Saving the past for the future

When Kelly DuMar talks about the pleasures of keeping a diary, she often speaks in the plural – diaries. For her, the singular won't do. In addition to the floral-covered journal in which she writes about her own life, she keeps separate diaries for each of her three children, recording experiences and feelings she hopes they will enjoy recalling later.

As she captures both small moments and significant events in their lives, the result is an engaging portrait of childhood and family life that can be passed down to the next generation.

"This is a process that is lovely because it doesn't have rules," says Ms. DuMar, whose children are 14, 10, and 5. "These are like letters you are writing to your child. It's an opportunity to write to your present children and your future children."

Turning parents into diarists for their families involves an unusual literary form that combines elements of letter writing, biography, and autobiography. So convinced is DuMar of its value that she shares the process in a book, "Before You Forget: The Wisdom of Writing Diaries for Your Children" (Red Pail Press, $14.95).

She also conducts workshops on the subject. At 10 o'clock on a bright and balmy morning, a dozen women, two with babies in tow, gather at the Sherborn Public Library, west of Boston, to hear DuMar describe her passion for diary-keeping. One by one, the women explain why they are here.

"As a younger person, I wrote creatively," says Colleen Neutra, holding her first child, 7-month-old Eliot. "But I got increasingly more self-conscious, and I thought, 'I have nothing to say.' "

Then, just before her son was born, she wrote him a letter. She found the process so satisfying that she followed with a second letter two months ago.

Mary Ann Barrett hopes to preserve the funny sayings of her 5-year-old son. "I want to write them down, but I've never done this before," she says.

Ashley Stinson agrees: "You think, when they're 2, you'll remember what they say, but you don't. You really have to record it as it happens, or it's not going to be there."

Another participant, Jane McDonald, the mother of three small children, says, "I'm like a lot of mothers – I always want to write but don't have the time."

Marjie Freeman, whose son and daughter are in their early 30s, has come for another purpose. "I want to find out about retrieving memories to write down if they ever get married and have children," she says.

Another woman, married for 57 years, has two sons in their 50s. "Finally, in my old age I'm a grandmother," she says happily. She wants to write a diary for her granddaughter, combining reminiscences with current activities. "History across the generations is very important," she says.

Some good ways to begin

As babies babble and morning sun streams through library skylights, DuMar outlines her approach. She dismisses baby books that record relatively insignificant details such as weight and height, saying, "who cares?"

To record experiences that may someday hold a cherished place in family lore, she suggests writing directly to a child. She offers an example: "You got up this morning and saw the woods out the window...."

This second-person voice creates an important "intimacy shift," which makes it easier for children to connect with the diaries when they eventually read them.

Parents can start writing a diary for a child at any time. "Don't try to make up for lost time," DuMar says, noting that the book does not need to be linear. But the story of a child's birth, which can be written anytime, makes a good opener.

DuMar has kept a diary for herself since she was 13. She began her diaries for her children when she was pregnant with her son, Landon, now 14.

Writing to an unborn child, she says, enables parents to talk about the hopes they have for the baby. As she awaited the birth of her third child, Frances, DuMar found that writing to her helped to make room for her in their busy family.

Keeping separate books allows each child to be the "star" of his or her own diary. DuMar almost never writes the same story in each child's diary, even if everyone is involved in the same experience. She asks herself, "Whose story is it, really?"

Adventures and conflicts, compromises and shared fun – they're all grist for DuMar's diary mill. She records small rites of passage, such as the loss of a baby tooth or a child's discovery of the moon. And she includes many sibling-rivalry stories, although she's careful to balance them by including the positive things her children say about each other.

She also enjoys "mischief" stories and even writes about disagreements.

Whatever the subject, DuMar aims to tell the truth. "I do believe it's important to take skeletons out [of the closet], but that doesn't mean you plant bombs." When one set of grandparents divorced recently, she included details, but did not tell the children anything that would devastate them.

When she writes, DuMar enjoys retreating to a comfortable black leather chair in the living room of her family's ranch house. She writes to at least one child every week, spending anywhere from five minutes to an hour and a half.

Yet she cautions that diary-keeping should never become a burden, an obligatory duty. "I wouldn't keep doing this if it didn't do something for me," she says. "We don't need one more thing on our to-do list, thinking 'I should write this for my daughter today.' "

What stories show us

Beyond the pleasure a parent or grandparent finds in recording experiences and thoughts, what do the diaries do for children?

"Kids love stories," DuMar says. "They see themselves as storymakers, as the protagonist of their own lives. They realize the things they do are important and matter."

She hears her own children telling stories more often. "They have a sense of shaping a story. A sense that I am somehow chronicling their lives for them. A sense that small things matter, and that they're worthy of special attention."

She sees another, inadvertent, benefit as well. "When children see us writing, they get the idea that we think writing is important. They get a very powerful message of the role writing plays in your life."

Rereading the diaries now and then gives DuMar clues about each child. It also helps her discover who she is as a mother.

From time to time, her children enjoy having her read entries aloud to them. She tries to pick out "juicy" stories and slapstick comedy.

As the morning workshop draws to a close, DuMar offers participants another reason for preserving family tales.

"Time goes by so fast," she says. "We have so little time for our children. Writing diaries for your child is an act of love."

Helpful dos and don'ts for diarists

Kelly DuMar offers these tips on writing diaries for children:

• Always begin by dating each entry. It will nag you later if you don't know the date.

• Don't censor yourself. The "critical editor" is a silencing voice that will make you put down the diary. Children want to know. They're not going to red-pen entries later and say, "Mom misspelled this word." Trying not to reread for a while can be very helpful.

• Go for passion rather than polish. A diary doesn't have to include perfectly crafted sentences or paragraphs. It's about connecting with your children. It's OK to ramble. Editing isn't necessary.

• Quote liberally. Children enjoy knowing exactly what they said. The poetic things they say make them feel they have a special voice.

• Don't give your children advice in your diaries. They don't want to read a lecture. But if they give you advice, write it down.

• If possible, buy quality blank books, with hard covers and good paper. Spiral bindings, which lie flat, make writing easier. Portability is also a plus. You can tuck it in a diaper bag or a backpack, and take advantage of a few moments of downtime before a soccer game starts.

• Store diaries in fireproof containers.

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