personnel forbade a writer to use real books to record her self-healing sentences.

Besides my journals, I’ve got notes on my iPhone, kitchen counters, and the passenger seat of my car. Writers and Their Notebooks gave my habit, my compulsion, legitimacy; allowed me to feel I’d located my tribe, my club—writers who not only turn a literary microscope on others, but also ruthlessly forage around in their own lives and minds.

How and What They Write
I can’t imagine how Raab found these perfect contributors, willing to let us snoop on their private writing habits. There’s Sue Grafton, the über successful mystery writer, who shares her time-consuming system for writing every single one of her twenty-some books. Ilan Stavans’ notebook struck me as a joyous melee: “An idea shows up and becomes a line. I then cross it out and put another one on top, add several below or on the side. I let myself enjoy non sequiturs.” Bonnie Morris’s essay, “Writing in Public Places,” notes “a willingness to create in chaos.” But keeping a journal publicly held its perils. At fourteen, “as a middle-class white girl, living in an affluent country,” she writes, “I listened numbly as a circle of other white girls told me I had a choice—give up my journal…or have neither friends nor protection in our hostile junior high school.”

Not surprisingly, truth and authenticity, either one of which represents the writer’s Holy Grail, make frequent appearances in Writers and Their Notebooks. It’s one of the reasons writers keep journals; it’s a place to tell the brash, unflattering truth, be our real selves, rather than the one we show to the world that we are in, but often, not of.

At the end of the book are appendices, containing ideas for keeping a journal and imaginative ideas about what to write in it; suggested further reading; and bios of the contributors to the volume.

Books about writers’ journals and notebooks can be surprisingly hard to find. But, from now on, I need look no farther than Writers and Their Notebooks. This book’s got it all.

A Single Complaint
The book is profoundly enlightening, entertaining, and downright satisfying; I wish it were double its size.

Do you keep a journal or notebooks? Weigh in about your practices.

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WARNING: Lying to Your Journal Could Be Fatal

Two decades after Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley were published, she wrote the novel, Edith’s Diary.

I can’t imagine how she got the manuscript published, except on the strength of her name. It seems she did have a tough time selling it to her publisher. The (London) Telegraph called it a masterpiece; perhaps it’s one of those “great books” readers derive little enjoyment from. But, always on the lookout for books related to journal keeping, I persisted.

Edith, her husband Brett, and their young son move from New York to suburban Pennsylvania, where Edith’s main occupations are keeping house and gardening. She writes irregularly in a diary, but refuses to record anything unpleasant in it. (A diary should clarify, not obscure.)

When he is forty, Brett leaves Edith for his wealthy, young secretary, whom he subsequently marries. His elderly, bedridden Uncle George, he leaves with Edith. It is she who serves him his meals on a tray and sees to his bedpan.

Cliffie, the son, has baffled both his parents since he was a toddler. He grows up into an alcoholic layabout, who hangs out in his bedroom listening to loud music unless he’s strolling to the refrigerator for a beer. Outside the house, he has run-ins with the law.

Her husband gone, Edith takes up sculpting, and revives the newspaper she and her husband had run when they first arrived in Pennsylvania.

Her political opinions become increasingly wild and contradictory; local residents stop speaking to her. As her lackluster life becomes more and more disappointing, Edith goes from avoiding the unpleasant to tweaking the truth in her diary.

Although he knows nothing of her diary, Brett brings a string of psychiatrists to the house where Edith and Cliffie live to try to convince her to go into counseling. (A family friend has told him Edith has become eccentric.) He suspects she knows that Cliffie killed Uncle George with an overdose of medications. He also considers Edith unbalanced because she declined an inheritance from Uncle George that Brett tried to share with her.

But Edith refuses therapy. Instead she fills her diary with more fanciful entries. She writes that Cliffie is respectably employed, and has a lovely wife and two children; and that Brett is dead.

Ultimately, the diary fantasies spill over into real life and Edith imagines her perfect family in her dining room with her and the real Cliffie, enjoying a lobster and champagne lunch. But the scene is interrupted by another visit from her ex-husband and a couple of doctors. When Edith agrees to let them see her sculpture, kept in the room with her diary, the result is deadly.

Though Edith’s Diary was an unrewarding read, maybe its warning is worthwhile: The punishment for prevaricating in your diary could be death.

In another post, I’ll tell you if I lie to my journal. Let me know if you lie to yours.

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Journaling With Sue

I had the pleasure of meeting Susan Rowland through an online friend and editing client of mine, Andrea Lewis, author of the memoir, Dramaville.

I was honored when Sue invited me to appear on her web site. And, as a journal writing instructor myself, I was interested in Sue’s own journaling practice and work with others.

So, now it’s my pleasure to share Sue’s perspective on her work.
– Lynette

Susan Rowland

Susan Rowland

When did you begin journaling?
Journaling became a serious hobby for me in high school. Life was turbulent in the late 60s. The Viet Nam war, civil rights, the women’s movement, and East meets West consciousness influenced American culture in a Renaissance way.

We had Motown, jazz, rhythm and blues, and the beat poets. I fell in love with the arts and culture. Journal writing was my way of coping with coming of age and making sense of the world.

