Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What’s going to happen to your old journals? (04/15/11)

Featured writer: Claudia Larson

Contributors this month:
Barbara Simmons
Becky Povich
Betty Winslow
Catherine Crawford
Claudia Larson
David S. Johnson
Don Edgers
Jay Halstead
Marilyn Petty
Nancy Wallace-Nelson
Sara Baker
Susan Bono
Theresa Sanders


by Claudia Larson

We'd finished our breakfast, a traditional Norwegian morning meal of whole grain bread and brown, caramelized goat cheese and thinly sliced mutton, served with black coffee. Lars picked up a small black notebook and pencil. He glanced out the wide window, then started to write. Agnes, his wife, my Dad's first cousin, said in English, "He writes a little something every morning."

As I play family detective, scrolling through passenger ship lists in search of my emigrating relatives, I wish there were letters or journals describing their weeks' long travel from one country to another.

Back home, inspired by Lars' daily note-keeping, I write in a small red notebook. I note the weather, family events and antics. It's tidy, succinct and meant to be read by future family detectives, wondering about life in 2011.

Claudia Larson tells her story in Sebastopol, CA.

Work in Progress

  by Barbara Simmons

This begs the question of what constitutes MY journals. For mine are not neat, well-calligraphied pages of daily musings. Mine are the small post-its, the scribbled notes on the backs of receipts, the singular word that cries on the edges of newspapers, the phrase on the inside covers of books, the bon mots on the margins of a re-read page, the remembered phrases of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop about the "art of losing".

I imagine my musings finding their way to my readers - my family, mostly - after I have touched them for the last time so that my verbal rejoicings and sorrows, my curious wonderings and whimperings, can open me up more fully to those whom I have loved well, but at times, had not been able to "erupt spontaneously" to.

Just writing to this prompt has required me to imagine all the shelves and drawers, and handbags and boxes, and book stacks and files, and nightstands and table corners that have held my impromptu and planned journal entries. And now, this electronic musing will join the others in displaying "me" and my reveries more unedited and more unfiltered than any "finished" work, and probably closer to the truth that I coax, always, to life.

Thank you, dear journal entries, for taking my words in all their raw and wild and abbreviated and cryptic states. And thank you, readers, for taking a chance to glance at at least one!

Barbara Simmons is a frequent poet and dreamer of endless reveries and journeyer of many dreams...

Old Journals Never Die. They Just Smear & Fade Away.

  by Becky Povich

I'm not concerned about my old journals, because I don't have any. I never did. When I was growing up, girls wrote in diaries. Some definitely had plenty to write about. Others described imaginary happenings. You know the kind: Last night I went out with Johnny and it was soooo romantic!

Hmmm…..maybe that's why I'm not a fiction writer. My adolescence was quite dull. My loves were unrequited. I wrote about my dreams and wishes for my future. I wrote about my hurt and sadness because of my parents' divorce. It never occurred to me to write lies in my own diary. What would be the point? No one read it but me and lying to myself would make it all the more pathetic.

I never considered those emotional, written words to be anything worth keeping. My dreams and wishes seemed trivial as I got older. One weekend when I was feeling particularly mature, I cleaned out my junk drawers. I threw away the one thing that linked me to my present "writerly" self: a barely used diary with plenty of blank pages.

It may have taken me 30 years to resume what began so long ago on those pages, but… Wow! Look how far I've come.

Becky Povich loves to write, especially when it comes easily. Ah, if only that would happen more often. Still, she definitely feels joy and gratitude every time she “gets it right.” You can reach Becky by e-mail at Her blog is: She welcomes blog comments and e-mails.

The Eyes Have It

  by Betty Winslow

Well, I don't keep a journal, but a lot of my writing is very personal and has lots of information about my life in it. Best case scenario? They'll be collected and published and my family will make a mint off them!

Probably? My family will read my stuff, laugh some, cry some, and then toss it all in the trash. Personally, I won't care, I'll be dancing in heaven with the angels!

Betty Winslow, trying to keep up with life (let alone a journal), in Bowling Green, OH.

