Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Diaries, Cyberspace and Privacy

Sunset from Bailey Island, Harpswell

Did you keep a diary? I still do, but I write in it less frequently since I started my blog two years ago. Visiting my family in NYC, I brought back a stack of diaries that I’d kept since 1978 (I was turning eleven in 5th grade.)

These pages are the secret garden of my childhood. They show me the world through younger eyes.

I started my first journal as a response to an exercise at school. We had to keep a daily journal for a month. I loved the regular writing and reflection. I kept it going on my own, showing nobody. I did it for fun, the first indicator that I would grow up to be a writer. I played with words like blocks, safely in private.

In 1978 I was reading Harriet the Spy, The Secret Garden and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I started writing a novel but never finished it. I saw the King and I on Broadway and the movie of Grease. On TV my favorite show was Charlie’s Angels and Roots moved me deeply. I couldn’t understand the cruelty of slavery. I asked, “What happens when you die?” I gave my 1979 journal the name Janet after reading The Diary of Anne Frank – Anne’s diary was called Kitty. I mentioned the meanness of kids at school, the embarrassment of our sex ed. class and the thrill of my first boyfriend and kiss.

There is something special about writing only for yourself. You can be more honest. Perhaps that’s the wrong word. I’m honest in my blog, but I’m very selective about what I share. I fuss over grammar and style. My audience is always there. My rule of thumb is to assume that the last person I’d want to read my blog will find it online. My blog is as much a product of what I omit as what I include.

Omission is the dark matter of cyberspace. Do you remember the concept of dark matter from Astronomy? It makes up the bulk of the universe, but it is invisible. It has mass but no luminosity. We detect dark matter only by the gravitational force that it exerts on galaxies. Dark matter is the missing mass in our universe. My secrets are mine.

The best and the worst thing about blogging is its public nature. I love being able to share my thoughts and to get feedback. The community that has assembled around my blog is very special. I just don’t want my words to hurt someone or myself unintentionally. I’m a private blogger – is that an oxymoron?

I have been thinking about privacy issues in cyberspace lately. My 11-year-old daughter opened a Facebook account using her real name without my permission. She hid her face in the profile shot, and the pages were only accessible to her “friends.” Still, I was not comfortable with her real name being visible. Cyberspace has predators who target children.

Youthful indiscretions can get a child in trouble or even hurt her future employment prospects. My daughter’s lack of self-awareness in a public arena had already been revealed: she posted photos of a sleepover party at 2:45 am. It didn’t occur to her that her parents would see the time stamp. Think of all the dumb things you did as a teenager; would you want your mistakes to haunt you later?

Our compromise was that my daughter had to cancel her Facebook account and open a new one with a dummy name. As her “friend” my husband can view her pages. In monitoring our children and setting rules, we are protecting our daughter from herself. The issue of parental guidance is the same as in past generations, but the universe has expanded. My daughter keeps a handwritten journal too that we don’t check. There is room for personal exploration and raw honesty in private. My daughter wants to be a writer too.

Parody of Facebook on BBC’s The Wall

Blog Watch: I created this column to share the highlights of the blogs I read regularly. The visibility of blogs might pose a challenge to privacy, but it brings us together in a good way too. This week I want to draw your attention to David McMahon@authorblog. I listed David under “expat blogs” in my sidebar since he grew up in India and now resides in Australia. David is a journalist and an author, but he blogs about cyberspace and travel more than about writing books. He has a fun sense of humor and takes stunning photos. Check out his “Posts of Note” which is like my “Blog Watch.” Thank you, David, for expanding my horizon.

Our Backyard Forest at Sunrise


A Cuban In London said...

I enjoyed this post more than I have enjoyed others because it was not just about a particular book, but about a chapter of your life.

Reading an old diary is like retracing your own steps. And though it might sound incredible, it's another step in developing further as s human being. I, too, read the Secret Garden when I was little and have nice memories of it. Anne Frank arrived during my puberty and I thought it then and still do now a raw and honest book.

Many thanks for such a thoughtful post.

Greetings from London.

Tessa said...

