Years ago I started a daily diary. And started it. And then restarted it. My musings on the pages never seemed to endure much longer than about three days. I think the most enticing element of the book itself was the tarnished little key that locked the pages away from the prying eyes of my big brother, whom I was convinced wanted to snoop into my private triumphs, humiliations, and day by day blather. Each day I recorded the same routine and lamented that not much interesting happened in my life. How interesting can the life of a ten-year old living in Mahtomedi, Minnesota in the mid nineteen-fifties be? It was a dull read.
Decades later, my first creative writing class delved into the art of journaling. I did not associate the connection between that and my early years keeping a diary until I started re-reading my daily journal entries. I saw a sameness to most of the calendar, the weekly routines, the passage of months, the changing of seasons. Each holiday entry was remarkably similar. We were pet-sitting and/or house-sitting for out-of-town friends, neighbors, or family. We were swimming and eating grilled dinners in the stifling heat of a Phoenix summer and resurrecting oven fare after the triple-digit temperatures retreated sometime around October. I would review my entries and grow weary of the sameness. Not a lot different from reading the weather forecast for the upcoming week – unremarkable in its inching up or down, sunny or mostly sunny, without a hint of rain.
It made me think of one childhood family reunion I attended with my parents. My father had a new camera loaded with gizmos that controlled mysterious things like depth of field, sharpness of focus, or amount of light was allowed to enter the lenses. Dad had an instruction book and spent the day before the get-together reading and practicing for his photography debut. The Kodachrome slides that resulted were vivid yet almost comically boring. He had taken great pictures of sky, clouds, treetops, and birds soaring over the smiling faces of relatives whose heads perched like bowling balls along the bottommost edge. He had forgotten to look through the eyepiece – probably the most important step in the photography process. He’d missed the point.
This brought to mind a comment by an acquaintance who inherited her grandmother’s journals. She had eight bound books with recorded events from this Pennsylvania farm wife who aspired to leave a written legacy for her ancestors. Her granddaughter had read all eight and commented “I have never read so many boring recountings of baking six loaves of bread or lamenting the chickens not laying eggs or hoping the snow ends soon.”
So I could appreciate her disappointment when I read my own thoughts. But occasionally a sudden glimmer of an interesting fact or occurrence or point-of-view would emerge. The hint of a unique personality or activity would catch my attention because it was more than the daily rote recording of facts that had lost their zest for life. These flashes of fleeting brilliance seemed to hold the key to what really transpired that day. The hinting at someone’s frustration or alienation or triumph that was implied without stating it outright, much like reading in a novel about the raised brow, the frown, the exhausted sigh that moves the story more than if the facts were simply stated. A true “showing – not telling” achievement. Hopefully, this faint inclination reverberates in the reader’s life long after the book has been put down – a true ahah moment that says “So that’s what she meant.” Or “I know just how he feels.” All it takes to awaken the reader’s personal thoughts is the reminder that they have walked in those shoes. The plot thickens.