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Write your own version of history - in a personal journal

By Sue Wunder / January 18, 2005

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.

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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.