The Land of Ob

  by Catherine Crawford

My journals are not pretty. They're the place I take hurts and confusions, the moments that make me scream and cry. Their flagrant emotionalism often embarrasses me. After I've nutshelled them for stories, they go in the shredder. I don't intend to leave any behind.

When I was in grade school, I discovered my mother snooped in her kids' diaries. I've forgiven my mother for her long nose. But I still have strong feelings about journals and privacy.

The revelation about Mom preceded my learning French, so I couldn't use that to shield my writing. Instead my friends and I came up with the masking language "Ob." It required only that we place an "ob" before every vowel in a word and presto! We were obunobintobellobigobible. To decipher an Ob note, you just struck out all the ob's on a page.

With our marvelously flexible child-brains, we also talked Ob in front of adults and snickered when they pretended not to mind. It was better than having a secret clubhouse, and we didn't need to lock a door. If Mother ever broke our code, she never said a word about it.

Catherine Crawford writes and edits in Vancouver, Washington. She learned long ago why the $25 word for confusion is obfuscation. Robeach hober obat:


  by Claudia Larson

We'd finished our breakfast, a traditional Norwegian morning meal of whole grain bread and brown, caramelized goat cheese and thinly sliced mutton, served with black coffee. Lars picked up a small black notebook and pencil. He glanced out the wide window, then started to write. Agnes, his wife, my Dad's first cousin, said in English, "He writes a little something every morning."

As I play family detective, scrolling through passenger ship lists in search of my emigrating relatives, I wish there were letters or journals describing their weeks' long travel from one country to another.

Back home, inspired by Lars' daily note-keeping, I write in a small red notebook. I note the weather, family events and antics. It's tidy, succinct and meant to be read by future family detectives, wondering about life in 2011.

Claudia Larson tells her story in Sebastopol, CA.

Strike That

  by David S. Johnson

April 30, 2011 - Beverly, MA

The trees have just begun to burst in bud and the crushing glacier of a New England winter seems to have receded. I thought I[strike] we would just push on through to next winter.

I remember when Paula Abdul used to sing. I mi[strike] miss 80's music. ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me' makes me drive fast.

I don't know how to start this[strike] an essay about what will happen to this journal and all others (When I die?). I guess because I don't know. I don't know why I write in this damn thing. It's not my intention[strike sentence]. I don't intend on reading it again. I've[strike] No one else should read it either. At least not while I'm alive. I don't write as often as I like. Many entires[strike] entires[strike again] entries are written in the car, the shower, the store, the walk from the car - all in my head - but never get transcribed. Too many of my words are lost to email. I tire of them and why would I want to put more on paper? I like to[strike sentence]

I like to write with a mechanicl [strike] mechanical pencil. Not because of it's impermanence but because it makes a better script. My looping L's are sharper, the strikethroughs are more striking[strike] whipping, the page is cleaner and no pencil ever bleeds into the next page. I don't use an eraser, just strikes (or ‘strikethroughs' if your a persnickety English teacher with an antecedent in your butt). Computers make[strike] is a tool of a cheater. Life is not edited, so is not my journal. I meant to be clever there. I don't think there is a threat of a poor Masters of fine arts student languishing with piles of my journals woner[strike] wondering how my journals reveal the agonizing genius of my writing. They might wonder what I mean when I say Nor'esters are fuckwads or what I mean about how I love pickles so much…I forget, but they'll never wonder about any sort of genius.

I write for me and that random[strike] random
ness is good enough. If you're reading this one day know that I like to write but I don't write as much as I want to. My wrds[strike] come fast but not cleanly. If you're not reding this one day, that's okay. Just know that I miss 80's music.

David Samuel Johnson wrties[strike] in the kiss of the horizon on a warm evening while listening to 80’s music.

Get Serious!

  by Don Edgers

I'm a big fan of final tests, having spent 20 years getting educated and taking uncountable tests. As a 30-year high school teacher of a variety of subjects, I gave my fair share.
The award in most cases - a grade. Sometimes a good grade got rewarded by with a sum of money.