Oh, what delight! I love that little journey through a time in your childhood. I could 'see' the grown up Sarah emerging from those enchanting diary jottings. Thank you for sharing them with us and for your sagacious advice about youngsters and the potential dangers of revealing too much information on social networking sites.

D.A. Riser said...

I love today's post, Sarah. You appeal to the personal historian in all of us. My favorite line -- your sentence, "Omission is the dark matter of cyberspace." That's a classic one for the ages. Well done!

troutbirder said...

Beautiful sunset. How thoughtful and incisive. I wish I had kept a personal diary long ago. I did have a hunting and fishing journal though (yes I know how mundane) Still, it now helps me do my "nature" blog. The rest lies hidden in the secret recesses of my mind.

tina said...

Very well said about the public nature of blogging. It can be scary sometimes, but it is good we can be selective too. I loved your diaries! No wonder you are a writer.

TBM said...

Sarah, how lovely to have a peek into the journals of your youth. I just love them.

We FB in our household as well. Our daughter is our "friend". We keep tabs each other ;-)

PS I found this article yesterday: Growing Up on Facebook. You might be interested to read it.

Elizabeth said...

Ah diaries!
Yours are quite wonderful. They show the promise of someone who will become a writer.
My friend Roberta Israeloff published a book about 8th grade after she rediscovered her diaries from that period.....very brave indeed.
Reading my own makes me cringe, though I haven't managed to chuck them.
So much of what Virginia Woolf called 'writing out misery' much typical existential angst. Ouch!
Re Facebook.....yes, I'm glad it wasn't invented when I was young. You are right to monitor your daughter, I think.
Blogging feels a little safer, one is aware of audience and most of us edit pretty fiercely to avoid giving offense.
all best wishes.

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

Very wise post today. You are a smart parent to protect your daughter as you do. Predators are among us.

And I loved looking back at your own youth. I wish I had my childhood diaries. I do have them for the past decade when so much has happened ~ loss of my mother, birth of grandchildren, going back to school, etc. But how smart of your mom to hang on to all of that for you. When I left for school, it sadly seems that a lot went missing.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Thank-you for sharing your early childhood journals with your readers. I am not a fan of facebook and even though my daughter is in the third grade, I am always beside her when she is on the computer.

Sarah Laurence said...

ACIL, comments like yours make it easier to share personal stories. It was a strange and fascinating experience to go back and meet myself at 11. In some ways it lined up with my memories and in others it did not. I hadn’t remembered wanting to be a writer. Anne Frank and The Secret Garden still influence my life and my writing now. Such magical books! How nice that we share them in common. Your blog post today was one of my favorites too.

Tessa, how much fun that you could “see” me in my youthful scribbles. Childhood is so much more complicated these days with the dangers and distractions of technology. Will kids still share favorite classic books?

Troutbirder, thanks! Quite a big part of my early diaries were filled with boring anecdotes about horseback riding. The nice thing about a private diary is it doesn’t matter. I don’t draw on my diaries for my blog, other than this one, but I do use them to guide me in my novel writing. Other parts remain secret.

Tina, it’s a fine line between the private and the public in a blog. I’ve always felt a strong urge to write . I used to pen very long letters too before e-mail. Looking back, becoming a professional writer seems inevitable, but it didn’t occur to me as an option during my 20’s. I’m pleased to discover the roots back in my tweens. Children can be more honest and aware of themselves than adults are.

JAPRA, good to hear that you’re taking the same FB approach with your daughter. Thanks for the link. I get the NYT but somehow I missed that excellent article. I loved her lines about the “undead past” and time bending. Interesting thoughts on reinventing oneself and how FB might alter that.

Elizabeth, I do use my diaries to work on younger characters. Writer’s gold! Quite a few of my entries made me cringe too, the spelling and whining especially. It’s all part of the real me. Our blogging community is especially supportive and considerate.

I’ll be back later!

Hana Njau-Okolo said...


This post has stirred me and given me goosebumps this morning. I wish I was more consistent with my diary entries as a young girl. You were lucky to have gotten that nice start in school. I also read the Secret Garden. My favorite series: Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew.

Thanks for sharing your wonderful diary entries - they are such treasures. My childhood library and diaries were lost in a fire at the gallery some years ago. I am lucky I have a brother with a photographic memory (he remembers things we did when he was five and I was two).

