Can you remember what you were doing a week ago? Last month? How about a year ago? You probably can't put your finger on exactly what was happening in your life that far back, but you might be able to check - if you keep a personal journal or diary.
You could then flip the pages back and read what took place on a particular date in 2004 - what you wore, whom you saw, what happened in school, perhaps even how you felt about happenings in your family, the community, or the world.
If you don't keep a diary, the beginning of a new year is a good time to start one. It's not too late! You could still resolve to write something every day. Your journal doesn't have to be fancy. A humble spiral notebook will hold your words just as well as the most expensive diary from a store.
If you do keep a personal journal, you're in good company. Many writers, artists, naturalists, sea captains, and explorers throughout history have recorded their day-to-day activities, thoughts, and observations in journals and diaries. Among the many notable people who have done so are George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, aviator Charles Lindbergh, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Beatrix Potter (the author and illustrator of the "Peter Rabbit" books began keeping a diary at age 14), and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau wrote "Walden," a well-known book about the personal rewards of living simply and close to the land. The book was based on the daily journal he jotted in his log cabin beside Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.
Many adults keep diaries, but you can begin at any age. Anne Frank received a diary as a present on her 13th birthday on June 12, 1942, and began to fill it with her personal thoughts and observations. She and her family were in the Netherlands, where they had fled from Nazi Germany. But Nazi persecution followed them when Germany invaded Holland. Anne wrote most of her entries while she and her family hid in the attic of a warehouse in Amsterdam.
"The Diary of a Young Girl," published by her father, Otto, after her death in 1945, has been read and loved worldwide. Though written in extraordinary times under tragic circumstances, the diary is also a touching portrait of the feelings any young girl might experience as she approaches womanhood.
Diaries were not always so personal. They evolved from a simple bookkeeping tradition. "Proto-diaries" ("proto" means "first, original, or primitive") date back centuries. They include simple records of business transactions and the like.
Travel opened up a new kind of daily reporting. Ship captains - including Columbus - kept daily logs of their journeys. Europeans traveling to African, Asia, and the New World for the first time kept journals. These describe encounters with strange (to them) peoples, animals, and geographies, often in vivid terms. Maximilian zu Weid was a German prince who explored the American West in the early 1800s. Among the events he witnessed was a battle between the Assiniboin and Blackfoot Indians. He wrote:
"They came galloping in groups, from three to twenty together, their horses covered in foam ... with all kinds of ornaments and arms, bows and quivers on their backs ... some had splendid crowns of black and white eagles' feathers, and a large hood of feathers hanging down behind, sitting on fine panther skins lined with red ... with a strip of wolf's skin thrown across the shoulder, and carrying shields adorned with feathers and pieces of colored cloth. A truly original sight!"
But descriptions of ordinary, local life are the basis for perhaps the most famous diary of all. Samuel Pepys (pronounced "Peeps") lived in London in the 1600s. He kept a diary from 1660 to 1669. He bequeathed his diary to Magdalene College after his death, along with his impressive personal library. But the journals, written in a special shorthand and occasionally in code, weren't transcribed until two centuries after his death.
Pepys, a tailor's son, was born in 1633. He grew up to become one of the best-known politicians of his day. He was an official in the British Navy and served as member of Parliament. But he's much more famous today for his accounts of life in London, recording significant events as well as local gossip. His eyewitness accounts include vivid descriptions of the bubonic plague and the Great Fire of London in 1666. He was the first known diarist to record his own thoughts and reflections in his diary - ushering in the age of the truly personal journal.
Pepys never expected his journal to be read by others - much less become a literary work. One has to wonder whether he'd be pleased or upset to know that millions of people have come to know him and something of his world through his diary.
The wonderful thing about a diary is that you don't have to be famous to keep one. A diary is a good place to start for anyone interested in writing. Here you practice the craft and experiment with language. A journal can be whatever you want it to be - a simple chronicle of what happens in your life, a travelogue (if you go places), or an "inward journey" and means of expressing your feelings. It might be all these things or something else altogether. Starting in boyhood, the great artistic and scientific genius Leonardo Da Vinci kept a daily notebook recording his theories and observations.
Some 5,000 pages of these notebooks survive, some with Da Vinci's detailed drawings of anatomy, ideas for inventions, architectural designs, and even plans for model cities.
Even if you think your life and ideas are pretty ordinary, your children and grandchildren may be fascinated to read what you have to say about times gone by. And who knows? Others may enjoy your words as well.
Anne Frank once wrote that it was "an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary." She did not expect anyone to be interested in the musings of a 13-year-old schoolgirl. Not knowing how wrong she was, she continued, "Still, what does it matter? I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried in my heart."
From 'Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl' (Doubleday, 1995)
June 12, 1942
'I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.'
Comment added by Anne on Sept. 28, 1942:
'So far you truly have been a great source of comfort to me, and so has Kitty, whom I now write to regularly. This way of keeping a diary is much nicer, and now I can hardly wait for those moments when I'm able to write in you.
Oh, I'm so glad I brought you along!'
Westward with Lewis and Clark: the diary of Sgt. Charles Floyd
July 9, 1804
Rain today. Sailed the greatest part of the day, passed a prairie on the South Side where several French families had settled and made corn some years ago.... The Indians came presently to see them and was very friendly.... The land is good. Water strong. Made 10 miles. Encamped on the South Side. Saw a fire on the N. Side [and] thought it was our flanking party. Sent our pirogue [small boat] over for them, and when they got over saw no fire. Supposed it to be Indians.
The British Museum owns another of Da Vinci's notebooks. It's a collection of drawings, notes, sayings, and even riddles that Da Vinci began in Florence in 1508. A few of his jottings:
This is to be a collection without order, drawn from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place....
Riddle: There will be many which will increase their destruction.
Answer: The ball of snow rolling over the snow.
Every action done by nature is done in the shortest way.
When two rivers together intersect that will be of less depth which is of slower course.