So, what's a retired student, teacher, writer going to do with his journals? When I pass on I'll have a test for each journal and give a final test based on the journals to those who want to study them and compete with others for a share of a monetary reward.

When all my debts are settled, property and possessions sold, the money will be put into a pot. Half the total will go to family, and half to a fund to be split by the top 10 grades earned on a journal test.

On second thought, my journals containing unpublished writings aren't on the order of Shakespeare, C. S. Lewis, George Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Debbie Macomber, et al.

Port Orchard's Best Selling author Debbie Macomber's own teen-aged son admitted as recently as a year ago that he'd never read any of his mother's books. So, judging from my fan mail, there may be a few dozen readers who might be interested in my written "leftovers," But, as the Brits say, "It's not bloody likely!"

To make matters really simple, I won't even address what's to be done with my journals upon my upcoming demise. Dump - outhouse - bonfire - whatever. . . . .

Don Edgers presently keeps his journals in Port Orchard, WA. The results of many of his journal entries may be viewed at

Selfish or Pompous?

  by Jay Halstead

On September 9, 2011 the world lost an old soul. Janet's body was forced to surrender after only 44 years of life, but those who knew her recognized her heart as that of an "ancient one." Short, slight, blonde and bubbly, she nurtured the light of the universe within her. Her faith infectious, her laughter contagious, she exuded the loving, eternal essence of the Goddess with every breath.

In her last days she made us vow her journals would never be read. Upon her death they were to be burned - unopened. We could not begin to fathom the depth of knowledge her flowing script had dictated onto those thick, recycled cotton fiber pages. We respected her wishes and hoped the secrets lost that day would eventually be rediscovered by another. I'm glad I wasn't the one tasked to safeguard them until the night of their destruction. I know I would have peeked.

She (as witches are wont to do) called hers her "Book of Shadows." Others call them "diaries", "journals," or "memoirs." The label doesn't truly matter. Their purpose does. They are that external place in which we preserve our internal selves. Within their pages we hide our quietest thoughts. They safely cradle tiny snippets of our lives…embrace our hopes…cuddle our dreams. They offer a safe haven to conceal ourselves and write as if no one will ever read it.

My journals rest in no particular place. Some hide in rumpled cardboard boxes in dark corners while others lean against one another in plain view, baring their untitled spines to the world from their bookshelf home. One is buried in that teetering pile on my desk - the "Leaning Tower" that casts shadows on the faded blue carpet in the early morning sunlight. I can hear them sometimes, their urgent whispers begging me to fill them with more words or delve into their mysteries and re-read previous entries.

At times I willingly give in to their murmured urgings and actively seek them out while at others I stumble across them seemingly by accident. Nostalgia fills my chest as I lift them gently and caress the dust from their familiar faces. I reverently flip through their dog-eared pages to gaze upon my past musings. That perfect passage or unique phrase usually catches my eye yielding the key that unlocks some confusion that has been leading me in circles for days. It's as if, when I wrote, I had spoken purposefully to my future self.

For all that has gone into them and all I still get out of them, I will leave my old journals to my sons. They can read them or not, that's up to them. Do I consider that choice pompous? No more than I consider Janet's choice selfish. She shared her wisdom in life while I will share mine after. Neither choice is right or wrong; it is simply an indication of who we are.

Jay Halstead – Witch and Writer
Rochester NY


  by Marilyn Petty

Recently, archeologists working in an ancient North American village unearthed a cache of what they recognized as old paper bound in multiple pages. The volumes were delivered to the university tech center, in the hopes that Professor Ezekiel Webster, an aged but distinguished philologist, could decipher the texts.

He said that the writing was an old form of English, done by hand with an pointed object filled with a kind of liquid dye usually in black or blue. The style of writing was referred to as "cursive," nearly unreadable partly due to what teachers at that time referred to as "poor penmanship" but also the fact that little squiggles cluttering the text were called "vowels." The professor explained that although there were only five vowels, they did much to clarify the reading of the written word. His colleagues, though skeptical, were enthralled with the challenge of preserving the history of the distant past, and so they did.