A wonderful post and since I am at a computer that prohibits video streaming, I will enjoy coming back again later to view the video.

Sarah Laurence said...

Mimi, I’m sorry to hear that you lost your mother, but the rest is good news. It was nice that my parents never tossed my diaries and respected my privacy. My mother enjoyed reading this post.

Tracy, I don’t have a FB account myself because I fear it would distract me from my novel writing. I will open one someday. Good idea to keep close tabs on little girls.

Mama Shujaa, how horrible that you lost your diaries and books in that fire but how lucky you are to have a brother with such good memory. I still have most of my huge Nancy Drew collection – I was a big fan. Fun that we share some books in common. The video is just a silly spoof on FB and what it would be like if people acted like that in real life. It’s enough to put you off FB but still quite funny.

Sarah Laurence said...

DA, oops skipped you although I very much enjoyed your comment. It's a fun break from writing fiction to read one's own diaries.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

So much fun to see your childhood diaries. I have mine from when I was around eight. I seemed awfully excited about eventually getting to wear lipstick!

You were smart to get your daughter to change her facebook page and photo. Too scary.

Sarah Laurence said...

Pamela, how much fun to look back all the way to eight! The little joys of childhood make me smile.

Bee said...

Sarah, this was a fascinating post. I've never kept a regular diary and regret that lack -- especially when I see your charming diaries! (You can connect back to your 11 year old self in a way that I can't. Memory is a trickster, as we all know.)

I have often noticed (and noted) that my blog is a journal of sorts . . . and yet, as you say, there is a large "mass" of things left unsaid. Sometimes when there are really important/upsetting/personal things happening in my life I find it difficult to blog . . . because I do find the need to protect the privacy of the lives intertwined with mine.

I worry a lot about what is displayed on Facebook. I have a friend who said that he has rejected many young (or youngish) potential employees when he discovered what they had revealed about themselves on the Internet. I think that it can be very difficult to remember just how "public" it all is . . . especially when a blog has such intimacy of friendship.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, I always assumed you’d be a diarist. There must be different attractions to blogging vs. private journaling.

It was strange how my memory and the diary didn’t match exactly. If we keep blogging for long enough, we’ll gain that perspective too. It was part of what motivated to blog about turning 40, thinking I’d want to remember exactly what it felt like. I already get nostalgic about my year at Oxford, rereading the posts.

That’s interesting to hear confirmation on the FB check.

Rosaria Williams said...

Lovely! You said it, blogging is much more self-conscious than journaling.

David at authorblog deserves a wonderful accolade.

SG said...

Delightful... I always loved writing in my diaries, though, (just like you mention) ever since I started blogging, the frequency of writing on pen and paper has reduced a lot... more so, now that I have become a little more free in what I write on my blog... the public nature is scary though... I love reading the comments people leave after reading my posts.. sometimes, some of them are worth years of wisdom, and it is always valuable to get a fresh perspective... a new viewpoint.

The pictures are amazing!

Gemma Mortlock said...

I used to love writing diaries, however my sister used to usually intercept them and read them so i used to write in code. unfortunately i can no longer remember what the codes stood for so my diaries have kept their secrets even from me, its ironic really. I enjoyed reading you diary entries they are very sweet. It's interesting what you see as important when you are younger compared to now. Sometimes i think we had the right ideas and beliefs as children and we weren't so brainwashed by society "the untainted mind" oh how i wish i was young again!

Rose said...

Sarah, You bring up some very timely issues today. My daughter--who's in her 20's--has a Facebook account which I've never seen, but I've warned her about the recent news that employers can view these pages. I know that a lot of college kids post pictures that they certainly wouldn't show their parents! I applaud you for monitoring your daughter's account and explaining to her the possible dangers in cyberspace. Just one more area parents have to worry about their children's safety in.

I think of all my blog readers as such kind, supportive people, and I would love to share more personal thoughts and photos sometimes--that is, show off great shots of the grandkids and share their names. But I'm a little hesitant just because of that one wacko person out there who might be reading unbeknownst to me. Sad we have to be so careful these days.

