Keeping a diary in your youth is sort of like taking piano lessons. In retrospect, you wish you had stuck with it.
If you're one of the lucky few adults, you actually can play Chopin instead of chopsticks and you have a collection of childhood diaries. On rainy days, you can pull out your old journals and laugh and marvel over the stories and thoughts you wrote.
Your crooked, earnest handwriting and your invented spelling transports you back in time. Suddenly you are baking "kookies" with grandma or taking your first "akrowbatiks lessin." Scrawled across the pages are your realities, dreams and fears.
If you have a childhood diary, then you don't have to rely on the cloudy regions of your memory -- or your older brother's even-foggier recollections -- to remember certain events. You've got a morsel of your life story right there in black and white.
If you're like most people, however, you probably didn't keep up with your diary. Oh, you started out diligently enough on New Year's Day, just after Aunt Martha gave you that impressive, gilt-edged book with its own lock and key. You poured your heart onto the first page -- scribbling in miniature toward the bottom so that the entry didn't overflow onto the page marked for January 2.
But by February, the entries were one-liners: Nothing happened today; or, Went to school. After March, every page was one blank, white yawn.
Why do some kids keep diaries and others lose interest? Clearly, some children are overwhelmed by the sheer number of pages -- 365 -- to fill. Journal-writing becomes a duty, rather than a joy, and not all children need or want the kind of hushed privacy that heart-in-the-pen diaries evoke.
A 12-year-old with four siblings may find refuge between the lines of a book while an only-child may have all too much quiet, reflective time. Also, some children don't find writing for an audience of one rewarding.
For children who aren't interested in taking up the pen themselves, a way to get their literary juices flowing is to get the whole family involved. The truth is that journals don't have to be private -- or routine. In fact, wonderful creations can sprout when your family shares in the journal-writing process.
When scribble-fever hits, try one of these ideas and see where it leads you and your family:
Talking Back: Dialogue journals are fascinating, ongoing "letters" between two or more people. And who doesn't love getting letters? When children receive letters, they want to be able to read them. Suddenly, reading has purpose and meaning in their lives. If the letter is intriguing, they'll want to write back.
Begin by writing a short note to your child in a spiral notebook or bound journal. Ask a few questions and request a response on the next page.
Give specific written instructions for the drop-off location: "Leave it underneath my pillow when you're finished." Or try involving the child in the secrecy: "Find a hiding place where you're sure I'll discover it."
Whatever you do, try not to talk about the dialogue journal with your child. Let it be an entirely written interaction. That's what will make it unique.
Once you receive the response, add another entry to the journal. If your child did not ask you any questions, then offer a few comments of your own. Remember, your observations should be about the content of the writing -- not the writing itself. If Melissa writes, "My new toy brok today I feel sad," you might sympathize or ask her how it happened. But don't correct her spelling or grammatical mistakes. The goal is to encourage expression, not to "teach" writing skills. Start editing, and children will tune out. Also, don't focus entirely on your child. Tell stories about yourself -- nuggets that might stimulate young Melissa to ask you a question or two.
All in the Family: Start a collaborative journal with the whole family. Hang a notebook and a string of colorful pens on the wall -- the bathroom is a great spot -- and watch what happens. Doodles, poems and dissertations will appear like graffiti.
A collaborative journal can serve as a giant, permanent blackboard for individual thoughts. Or, if family members begin "talking" to each other in its pages, then it becomes a dialogue journal with a host of characters.
Readers' Theater: Chances are you all write letters, notes and stories from time to time. Ask each family member to choose something she has written that she would like to read aloud. Do it on the spur of the moment or turn it into a gala by serving wine -- and grape juice -- and wearing formal attire.
Nothing beats playing in front of a great audience. What better audience than people who love you? Once your family gets hooked, this easily can become a ritual.
Book of Lists: Journals don't have to be in narrative form. Consider lists. Brainstorm with your children. What kind of lists would they like to keep? Have your children write the title of each list on the top of a separate page in one notebook: The names of all my classmates; things I have out-grown; my five favorite foods to eat. Sometimes lists that seem trivial later turn out to reveal the list-maker's quirks and charms.
Letter to Myself: Even young children wonder about the future. What will I be like when I am big? What will I remember about being little? What will I look back on and find strange or funny? Once a year, sit down with your child and talk about all the changes and events of the year.
Regardless of what kind of journal-writing your family explores, get everyone into the habit of dating entries. Twenty years from now, you'll want to know how young Benjamin was when he wrote that incredible story in the collaborative journal.
Remember, you are a role model in the whole endeavor. If your children see how much you value and enjoy expressing yourself through writing, they'll be inspired to ply their pens.
Whatever form a journal takes, it can become your child's friend, a quiet place in which to express and experiment. If the child speaks to its pages with honesty and emotion, then it also becomes the most amazing keepsake possible: a record of the voice of childhood.
Listening to fabulous music can inspire children to plunk away at the piano or pluck away at the guitar. Likewise, reading someone else's literary reflections can motivate kids to sharpen their own pencils.
In each of the following children's books, the main characters are avid writers who are as entertaining as they are inspiring. Consider sharing these by reading a chapter or two aloud each night.
If your children are a little older, and your family has gotten out of the habit of reading "bedtime" stories, then you're in for a re-awakening: Language shared aloud is a wondrous thing.
"Harriet the Spy," by Louise Fitzhugh (Dell, 1979). Eleven-year-old Harriet is addicted to analyzing the characters in her neighborhood. She writes down all her observations of them in a notebook. But when the journal is discovered, she learns surprising lessons about human nature and the nature of truth. Although the plot is engaging, it's Harriet's own words, hastily scribbled in her spiral notebook, that have made this book a classic.
"The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4," by Sue Townsend (Avon, 1984). Adrian believes he is an "undiscovered intellectual." In his diary, the self-absorbed adolescent pours out his heart. The result is hilarious as Adrian moans about his spots (British for pimples) and struggles to become a poet.
"War With Grandpa," by Robert K. Smith (Dell, 1984). Peter gets upset when his grandfather invades the privacy of his room. He stages war and Grandpa counterattacks. Peter writes the "true and real" story of what happened between them for his 5th-grade English teacher to read. Not only does he learn something about war, but also he discovers how much he likes to write.
"Diary of an Early American Boy," by Eric Sloane (Ballantine, 1984). A fictionalized account of the life of a boy named Noah Blake, this book was based on a real diary that Eric Sloane found in an old house. The best part about this classic is the pictures. Sloane's pen-and-ink sketches provide the blueprints for re-creating all sorts of fascinating 19th-century inventions. Besides being inspired to write, your family probably will want to try making its own farm lanterns, hay rick ornaments, canvas buckets and homemade ink. -- Mary Koepke