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E-mail Journals Made Easy!

Collect the e-mail gems you write and receive, and gather a precious diary of your life, as expressed to your cyber-pals.

Statements like these make great reading:

July 27: Kerri locked herself out of the car with the engine running.

Oct. 28: I was thrilled to hear last night that you had your first on-air TV debut.

March 2: The earthquake shook the ground, and things fell off the shelves, but we're OK.

They hold a special power; they're evocative of moments in history lodged in our memories like buried treasure. Rereading them is like recounting stories from the intangible "good old days." Yet if those stories have been preserved in writing—suddenly that intangibility disappears, and what takes its place is a truly touchable memory.

But let's be honest. Who really takes the time to write down these priceless proceedings? More people than you may realize, when you take a moment to look at your overflowing e-mail inbox. That's right. Modern technology snuck up behind us, quiet and unassuming, recording our thoughts and our friend's thoughts for as long as we've had an e-mail account. And now dozens, perhaps hundreds of cherished events, opinions and, yes, even embarrassing situations are tempting us, poised and ready for the reading with just one click.

Easy, Creative—and the True You

So many monumental announcements today are sent and received via e-mail, including things like the birth of your niece or nephew or your best friend letting you know he's going to ask his love to be his bride. And thanks to your computer, these announcements can be saved to cherish for generations to come. Or, did you happen to press that delete key? No worries, it's never too late to start one of the most creative journals of your life, an e-mail journal.

Think about it. It's interactive, easy to maintain (with a few tips we'll get to in a minute) and virtually cost free. Yet the memories you can scour from cyberspace are priceless. And probably a bit more accurate than those lodged between your ears, which, let's admit, have a pesky tendency to turn into tall tales.

With e-mail, there's always a concrete reference: This was said by this person on this date. And what makes e-mail recording better than your court stenographer is that it's all yours—the phrasing, the multiple exclamation points, the bold or capitalized text. It may be just words on a screen to some, but if you try, you can hear your voice and the voices of your friends coming through in every question mark, every misspelling.

Often the more misspellings an e-mail letter has, the more harried the author was at the time of writing. That gives an e-mail letter personality. In fact, the lack of formality in e-mail correspondence virtually ensures some hint, some flavor, some sign of the creator's inner spirit will slip through cyberspace.

All About the Folders

So how do you tame all of these wanton bouts of emotion, these crazed question marks, these explosions of expression that comprise your e-mail inbox? Just like you would with any other mess you were trying to organize—establish a sorting system.

Your first step is to find that little "folder" button inside your particular e-mail program. It gives you a virtual folder, much like one of those olive green hanging folders cluttering your file cabinet. The only difference is that you can't touch it.

Finding the folder button should be relatively easy. With Microsoft's Hotmail, the button is inside the Inbox and is titled "Create Folder." Netscape's WebMail and Yahoo! Mail maintain their "Folders" buttons right on the mail homepage. Most e-mail providers will have similar means of creating folders. And if they don't, you may want to consider switching to one that does. The three providers above do not charge for a basic e-mail account, and all have easily accessible folder options.

But if you're one of those die-hard, hands-on, gotta-see-it-to-believe-it types, you can use this same sorting system off-line. Simply print out the messages you would like to save, then tuck them neatly and safely away, protected from any computer virus, inside the real-life variety of olive hanging folders. Online or offline, backing up your files on a hard disk is always smart. Especially since e-mail providers regulate the amount of storage space they'll give you for free.

The next part is simple. Create titles for your folders. Depending on the amount of e-mail you receive, you may want to start a separate folder for each person you know. Or, form group folders, such as "Friends," "Family" or something more enticing like "Juicy Gossip." This part is essential—as it keeps your messages easily retrievable.

Another good idea is to sort these folders by date. For example, instead of creating just one "Cousin Suzie" folder, create two: "Cousin Suzie 1995-2000" and "Cousin Suzie 2000-Present." Or "Janie Pre-Wedding," "Tommy College" and "Mike Three Year Alaskan Wilderness Expedition."

So why go to all this trouble? For the same reason you write in a paper journal. To keep a record. To write down the best and worst of times in the epic saga that is your life. Once you've created your sorting system, fill the folders with only the messages you find interesting. Ones you would like to reread, or ones that you feel would make good sitting-on-the-back-porch-drinking-lemonade-reminiscing-with-a-trusted-buddy stories.

One last tip. If most of your e-mails read like this: "How are you? I'm fine," then you've got a bit of work to do. Create your outgoing messages as if you're conducting an interview. But make the questions you ask a bit more provocative. Instead of asking, "How was your weekend?" try phrasing it like this: "So we saved the marble. What marble you ask? Why, the one that Timmy stuck up his nose. That was the extent of my so called day off—how was yours?" Give your friends a little coaxing, and they'll respond with e-mails fit to fill your new, state of the art, e-mail journal.

From the December 2002 issue of Personal Journaling.

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