The Power of Writing: My Five Year Retro Diary

I’ve wondered over the years, since I began journaling in a decade far away, about the picture people would form of me, after reading my journals. Maybe they would think I was a bit nutty but with (hopefully) a larger than usual dose of self-awareness? Who knows.

Lately, however, this theme has taken on a different focus. I’ve thought about finding someone else’s diary. I’ve tried to imagine the experience of unearthing a four line daily summary of a stranger’s life, the way former New York Times writer Lily Koppel did when she happened upon an aged five year, red leather diary while walking to work one morning in 2003.

The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life through the Pages of a Lost Journal is New York City resident Koppel’s story of how she found the diary in a trunk inside a dumpster waiting for the garbage collectors. The diary’s author, Florence Wolfson, wrote in it every day for five years, starting in 1929, when she was 14 yrs. of age. It chronicles Wolfson’s life at a time when she felt the world was hers for the taking. Koppel’s book contains not only Wolfson’s original diary entries, and her own commentary, but includes the story of how she found Florence. The diary’s author is now in her 90s, living a short train ride from Koppel. See pictures of Lily and Florence at The book provided a fascinating read while I was in Denver at a journal conference. Talking to Lily Koppel and listening to her read from her book inspired me to buy my own five-year diary shortly after coming home.

The diary, the first I’ve had of its type since I was eleven, isn’t red, nor is it leather. Instead, it’s neon striped. It looks more like one of my clowning t-shirts than a repository for my daily life between now and 2012. But like everything else about my writing life, this journal suits me well.

Developing a new writing routine hasn’t been difficult, though I do admit to playing catch up now and then. As of this writing every day is accounted for. Already I’m amazed at the twists and turns my life has taken. It’s a powerful way to observe how the story of my life evolves. Looking back in another year and a year after and so on, will truly give me a road map of my life.

Since starting my five-year diary odyssey, I’ve realized a few things. I like the challenge of summarizing my day in a mere four lines. It’s an addition to my regular journal, not a replacement. With my regular journal, knowing I have a place where I can expand, explore, and process what I summarize, is essential for me.

Whether you journal every day, now or then, or haven’t tried it, a diary can be a way to warm up with writing. Choose your words carefully since the lack of space doesn’t allow for aimless ponderings. Then watch with wonder as your mindful writing weaves your story the way only you can tell it. I wonder… who will find my striped diary?