I enjoyed seeing your diary pages so much, Sarah! Brings back memories. I looked at my first diary one day, the one I began at age 9, and read several entries about having to swallow these huge green vitamin pills. It's so funny to remember what seemed so important to you at a certain age.

Thanks for this wonderful post! I hope diary-keeping doesn't become a lost art.

Donna said...

What a fun post! Your childhood diary pages are so neat to see. I have kept diaries and journals since I was very young too, and it's fun to go back and read them.
Good for you for looking out for your daughter. I know several people who join Facebook just to help keep an eye on their kids. You can't be too careful on the Internet when it comes to kids.

Sarah Laurence said...

Lakeviewer, thank you. We connected through David didn’t we?

Phoenix, thanks and welcome to my blog! It would be easier to blog more freely if I weren’t using my real name and photos. You don’t need to worry. I agree that the comments (like yours!) add so much to a blog.

Gemma, thank you and welcome to my blog! That is a sad and funny story. It must have been a good code. I have to say, reading back through my middle school years did NOT make me pine for those childhood years. Other kids can be so cruel, and as child, you have so little control of your life. There were plenty of joys too.

Rose, your daughter could always delete old posts if she’s worried or start a new FB account. As parents or grandparents, we do have to be extra cautious as sad as that is. It was funny to read from a child’s perspective now that I’m the parent. You are right about what seems important differs by age. These journals will help me write from a child's perspective or reach a younger audience. I’ll keep writing in my diary and my daughter still writes in hers.

Donna, it’s fun seeing which bloggers were also diary keepers. My daughter will eventually drag me onto FB, but I can monitor it from my husbands account for now.

Alyson | New England Living said...

That last photo is simply breathtaking!

I adore reading my old diaries. Only wish I did it more now. Your entries from childhood are so precious!

My daughter has begged for a facebook account, but we've said not until she's 13 and only if we're monitering. It's so scary out there! In terms of parenting, it's a whole new world.

Mary Ellen said...

Sarah, this post made me feel so melancholy today. It's wonderful to have a record of one's childhood days - especially for you in your budding writer stage - and yet having the record reminds us of how time has past and how much the world has changed. A lovely post.

walk2write said...

Sarah, your posts about the privacy issue with social networking are honest and informative. Blogging is a great tool for self-promotion, but whoever uses it runs a risk of exposing personal as well as familial weaknesses/quirks. There's also the distinct possibility that some people will misinterpret and be confused, angered, or hurt by what is said or even not said. You have done a good job of sorting out some of the tangled mess that blogging/networking can sometimes become.

Charlotte Agell said...

What? You kissed Roland? FOUR times?

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyson, the view makes those early school day mornings worthwhile. I can imagine you as a diary keeper child. I was hoping to wait for high school, but all of my daughter's friends have FB accounts. It’s also been a way for her to reconnect with a teenaged girl she met in England. I find parenting to be a conversation with issues I hadn’t anticipated. It is a scary world.

Mary Ellen, it was bitter sweet reading those old entries. Childhood felt a bit safer back then.

W2W, thanks. I try my best. My commenting community is wonderful, but it’s impossible to know who else is reading and why. As an optimist I believe all my readers are good people, but as a realist, I take precautions.


Gretel said...

I burned my rudimentary teenage diaries, and I'm still glad I did so! I did take it up again, back in 2002, and now, as I think Pepys said, it keeps me, I don't keep it. Or something like that!
I'm so glad that your daughter's diary is kept private; my foster mother and her daughter read mine, and told me so - I felt completely stupid, violated and betrayed, and I think that is why it took me so long to start keeping one again.

Sarah Laurence said...

PG, how horrible to have your diary violated! I could understand why you’d want to burn those chapters of your life. It’s a sign of how well you’ve rebuilt your life that you can keep a journal again.

Anil P said...

This post was a delight as much for your diary entries from childhood as for your reflection of the dilemma technology casts our way.

Looking at the handwriting I can imagine the effort that must have gone into each word as you wrote across the page, and the dedication it will have involved. A diary must've been more than a 'book', a companion no less. Surely you were destined to be a writer. I was hoping you'd put up your picture from when you wrote the diary entries :)

Many things you said about FB and the open nature of the Internet strikes a chord.

