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When Eldonna Edwards Bouton remarried and moved across the country to California six years ago, she wanted to maintain a close connection with her youngest daughter, Maggie, then 17, who chose to stay behind with her father in Michigan. The two women started e-mailing every few days, sharing the ordinary details of their lives as well as their deeper emotions and memories.
Because she also wanted to keep a lasting reminder of this important time in their relationship, Bouton printed their e-mails and saved them in a special notebook. Now that Maggie is grown and has two young children of her own, Bouton looks forward to sharing the journal with her daughter.
"She often asked me about things from my childhood and told me things (about her life) that I'd missed 'when my back was turned,'" says Bouton, a writer who lives in San Luis Obispo, California. "Our exchanges were often a door through which we would not have walked in 'real time' conversation. I wanted to capture the beauty of those exchanges, because I knew as time passed, I would forget."
Keeping a journal is typically a solitary affair. Like a diary, it is a record of a person's most intimate thoughts, feelings, and imaginings. It can chronicle a short journey or an important life passage, such as a baby's first year or the year a loved one moved away from home.
But a journal also can be a way of bringing people together, especially when it is created and shared among family members or dear friends. It can be as private as the intimate secrets passed between mother and daughter. Or it can become the impetus for a special event or homecoming celebration, such as a reunion of old college friends.
Often, a collaborative journal becomes a sort of shared history, told from various points of view, says Nancy K. Barry, an English professor at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, who teaches a summer workshop on journaling for women. She recalls one student, a mother and teacher, who decided to place a notebook in the kitchen where family members could jot down their thoughts and experiences. "There were two rules: No mean-spirited comments about people in the family. And no whining," Barry says.
Predictably, some members wrote more often than others. The woman's teenage son seemed particularly resistant to the idea. But one night the woman came down to the kitchen and found her son engrossed in the journal. Though he refused to write in it himself, he was intensely interested in what others had to say.
"We think of journals as being supremely personal, but they don't necessarily have to be," Barry explains. "There's a collective energy that comes from people reading entries from other people and commenting on them. You see an event from a different perspective.
"By doing a collaborative journal, you're creating something that is greater than the sum of the individual pieces people might write on their own."
"For as many lives as there are, there are that many different kinds of journals," comments Barry. The first step is to decide what kind of journal you'd like to create.
A collaborative journal might focus on a shared experience in the past. For example, former neighbors who once lived on the same block might swap memories of their time together, as well as update each other on their current lives. These recollections, along with photographs and other mementos, could be gathered in a journal, which then would become the focus of a reunion block party.
A shared journal might also be a record of current events and perceptions. Hollie Rose keeps a "Thought Book" behind the counter of her coffee shop in Middletown, Connecticut. "It's a place to share important news about the day-to-day running of the cafe, to relate interesting vignettes of scenes that happen with customers, and also a place to vent," Rose says. "It's a nice record of the changing life of the cafe." When customers return, they enjoy flipping through the journal to see what they've missed. In nine years, the store has filled more than 30 volumes.
Or a journal might become the centerpiece of an individual celebration, such as a grandparent's 75th birthday or a 50th wedding anniversary. Guests could write down what the grandparent has meant to their lives or tell their favorite stories about the couple. They might also include a poignant quote or their best advice for a long and happy life. The journal can be passed around during the event for guests to record their entries. Alternately, family and friends could submit material beforehand and present the journal to the honorees at the event.
One group of women created a collaborative journal for a friend who was recovering from cancer, says Bouton, whose book, Journaling from the Heart (Whole Heart Publications, 2000), offers suggestions for tapping into memories and experiences. "Each person wrote about how much they cared for and loved her, and why she was important to them." The journal helped sustain the woman through months of chemotherapy and radiation. When her cancer went into full remission, doctors gave a lot of credit to the loving support of her friends.
One of the toughest things about writing a journal is simply keeping it going. In fact, staring at the blank page, many people have a hard time getting started at all.
A list of generic questions can jump-start the process, says Bouton, whether the journal is to focus on a person, place, or event. Here are some suggestions:
Also, it helps to keep an open mind about what can go into a journal. "If you don't like to write, use photographs or drawings for your contribution," Bouton says. This is especially helpful if children are involved. Encourage participants to attach other types of mementos as well, such as a flower or leaf, newspaper clippings, ticket stubs, or a lock of hair.
(As an aside, online journals, diaries, and Weblogs -- "blogs" for short -- are an increasingly popular way for people to share their thoughts, experiences, daily activities, poetic musings, political rants, reading lists, and favorite Web links. To find out more about the phenomenon, log onto www.diarist.net.)
Often, a collaborative journal that circulates among participants will get stuck along the way. To avoid logjams, try to get everyone's commitment to the project up front. Or instead of passing the journal around, have contributors submit individual entries, which then can be photocopied or bound into one volume. Give a firm deadline for submissions, preferably at least one month prior to the event. But also give people permission NOT to contribute, if that's what someone ultimately chooses.
"One of the rules of a collaborative journal is: No one feels bad for simply putting it in the mail and sending it on to someone else," says Barry. "Once it becomes like homework, it defeats the purpose."
Finally, a few practical considerations: Use only acid-free paper and pens with permanent ink or high-quality computer printers. And be sure to have contributors sign and date their entries. "Journals are great keepsakes to be handed down through the generations," Bouton says. With a little care, the memories, experiences, and insights they contain won't fade as the years go by.