And that is what may happen to my journals (and yours—-and yours). Or I may let mine rot in a compost pile, or feed them to a funeral pyre sprinkled with rosemary--for remembrance.

Marilyn Petty writes for posterity (or not) in Santa Rosa, CA.

The Gift

  by Nancy Wallace-Nelson

The answer to this one is short and sweet. I no longer care. I am no longer attached to outcomes.

This is in major contrast to how I felt in my late 40s and 50s, when I worried that all my journals and other memorabilia would end up sad and homeless because I have no children. I was obsessed with the idea of culling, and burning or burying the hulls, and many disappeared in that purging. Now, all the ones who survived and the new ones of the intervening years sit in boxes and in a childhood doll cradle. I re-read and re-use some old entries, and do discard some pages, but only in the daily flow of my journal time, not with a mission of erasure.

It's been a gift of turning into my 60s to be more accepting of who I am, and how much the journal process has been part of that who. It's just there, and has been totally for me: only for my own processing; for the the paths of my own psyche; and for the unfolding of my own life stages and changes. I've invested the journals with value for what they have done for me. They are strong enough to make it on their own. I do not have to worry about protecting them beyond my own last breath. If they should ever fall into the hands of someone who decides to decipher any of my ill-formed writing, they will give whatever they give to that person, be of interest as long as they are, and then pass on into that fertile recycling meadow where all life goes.

Nancy Wallace-Nelson resides in the woods of Mendocino. In October 2010 she had the gift of being part of a Fort Bragg student trip to sister city Otsuchi, Japan, which was one of the two towns most destroyed by the March 11 tsunami. Knowing the pain and loss of new friends there, and grappling with the enormous helplessness of that situation has added to the growing dis-attachment which has been part of her process of aging. She's interested to see how age enriches her writing, art and storytelling.

Old Friends

  by Sara Baker

I don't know about other writers, but I seem to have a journal for everything: dream journal, diet journal, spiritual journal, gratitude journal, daily journal, quotes and memorable sayings journal, and a story ideas journal that also includes noteworthy newspaper and magazine clippings.

With each journal entry, my pen was a delicate needle weaving a beautiful tapestry. Like a patient needle worker, I took deep pleasure in my craft—-writing down my thoughts about myself, other people, situations, and circumstances—-living proof of my sentiments and my passing time. Some of my journals became my super-confidantes to whom I confessed everything. While others allowed me to clarify my ideas, spark my inspiration, and strengthen my creativity.

Strangely, though, each time I open one of my old journals, it's as if I am seeing it for the first time. Each page contains whispers of truth captured in ink,delivered from my heart and soul. Many pages, crumpled and worn, contain both margin notes and sticky notes with more revelations and additional thoughts. Some pages, yellowed and musty-smelling, remind me of mindfully sitting at a deep, old desk in my grandmother's attic reminiscing about what I was thinking about at the time. Memory and meaning finally meet as new connections slowly emerge. Cause and effect become lighthouses guiding me to shore.

As I write this piece I realize that journal writing and reading is a unique and gratifying voyage into my interior regions,begun in the present, contemplated in the past, but intended for my future self. That pause between the present self and future self is invaluable. Somewhere between the wrinkled, time-worn pages of my journals lies hope—hope for personal growth and an increased ability to create something significant.

So, what's going to happen to my old journals? Perhaps I can give Jessica Simpson a call, for I heard that she is an avid journal keeper who hosts journal reading parties. Maybe I could read some of my journals at one of her parties!

If not, I will keep my journals by my side, like old friends who allow me the freedom to express and be myself.

Sara Baker is a recently retired educator who works part-time as an editor/proofreader and freelance writer. She enjoys spending time with her soul mate, Bill, with whom she has been married 28 years.

Boiling It Down

  by Susan Bono

I'm beyond the halfway point of my life now. It's a relief to know I've made it this far, but I can't help being seized with dismay at all the stuff I've accumulated along the way. Unlike my grandmother who gave her small home a deep cleaning every year, there are cupboards and closets I haven't explored in decades. I'm sure they contain some useful treasures, like the crockpot I used in college or the quilt the women in my family made us for a wedding gift. But nothing is any good to me if I can't find it. I'm tired of being someone who doesn't know what she's got.

