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Personal, Historical Journaling

Dedicate a journal to history as it happens. Chronicle your memories and reflections on the moments that define your generation.

My grandmother's journal was the part of her she left behind, the inner workings of her mind and a true reflection of who she was in the world where she lived. But even more intriguing than her glass-full attitude about growing up in the 1920s and '30s was her take on life on the home front during World War II. I read these early 1940s entries in awe of her descriptions. Her so-real-you-can-feel them portrayals of what her 6 sisters and she did in their daily lives while their four brothers were off storming Normandy Beach spoke volumes: how they collected scraps of metal for the war drive; what her neighbors' facial expressions were like when yet another family on the avenue was notified of their son's death overseas; and the relief of receiving a letter from one of her brothers in France, with several lines blanked out by the censors. She wondered what it was her brother could have written that might have been judged too dangerous to send in writing. She painted a picture of real life as it was, with its images and senses and unspoken questions, in a way that has never been immortalized in the history books.

Ask most people now, and we think life on the home front in 1941 was something out of the movie Swingshift, where all women were Rosie the Riveters, nurses or USO entertainers. The stories of that era, a gravely parallel one to our own present day, are fading away as the Greatest Generation ages and passes on. Their stories of real, everyday life during World War II, unless written down or taped by family members, go with them.

My Personal Take

On a quiet night by the fire, I gently closed my grandmother's worn, frayed journal and thought about how priceless it was to hold a genuine account of history in my hands, a colorful, sensory history that's not included in any textbook or recorded on any Web site. And it hit me. What observations of mine during this time in history will pass on unspoken when my time is done?

As a journalist, I see within newspapers and magazines so many historical accounts immortalized in true journalistic methods: the who, what, why, when and where spelled out as if with a template, the socially-correct quotes from expert sources, the statistics, the dour prediction of trends, maybe a dash of humor thrown in for flavor. Years from now, will these news stories in print and online be all there is to remember of, say, Sept. 11 and the months that followed? We in the suburbs, after all, experienced a far different range of shock and stillness than those who literally escaped with their lives from the tragedies.

For hours, I recorded my every observation about real life in the days, weeks and months after Sept. 11, fulfilling a wish to immortalize for myself a snapshot of what life in my little town was like while the world sobbed in mourning, braced itself for the unknown and literally dug for answers. I noted the near-empty streets at night where revelers once filled the sidewalk cafes, how guilty some people felt for their decisions to still hold their weddings and children's birthday parties during a time of national crisis. I captured it all, and I will someday let my children read those pages.

And then, a short time later, I was journaling the personal side of a great triumph in sports history. The New England Patriots went from last-place team the previous year to becoming Super Bowl Champions, stunning the viewing (and betting) world. Sure, ESPN has in-depth analysis of the plays and the passes, the touchdowns and the questionable calls by officials. But my journal? I wrote about how the Patriots chose to be introduced onto the field as a team, rather than as individual star players. That show of solidarity was the big picture, in my book. I reflected on the profound meaning behind the Patriots rising up to victory in a year that patriotism became a uniting factor in a formerly divisive country.

It is precisely these types of personal inspirations that make a history journal so rich and so alive, so much more enlightening than any textbook or encyclopedia of the future. And it is the type of commentary that will teach your children, your grandchildren and their children exactly who you were and how your world was while you lived in it. That's adding a whole new dimension and a whole new benefit to journaling.

Your Personal Take

So how do you establish your very own historical journal? Start with a fresh, new, blank book. I chose a thick, unlined book with an Italian Renaissance painting of the globe on it. On page one, you might wish to introduce your book to yourself and to any future audience who might enjoy your prose. My entry page begins like this:

I began this journal as a way of capturing the history of my world, at a time when one terrible day changed the fabric of our daily lives, and we were forced to look at our country and the security of our lives in a whole new light. I began this journal as a way of capturing the moments, the memories, of this time in a tribute to you as you read and as a tribute to those whose sacrifice brought us into this bittersweet time of change and growth and strengthening ... so that we, none of us, will ever forget.

Start from the present, or go back in time to journal your take on any great or gut-wrenching moment in time: from Princess Diana's death to Lance Armstrong's repeat victory at the Tour de France after overcoming life-threatening cancer, from the presidential elections to a bit of local history such as your town's 100th anniversary celebration. Any moment in time that registers with you is perfect for a personal history account.

Here are some guidelines to help you get started:

1. Don't get bogged down in facts.

You're not being graded for accuracy on these accounts, and the Internet can provide any needed factual information your future readers might desire. Forget the nitty-gritty, and go right for the heart and soul of the experience,—your observations and feelings.

2. Use your senses, including the sixth one.

How did this moment in time look, taste, smell, feel? So many of my friends in New York City wrote to me of the way the air smelled in the weeks after Sept. 11. They weren't sure if that's what death really smelled like, or if it was just a heightened sensitivity to the normal aromas of the city streets. In your journal, talk about how your eyes felt when you cried over a tragic event, how the hair on the back of your neck stood up when a particularly emotional triumph occurred, how a handshake with a true hero or heroine felt in your palm. Writing through your senses portrays a truly human experience and something experiential for your future readers to relate to.

3. Talk about how it affected others.

Of course, using your journal is a wonderful way to work out your feelings, to get your elation and frustration out on paper and create a very true-to-life account of what you felt on that day, at that time and perhaps for months afterward. But expand your journal entries to include those with whom you share your home and your world. Talk about how the people in your town were affected. Or, talk about how amazing it is that your smallest grandchild is so blissfully oblivious to the event because her innocence keeps her in the here-and-now. We are not alone in this world, and our reactions are often very much formed by the reactions of others around us. Including your circle of loved ones and acquaintances in this portrait of your world expands the experience in a realistic way.

4. Use emotions.

Your Turn

Do you have diary entries that detail significant historical moments in your life? How about any journal entries or letters from your ancestors? Send us your stories about how personal writing has served to illuminate moments or periods in history for you. Selected submissions will be published in the Spring 2003 issue. Send your response (no more than 200 words, please) to with the Subject Line: Historical Journals. Personal Journaling has the right to edit the submissions, and publish them electronically and in any of our print publications. Include your full name (as you would like it to appear in print), mailing address and phone number. We will notify you only if your response is selected for publication. Deadline: Jan. 1, 2002

Emotion is what makes this personal history journal so priceless. What made the grief bubble up from under the thin protective surface that allows you to get through your day? Describe that lifting sensation in your stomach at the moment when Sarah Hughes was informed that, through a miraculous and perfect working of events, she rose from fourth place to win the gold in the ladies figure skating competition at the last winter Olympics. How did these events feel? How did you feel the next day? How did you feel when you discussed these events with friends over a white chocolate mocha at Starbucks? It's the emotion of your life that often drives your life, so color your journal with your own animating force.

5. Ask questions.

Life is full of questions that have no answers, yet we still spend a great deal of our lives trying to answer them. Welcome to real life. Your journal should show the unrelenting inquisitiveness that outlined your thoughts and actions during your journey through time.

With these basics in mind, feel free to discuss any moment in history, from the smallest occurrence to the largest one, whether it affects just your family or the entire world. Put pen to paper, and create your own everlasting memorial to the human condition as you see it, and share the workings of your soul with future souls that may not even be in this world yet. Your personal history journal may just teach them something their world doesn't have time to teach them anymore, and perhaps they'll glean an insight that they'll use to make significant changes to their own world of the future. You never know, and that is why your experiences, your observations are so valuable.

From the December 2002 issue of Personal Journaling.

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