Dear Diary: This is what I did today, but it's a secret, and no one must ever know

FOR THE RECORD

November 08, 1993|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Staff Writer

The story of Sen. Bob Packwood's career-threatening diaries has us thinking about who keeps diaries and why anyone would do it in the first place.

"It's the stupidest idea in the world. You always will regret it," says Baltimore filmmaker John Waters. On the other hand, "I'm a voyeur. I love to read them," he says.

Call them diaries, journals or notebooks. Call them therapy. People have this almost compulsive need to keep records of their lives and thoughts. Five million blank diaries are sold each year, and that's not counting the tape recorders, computers and notebooks that store confidences.

As kids, we locked our diaries with baby keys, felt guilty when we didn't write every day and were suicidal when our brother or sister held our captured diaries for ransom. The invasion of privacy was a capital offense. As corny as this sounds, some kids considered their diaries their friends.

As adults, we stop calling them diaries. We prefer the more mature "journal" -- as in journaling or the New Journalism, as some have called this pop branch of writing. But face it, promising to keep a journal might be the most-often busted New Year's resolution besides pledging to quit smoking.

Politicians are chronic diarists. Something in the genes or oath of office. Pick a president, and he's written down every single thing done, thought and dreamt at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Their writings typically become the first drafts of memoirs, which become autobiographies, which make money.

Athletes, too, have turned their diaries into best-selling books, such as Green Bay Packer Jerry Kramer's "Instant Replay" and )) pitcher Jim Bouton's "Ball Four."

But diaries also have historical value. People stumble onto diaries that fill in the gaps of history or give human voice to such events as the Holocaust and the Civil War. Samuel Pepys' descriptions of the Great Plague and Fire of London were late, great finds. (Ex-Beatle John Lennon probably had great inside stuff in his diaries, but they were stolen six months after he was shot in 1980.)

Some historical diaries have been glorified fibs. Anais Nin explicitly recorded her robust life in Paris -- but later she admitted parts of her diary were erotic fantasies. Regardless, her diaries became the unofficial bible of undergrad lit majors in the 1970s.

The discovery of a diary can get people in trouble. During the Watergate hearings, former President Richard Nixon was ordered to release reams of damning conversations he secretly taped in the White House. The public disclosures did not endear Mr. Nixon to the Republic.

And there's Senator Packwood. The stubborn Oregonian failed to keep the Senate from supporting a broad subpoena of his dictated diaries, which Packwood fears may be used against him to prove unethical or illegal conduct. A federal court will rule whether the Senate is entitled to get the diaries.

Mr. Packwood's situation is scaring the lay diarist.

"At an early age, I told myself to out and out tell the truth in my diary. Now when I write I wonder what's going to happen to these things?" says Patrick Smithwick, who has taught journal ,, writing at Goucher College.

But when you think about it, most of us don't have to worry about having our journals published. Go ahead. Fearlessly write on.

"There's something very good about putting down your experiences, thoughts and feelings. You have a chance of knowing yourself better," says Sister Maura Eichner, who taught journal writing at the College of Notre Dame.

One reason people write diaries is because they can. People who are intimidated by a blank piece of paper or video screen feel more comfortable and confident about writing to themselves. No audience judges the writing. There's a lawlessness to it; rules of grammar and spelling can be broken. You have a lifetime deadline.

But no one really writes just for themselves, says Garrison Keillor, author of "Lake Wobegon" and radio host of "A Prairie Home Companion." We write to be read by someone, whether we admit it or not. "Diaries are fundamentally dishonest," says Mr. Keillor. Henry David Thoreau hit the woods alone and kept a diary, but it was always meant for publication, he says. Writers should stare someone in the eye and not hide in classified paper.

Diaries might be dishonest, but that doesn't stop us from wanting to read them.

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