This attitude extends to my journals. Over the last 40 years I've filled nearly 200 with no thought of what I was going to do with them. The knowledge that they are waiting to shock, bore, or otherwise burden the family left behind oppresses me. I keep thinking of the four towering file cabinets of receipts, legal documents, letters and loose photos I had to go through when I cleaned out my parents' house. And so I've decided to shock, bore and burden myself first by grabbing notebooks at random and going through them.

So far, so good. In any given journal of 80 pages or thereabouts, there might be a dozen entries that reveal family history or my philosophy of life in ways that don't make me cringe or yawn. Some of these I've been collecting in a box I got from a dear friend. I've been pasting others into a new journal, commenting upon their personal significance this time around. The stale stuff gets unceremoniously dumped. The way I see it, if I'm lucky, I'll keep condensing this material over the time I have left until only a few books remain. It's not intended to be my life work, however. I see it as a way of moving forward into what's next.

These days, when Susan Bono sets pen to page, she is guided by an excavated journal entry she wrote in December of 2005: “By the time anyone reads this journal, I’ll probably be dead. The idea that anyone would be interested in my journals before then could only mean I’ve become addled or interesting enough to pique the curiosity of some grandchild. ‘What did Nana think about?’ But of course, anyone reading their grandmother’s journal is really wondering, ‘What did Nana think of me?’


  by Theresa Sanders

We left the garage, Dad, until the very last minute. Too raw, too difficult, it was your domain. Rakes and shovels, oil-stained concrete, a hot summer pavement where you spat. Bent nails, old wood; splinters, if we're not careful.

As we sorted, I wondered what we'd do with them, your tools. I figured we'd divide them and take them home. Forever rummaging, I searched for you in stolen moments. You were never one to wear your heart upon your sleeve. How Mom told me you were once in a car club, how you had a talent for tinkering and a passion for "inventing" little things. I didn't know, I never knew. I should have paid attention.

I'm consoled by the fact that you died doing something you loved, tending your garden, working your soil. I don't want to believe you suffered very long—-five minutes, maybe ten—-you, lying on the ground amidst your tools and the cleansing morning dew. Six years you've been gone and it still feels like yesterday. We never had a chance to say goodbye.

Tools, these tools are mine, Dad. You won't need them where you're going. I've saved them in a container you used for mismatched parts. I'm hoping they'll help me remember your hands: hands that plied your trade; hands, bloodied by life, hammer to nail. They might not be worth much, these tools, my little-girl toolbox, but to me, they are worth everything.

Someday, my sons and daughters, you will find my journals. Too blunt, too unwieldy, they are my domain. Spiral-bound notebooks, erasure marks on pages, prose over which I've cried and spat. Scattered sentences, tattered phrases; paper cuts, if you're not careful.

You won't know what to do with them, these journals. You will split the books between you and take them home. If you're patient, they will reveal our stolen moments. How I didn't let you sell your Star Wars figures on eBay, how I pretended to be "loveable furry old Grover" just to see you smile, how you and your twin sister relished "switch-up" tricks. It must have hurt you when I punished you for coloring on the walls; you, my little artist, how it must have stifled your creative "bursting forth." I didn't know, now I know. Now I pay attention.

I hope you won't have to search too hard for evidence. I try to say it often. God knows I wear my heart upon my sleeve. Still, it's good to tell you. We might not have a chance to say goodbye.

Yes, these journals will be yours someday, my darlings. I won't need them where I'm going. You'll store them on shelves that collect mismatched parts. I hope they might help you remember my words: words that plied my trade, words, bloody with life, hammer to nail. They might not mean much, these journals, my big-girl toolbox, but then again, to you, they might mean everything.

Theresa Sanders lives near St. Louis, Missouri with her husband, and is the mother of four grown children. An award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a documentation and training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. She contributes frequently to Tiny Lights and Chicken Soup for the Soul, and is completing a novel. Theresa welcomes email at:

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email:

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at, or visit her blog at

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at:

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