Autobiography, Beyond Writing

Dear Diary

Dear Diary:

I’m not sure whether people use you anymore but I think you still have value. I remember getting one of you when I was little. As a boy I thought, “Diaries are for girls!” and probably put you in a drawer. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized you were a Journal. Had I known that, I wouldn’t have felt so foolish writing in you.

My mother in England, writing in her diary (October 1999)

My mother in England, writing in her diary (October 1999)

Fortunately as I grew older, I realized that writing things down was important. While I didn’t write in you consistently, I did use your talents to document some of my adventures. As a matter of fact, it was because of you that I wrote two books – travelogues – talking about my and my mother’s adventures in Europe. More importantly, I urged my mother to track her ideas, too. As a result, I have a first hand accounting of what she experienced during these trips. I also have her original handwriting, a very cherished thing considering she’s no longer with us.

Diary entry of Judith (Hinton) Cole from trip to England. Dated 04 Oct 1999.

Diary entry of Judith (Hinton) Cole from trip to England. Dated 04 Oct 1999.

The idea that diaries or journals can be used for genealogical purposes is not new. Any Barnes and Nobles bookstore has tons of biographies and autobiographies based on diaries or journals. We like to read them because we want to know more about the person. The same applies to our family. Wouldn’t it be nice to read about how Grandpa felt as he was standing in a soup line during the Great Depression? Sure it would. However, odds are he never kept a diary or journal so we’ll never know.

Dearest Diary, my point is this: someday someone will ask the same questions we are asking now about our ancestors. What was it like for great grandfather John Cole to sail the Bering Sea on a Coast Guard cutter? Why did he join the Coast Guard in the first place? What did he do to support Hurricane Katrina?

Diaries and journals help us help our future understand what it was like now without relying on generalized history books and the news.

These types of periodicals – for that’s what they are – vary in style, scope, and content. There are no hard and fast rules. Better yet, Dear Diary, you don’t talk back. This means I can put as much or as little content in you as I want – or feel is necessary. I should never feel guilty about not writing in you. I will when the time is right. I’m also glad you don’t autocorrect. Sure, sometimes my sentences are terrible, but that’s okay. It’s the impressions I want to capture, not the spelling or grammar.

The journaling I do is usually event driven. Like I mentioned, I kept a journal for two separate trips to Europe. I also wrote a journal for a visit to Arizona and then to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. I even have some from the early 1990s. All were short-term yet all are highly valuable because I can now go back to recover memories I’ve lost.

My wife Christine, me, and my mother Judith (Hinton) Cole, 2006.

My wife Christine, me, and my mother Judith (Hinton) Cole, 2006.

Journal entry by the blogger from a trip to Arizona. Dated 17 May 2006.

Journal entry by the blogger from a trip to Arizona. Dated 17 May 2006.

Most likely the biggest challenge with diaries or journals is putting that content “out there” for others to read. We may feel vulnerable or we may feel our content would do more harm than good. Family members may feel the same way if you approach them for their written histories. My rule is this: only say what you feel comfortable saying. There is no obligation for anyone to share unless they want to. Never force the issue.

If you do not keep a diary or journal, try it. Pick an upcoming event or trip and bring along a pen and notebook. Each night, recap what you did and how you felt. What sights did you see? Where did you eat? Why did you take the trip? When you return, transcribe it to your computer and flesh it out. In the end you’ll have a story – a time capsule, of sorts – that you can keep to yourself or share with others.

Thanks for listening, Diary. Until we meet again…

John

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