Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
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Holly Lisle's Vision

Find Your Inner Secret Diary

By Caroline Allard

2001, Caroline Allard 

Ah, secret diaries. Got one gathering dust on your highest bookshelf or at the bottom of an old drawer? I do. When I started living with my husband, I pulled it out of its retreat and we looked at some pages together. I was eager to share it; I expected to find some bright ideas in it, some witty observations, a distinct view of the world. I remembered writing stuff like that! Well, so much for those ideas. On each of its fifty pages, I just encountered a shy twelve-year-old who couldn’t write about anything but boys, and boys who didn’t even know she existed. A ridiculous testimony. We read it for a shameful half hour, and after that it was back to the drawer, you stupid girl, and don’t even think you’ll see the daylight again!

But then, I started to write. A couple of months ago, I had this idea for a story. It’s about a twelve-year-old girl whose friends reject her from the band for no obvious reason, and how she deals with it. It’s not coming straight from my imagination. This little girl is me, and what I would now identify as a distant and unimportant event remains one of the most itching memories of my youth. It’s not that I’m seeking revenge – well, not quite –- but why wouldn’t I write a novel about it? Every “Know-How” book about writing for kids will tell you just that: write from your own experience.  As far as this experience went, I knew it stung, but I wished I could just remember more details, the reasons, the reactions I had, what we said to each others... But wait a minute: I wrote all about it in my diary! The conversations I had with these girls, the new activities I had to find and the new friends I made: I had written everything!

When I read my diary again yesterday, I didn’t find it ridiculous anymore. True, there is some laughable material in there. But, reading as a writer, I found out that I could go beyond the words: I could hear what was going on, I could feel the sadness and the humor and courage of this little girl that I was. With the diary as a prompt, and reading as a writer, I could let myself go and be twelve again.

Reading with writer’s eyes; looking at my memories as a writer. What it meant for me yesterday was reading with an open mind. Not reading and be shameful about what I wasn’t, not reading to find only words on the paper, but be prepared and wishing to go beyond, to grasp and investigate the feelings as the came. I was prepared to do that last night, and I closed my diary with the certainty that I had found there many useful hints to tell a compelling story to young boys and girls. More than that, I continued to read after that and I found at least three new ideas for stories to come.

My point here is not to tell you that an old secret diary is essential if you want to write for children. You’re not doomed if you didn’t keep a personal diary. I am glad now that I did, and I’m seriously thinking about beginning a new one – who knows what I will find in it in thirty years! But in fact, my reflections here are not about a real diary. I had to go beyond the words to find out what I was looking for; the words themselves were a prompt, a tool, not the goal in itself. If I had sat back, closed my eyes and thought about this day when my friends were not my friends anymore, and if I had made this journey with an open mind and wishing to investigate the thoughts that came to me, I’m pretty sure it would have been worthwhile. Every child experiences fear, rage, hope, love, disgust, and so on. The real way to go from saying that you remember what it is to writing about it in a compelling way is not an old diary but an open-minded search of yourself. I tended to avoid thinking about my friends' rejection, not only because it doesn’t matter anymore but also because the twelve-year-old I was felt very ashamed for not being able to keep those friends; shame is not a feeling that I gladly bring back to life. But now, thinking of it as a writer, I’m grateful to bear this memory of shame and loneliness: I’ll go find it where it’s hiding and hopefully I’ll write something good about it.

If you have an old secret diary, especially from the unforgiving teen period, don’t let your patronizing adult tribunal judge it. Make allowances, and go read it with your writer’s eyes: even if, like me, you were a witless diary writer, your diary will still have a tale to murmur. And as I said, my diary was a great tool, but I could have found what I was searching for without it. Thus, this process isn't really about a written diary, it’s about an inner diary. It’s not about the artifact, it’s about how far you’re willing to see beyond it.