Friday, August 20, 2010

Diaries: A Treasure Trove of Writing Ideas

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

A diary is personal, of course. Most writers do not begin a diary with the intention of making it public. A diary is a place where we go to talk to ourselves, but just because our audience may not judge us, we are not at liberty to be dull and monotonous.

Consider the following sample from a dull and fictional diarist:

7 a.m. Woke up late. Forgot to set alarm.
8 a.m. Made it to work on time. No sweat.
9:45 a.m. Stopped checking e-mail to call vet. Dog okay.
Noon Chowed down on vending machine sandwich. Gack!
3 p.m. Starving. Ran out for sidewalk hot dog.
5 p.m. Out the door.
5:15 p.m. Ordered beer #2.
8 p.m. Realized I forgot about dog. Gotta eat from the machine to make up
for the extra night boarding dog. Poor me.
11 p.m. Headed home. Headache tomorrow.

7:30 a.m. Woke up late. No alarm. Gotta do something about that.
8:15 a.m. Boss did not miss me. Maybe I’ll go for 8:30 tomorrow.
10 a.m. No one in break room. Found a frost-covered frozen lasagna. Lunch!
Noon. Picked up dog. Dropped it at home.
1:15 p.m. On the job again—late again. Gotta watch that.
3:15 p.m. Seriously in need of electrolytes. Tanked up at the water cooler. No
coin for the machine.
5:30 p.m. Customer with serious bug up his—well, you know, would not shut up.
Had to go into OT. They owe me.
6 p.m. Home with the TV. Gotta save for Friday night—and the dog.

Who would read this diarist much longer? He offers little insight into his culture or himself. In a decade, if he were to re-read his diary, I believe he would bore himself, and if a future anthropologist found his diary, the anthropologist would conclude that people from this diarist’s era were primarily concerned with not working OT or pets and with taking advantage of cheap lunches.

Let diaries be a place where you reveal yourself and your growth. Say something. Avoid lists.

Blog readers, don’t you want to know why the dog was at the vet? Don’t you want to know what this guy does for a living? How long he’s been employed? Whether this is his first job? How old he is? Answers to all those questions could alter our opinion—perhaps.

Samuel Pepys, an English nobleman, wrote a diary in code, but upon his death, he left information so that his son-in-law could decode the diary. Thanks to Pepys’ good sense that what he had witnessed and experienced might make good reading, we know about one man’s reaction to the Great Fire of London in 1666. We know what Pepys smelled and thought upon being given an audience to report to the King. We know that Pepys’ young wife was jealous and one night, stalked her man with a red hot poker. We also know that Pepys was less than patient with her on more than one occasion, but he found her clever so he taught her some basic math and more. Indeed, we know a great deal about the Restoration, the momentous events of the era and the trivia that make up a life.

Pepys himself must have recognized the value of his documentation; otherwise he would not have passed along his diaries and the code to anyone. Pepys, like many of his age, believed he was alive during a time of change and that the changes were important. He recorded his own perceptions during that time.

Who cannot say that we live in a time of change—a time when our decisions and revisions will not shape the future? No one. So when you write a personal, private diary, imagine that someone, years hence, may read it. Imagine your own children reading it, then write for them. If you do, your diary will become more interesting and your insights extensive.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Reviewing punctuation for complex sentences.

Because I failed to set an alarm, I missed my bus.

I missed my bus because I failed to set an alarm.

The two sentences above are complex sentences consisting of a dependent clause (because I failed to set an alarm) and an independent clause (I missed the bus). The two sentences show you what the punctuation rule is: if the dependent clause precedes the independent clause, use a comma at the end of the dependent clause. On the other hand, if the dependent clause follows the independent one, use no comma to separate the clauses.

Reading Challenge:

To read three classic diaries, two nonfiction and the other fiction, try:

1. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, a Restoration official who witnessed the restoration of King Charles and the Great Fire of London, 1666
2. Eaters of the Dead by Michal Crichton, a novel created from Ibn Fadlan’s diary about his time among the Vikings
3. Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, a researched, but fictionalized account of the Plague’s effects upon a city and people

Writing Challenge

Begin a diary with an audience in mind. Write so that some future anthropologist will understand your reactions to your time and your contributions to the future.