In the class I teach on Writing Your Memoirs, I encourage students to begin writing daily in journals, using a few private moments each day to record and expand upon memories. Most of them had never done this kind of writing before and asked me to give them some examples from my own journal writing.
Today, I took an old journal to class and opened it to the pages that told about the day my sister and I cleaned out our mother’s basement after her death. It was a day of nostalgia, for we found many things that brought back sensations and emotions from the past.
“Look at this!” I exclaimed, pulling my father’s old arms helmet from a shelf.
“See what I found!” my sister called out, lifting the lid from a box of ancient valentines.
Then we both looked high on one wall and were silent, for hanging from nails pounded into old wood were the large wicker baskets that had held cemetery flowers many years ago. Later that night I had written in my journal:
The cemetery baskets were painted in soft pastels, mostly light blues and greens. There was a solitary pink one. Filled with sweet peas that Mama grew on a frame in the middle of the back yard, it was a sight to remember when we stood it by a gravestone angel.
That’s what the grownups said. Personally, I was more interested in catching a cemetery frog. Tiny creatures, no longer than a child’s thumb, they hopped among the cemetery daisies — little pink, yellow, and white flowers that grew thickly in the grass.
I was impressed by the hopping abilities of the ones I saw on our weekly visits. They were greenish brown and could hide easily in the grass. If I sat quietly under the big cypress tree and waited, I would see them leaping in all directions, shiny and wet.
I read these words aloud in class, but my mind was busy on another level. What kind of child, I wondered, would prefer frogs to flowers? What did this reveal about me at that age? More important — what would I learn about a character who wrote his or her likes and dislikes in a private journal?
I thought about a book I’m working on in which the protagonist writes short passages in a diary. Have I paid enough attention to what she is saying — or not saying? Have I asked, “What kind of child would prefer one thing to another?
I came to the conclusion that allowing a character to journal might just be the means to getting under that person’s skin. I’m not talking about controlled writing that makes it to the pages of the book. I’m talking about freedom of expression — the character’s freedom of expression — words that flow without author intrusion from the pen to the paper.
I’m going to give it a try. Who knows? I might have to invest in journals for all my characters to write in!
Submitted by Marilyn Donahue