Lock Up Your Private Writing

When I was 11, an aunt gave me one of those children’s diaries with a thin brass key and a button lock that snapped reassuringly shut. Confident my two older sisters couldn’t break into my diary, I poured my pre-pubescent thoughts and feelings into its wide-ruled pages. Then one day I opened the book and found an entry scrawled in my eldest sister’s handwriting: “Today I tried on Jenny’s bra. It was 32 sizes too big.” Outrage is too small a word to describe how I felt.

If someone has read your diary, or even rifled through your desk drawer looking for it, you can relate to my feelings of anger and betrayal. In an ideal world, we would all respect each other’s privacy and wouldn’t dare to read another’s diary, even if it were lying open on a table. However, human nature is curious, and so our private writings are vulnerable. This doesn’t mean we should abandon them, though. It just means we must become more determined &#151 and creative &#151 in our resolve to protect our diaries from prying eyes.

I asked journal-keepers to share the reasons and ways they hide their journals (and added a few thoughts of my own) to compile some ideas that might help you enforce your right to privacy. Perhaps one option will offer you the security you seek.

Why Journalers Need Protection
Many journalers begin writing to heal personal problems, to record feelings too painful or complicated to share with others. They may think their words are embarrassing or silly. “I value a journal as a place where one can pour one’s heart into, confiding our most intimate thoughts. I imagine it is scary for some to reveal their most intimate thoughts to others, fearing hurting another or retribution,” says Florida journaling teacher Debra Marr.

If a diarist can’t write the truth for fear others will read it, the journal won’t do its job.

My sister just needed new material for torturing me. Many of the writers I surveyed had siblings with similar objectives and, as children, were resourceful about hiding their diaries. Today they want to keep their diaries from their own curious children, or spouses or roommates who wouldn’t ordinarily look for the diary but might be tempted to read it if they happened upon it. You might have a more serious situation, in which an insecure spouse wants to monitor your whereabouts or distrustful parents are convinced you’re into drugs. They might look for your diary hoping to find evidence or gain ammunition to use in an argument. Ironically, these diarists are probably most in need of the personal expression their diaries allow. I do hope that, if you live with someone who won’t allow you a private thought, you’ll reconsider your relationship with that person and find yourself a better living situation if at all possible.

How to Get the Protection You Need
Two considerations are important in protecting your diary: First, your solution must be convenient to you. It must not make your diary inaccessible, preventing you from writing in it whenever you need to. Second, your solution must defend your diary from the person most likely to find it. Is this person a snoop? Or an opportunist who’d read it only if he accidentally encountered it? The answers will affect your method of protection.

Hide It
Most of the people I spoke to guard their privacy by hiding their diaries where family members wouldn’t venture. One woman said she kept hers in the cubby hole of a sewing machine desk in her bedroom. “My mother didn’t like to sew, so she never used it,” she said.

Take the same approach when brainstorming hiding places. For each one, think “Would my spouse/child/sibling/roommate come across this spot?”

Sliding a diary between your mattress and boxspring is conducive to cozy bedtime writing, but it’s also a common enough place that someone might look there, or innocently discover it while making the bed. One writer said she slit the underside of her boxspring and slid her diary on top of the wood slats. Try under the garbage can or clothes hamper in your room, or under a pulled-up section of carpet. Or tucked in your needlework supplies? In an old handbag in the closet or a pair of seldom-worn pants in your dresser drawer? If there’s no good place in the house to hide your diary, what about in your car? Or, if you like to write outside, a toolshed? If you’re a woman hiding a diary from a man, how about inside a tampon box?

Change your hiding place often for maximum security.

If you need a hiding place so secure it’s inconvenient &#151 such as in a locked box on the top closet shelf &#151 use the binder method. Write on looseleaf paper, and every few days, add it to the diary-binder stored in the secure spot.

To foil snoops, keep a decoy diary. Write harmless thoughts such as what you had for dinner, and keep the book in a relatively obvious spot. Meanwhile, your real diary is safely hidden.

Rather than hide her diary, one writer we asked used to carry it with her all the time. “That way I could write whenever I felt the urge and keep it from curious eyes and fingers,” she says. “It definitely worked!” Just be careful not to leave it in the doctor’s office or the grocery store.

Lock It Up
If you live with a certified snoop who eavesdrops on your phone conversations, inspects your mail and looks for your diary, putting it under lock and key may be the best way to preserve your privacy.

I’ve already established that latched children’s diaries aren’t very reliable, plus all their keys look suspiciously alike. A sturdy locking, faux leather one-year diary is available for less than $20 from www.Stardesk.com.

If the page-per-day space limitations bother you, just ignore the dates at the top of each page. A locking cash box is strong, relatively cheap ($20-$30 at office supply stores) and small enough to slip under your bed or into a dresser drawer. However, a lock gives evidence that you’re “hiding something” and makes some people curious and others angry, so keep a locked book or cash box out of sight.

Other potential locked hiding places: a file cabinet, fire safe, footlocker, hope chest, briefcase, luggage or car trunk. Make these options more convenient by using the binder method.

Computerize It
“The rest of my family was fearful of the computer,” says a writer who kept her journal under electronic lock and key. Some writers can’t imagine cuddling up to a computer keyboard and typing intimate thoughts, but if your family isn’t computer-savvy and you already work on a home computer, it may be your diary’s best protection. Let everyone think you’re writing a report for work; they need not even know you have a diary. Creating a password-protected file is usually as easy as selecting an option from the “save as” menu and typing in a password. Name the file something innocuous like “Draft 3,” and change the password often. But beware, someone who figures out that’s your diary can throw away the file, and a computer-hacker brother or sister may be able to get into the file anyway.

If you have the skills, set up a Web site accessible only with a password &#151 also a good choice if you want to share your thoughts with a trusted friend. Or log onto a site such as www.diaryland.com, and start a journal you can keep private or make public for other users to read (a practice that’s becoming popular these days).

Andrew Smales, Diaryland’s operator, compares a password-protected Web page to a bank account, and a computer file to a lock box at home. “Both are pretty secure, but if someone wants to try breaking into the box at home, it’s a lot easier.” About 15,000 Diaryland users keep password-protected diaries.

Journaling software offers password protection and fun journal-writing extras. LifeJournal, available for $39.95 on CD-ROM from www.kschweizer.com, lets you create a private journal using functions like basic word processing, cataloging entries, a daily pulse graph for charting moods and the ability to add graphics. Similar programs called It’s Personal ($20) and The Journal ($34.95) are downloadable from www.zdnet.com. You can even download samples to try before you buy.

Be a Discreet Diarist
If people don’t know you have a journal, they won’t know to look for it. Develop habits that will downplay your diary. Avoid mentioning it to anyone.

In case you’re seen writing in it, use a modest-looking book, such as a spiral-bound notebook, that doesn’t scream “diary.” Don’t write “My Diary” or “Keep Out” on the front. Write only in private; leave the house if you have to. Don’t be seen removing your book from or putting it into its hiding place. If you have children, begin teaching them about privacy now by giving them their own journals, or a box for things that are all their own. And, if one of them should happen to read her younger sister’s diary, please, be sure to punish her. Severely.

This article appeared in the June 2001 issue of Personal Journaling.

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