Did the practice afford you any useful insights into your own circumstances?
Yes. Journaling is a way to deal with events. My mother had a stroke when I was ten, so our small family had to adjust quickly. Mom survived but had challenges. I was a sensitive intuitive, but at that time I didn’t know what to do with the knowledge I was receiving.

Journaling is practical. Daily writing in a log shows us our issues (and talents) without judging them. After writing about something–like a problem, for example–long enough, we recognize a theme, then we decide to deal with it, and hopefully, solve it.

Journaling is a survival tool. The Diary of Anne Frank, and A Stolen Life; A Memoir, by Jaycee Dugard, are examples of how writing helped women to survive captivity. The three young women held hostage in Cleveland are now releasing the information that they kept journals.

Is there a relationship between your journaling and your art?
Definitely. I’m always connecting images with words. When words fail we can rely on our sense impressions–sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. A good writer involves the reader with the world of sensation.

What reasons would you have for encouraging others to journal?
It’s therapeutic. You create a confidante. There’s no worry about grammar or talent.

Journaling helps people connect their emotions to events and to organize their thoughts. I also teach students to use the diary to record other people’s stories and keep track of historical events. It works as a reference tool.

Experts are now showing that journaling helps improve the immune system and blood pressure, and can be used in conjunction with traditional therapy for treating depression and anxiety.

What is your work with those who write journals?
I’ve been facilitating journaling and art groups with seniors, teenagers, and children in formal settings such as community centers, schools, and orphanages in California and Arizona. I’m affiliated with Kathleen Adam’s Center for Journal Therapy.

I’m an advocate for those who want help in finding a voice. When you write or draw, sing or play an instrument, you can only do what you are doing in the “now” moment. Any expressive activity is a healing modality. There’s always room for another story, song, or drawing.

Susan E. Rowland is an intuitive artist, writer, and poet with a psychology degree. Among her passions is journaling. She’s a certified instructor of Journal to the Self® and Angel Therapy Practitioner® She does oracle readings and can be reached at See her work at Journal with Sue.

Sue lives near Cave Creek, Arizona, with her artist husband, Jesse. She’s currently blogging, working on a memoir, and enjoying being a grandmother. She loves to communicate and will respond to emails and inquiries. See her blog for upcoming events and workshops.

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A New Kind of Journal

HATE CLOUDSMy friend called to tell me her poised, polished, polite husband was filled with hatred.

I couldn’t imagine it. “What does he hate?” I asked.

“Our van. He says it makes him seem like a suburban father of six.”

Apparently all that was missing was the golden retriever bounding up its rear lift gate.

“He says that after he works out, he hides in the gym till no one’s looking, then races to the car, ducks in, and drives away.”

We’ve all got these little hatreds. One of mine is the use of the seasons as verbs.

“This is the lake we used to summer beside,” or “We always wintered in Vale.” (What about the other seasons? Does anyone “Spring” or “Fall” anywhere?) It sounds pretentious to me, but it’s probably just petty jealousy. I’ve gone on short vacations in winter and in summer, but never managed to “winter” or “summer” anywhere since the summers I spent with my grandparents in Florida, when I was a kid.

I hate when politicians talk about all that families deserve. What about the singles piled up in tiny apartments with a couple of roommates and barely a cubby to call their own? Or older people, whose families have forgotten them? Don’t they need or deserve anything?

More of my hatreds? The voices in nature preserves echoing off rock formations and scaring away the birds and other wildlife as they holler into cell phones. Don’t we flee to such places to avoid those voices?

In the journaling class I lead, we’ve given energetic consideration to the question of whether personal journal entries should adhere to the upbeat (chirp-chirp) model, or be treated as safe places to vent. I come down on the side of releasing frustrations on the page. Where else can we safely spew out our petty irritations and long-standing resentments?

And then . . .

A different friend told me that when her daughter returned from an overseas trip to an orderly country, the noise and seeming chaos of her home country, the US of A, grated. I couldn’t stop laughing when I heard her antidote to the stress her reentry had ignited.

The Hate Journal
She went out and bought blank notebooks that became her hate journals. (If hate’s too strong a term for you, try “complaint” journal, or it could be your “Where I Whine” journal.)

A hate journal bears no resemblance to a hate crime. In the former, no one gets hurt. In fact, the venting might even prevent law-abiding individuals from committing a crime.

Fine, Fine, Fine
In the 18th century, idle members of the upper classes cultivated melancholy. It gave them something to sigh about on their perambulations around their country estates. But nowadays, we are expected to be unrelentingly “fine.” Unlike the 18th century melancholics, our age has no tolerance for a good, old-fashioned funk, or for anyone who admits to feeling just plain “low.”

Among my friends and myself, any complaint we utter is quickly followed by assuring our listeners that, at least it’s not as bad as losing a leg, or being paralyzed as a result of an auto accident—equivalents of the “knock on wood” reaction. I think we fear that complaining about the minor crap we experience will bring on the big stuff from the universe.

“Oh, you think that’s bad? Try this!”

And lo, everyone will blame us for the plague of locusts that descends.

But, we can fuss away privately in our hate journals, and no one will be the wiser.

More of my petty hatreds can be found in Life’s Little “Infuriations” and More of Life’s Little Infuriations.

Feel free to share yours in a comment.

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