I wonder if it is at all possible to "live" without getting online, and if one could then what might one lose out on 'living' (assuming one would lose out on something) the way we know it in an Internet-enabled society.

If it were inevitable that we get online then given the caution (driven by fears unknown) we 'need' to bring to our 'existence' online might change us in ways we might not have otherwise. The more time we spend online the more it can strengthen our conditioning around our 'behaviour' online, and chances are some of that conditioning might influence the way we look at our world offline!

I find this a dilemma of our generation.

Sarah Laurence said...

Anil, next time I’m visiting my parents in NYC, I’ll see if I can scan a childhood photo. I do remember the effort of writing. I still prefer to typing to writing longhand. My biggest surprise was discovering that I wanted to be writer back then.

Your words on how time online affects us offline are making me think. I actually remember life before the internet. I think the benefits of being connected outweigh the cons as long as we don’t let time online replace face to face time with friends and family. It’s all about finding balance and creating limits, like my blogging only weekly.

Interesting comment!

Cynthia Pittmann said...

Sarah, when I read, "I’m a private blogger – is that an oxymoron?", I thought of you! You are that careful reflective writer who seems to know what her next step will be and how to avoid missteps.

I tried to keep my children out of cyberspace exposure but they have their own minds. At 17 and 22, they get to decide. I controlled it when I could. I still talk with them about images that they post and what they might indicate.

I'm surprised at how facebook connects us to people from the past. I just opened an account and already five high school and middle school friends have found me. I like it that I can select who I will respond to, but I'm also still learning...and have had some strange encounters. Some people are more cause oriented and shocking than me...and the short cuts in communication take a bit of getting accustomed to. (What did that mean?-kind of experience.)

I so enjoyed your childhood journal writing! I might dig out mine and see what it says about the child I once was... Delightful!

Sarah,thank you for sharing so much of yourself here...I feel honored that you would include us in your life. <3

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, it is interesting how FB has created a global directory allowing for reconnections. I will join FB eventually, but I’m so focused on my writing right now and don’t want any more distractions.

I hope you share some of your childhood journals too. I’m honored to have you all in my life too.

Dave King said...

I'm fascinated by diaries, have often kept one, but don't have the discipline to keep it up. An extremely interesting post.

Sarah Laurence said...

Dave, it is easier to stay disciplined about a blog because of an audience. Nice comments like yours are a great incentive. I realized, when reading back through my journals, that I was writing for an audience: myself in the future.

david mcmahon said...

Wonderful, Sarah, a real thought-provoking post. (And thank you for the kind words about my own efforts.)

I really enjoyed your comment on my F-16 post. In answer to your question, I was 13 when I was taught the intricacies of managing a darkroom, mixing chemicals, printing etc.

I will explain it in my next ABC Wednesday post - but that is precisely the reason I do not edit images or use filters with my camera - the challenge is to produce an acceptable image of decent quality without any of the electronic equivalents of the darkroom era.

So it's just me and a camera in the outdoors - and it does not get more fulfilling than that.

Hope all that makes sense!!

Keep smiling


Sarah Laurence said...

David, I learned darkroom skills as a young teen too and then became my school newspaper’s photo editor. I spent a summer taking dorsal fin ID photos of dolphins back in my field biologist stage.

I only switched to a DSLR (a Nikon D80) this past summer and am figuring out the manual settings and Lightroom as I go along. I tend to use more manipulations in tricky lighting situations like these sunset and sunrise photos. I avoid flash, tripods (except for shooting my portfolio) and unnatural manipulations. My photos are pretty close to what was shot. I like the sharpening feature for landscapes, but I try to get the exposure and composition right while shooting.

I’m looking forward to reading more about your approach.

Natalie said...

Hi Sarah, I was 12 in 1978. I was just wanting to say that my favourite childhood book was Harriet the Spy. My best friend and I used to 'be' Harriet and get ourselves in trouble too! Thanks for the memories.x

ArneA said...

Intriguing post.
Worth top rating at David´s POTD

introspection said...

Hi Sarah, I am here via David's POTD. Congrats for winning the POTD. It's an honor well deserved. I would have missed your blog had it not been for David - yes he is a gem.

The first thing that struck me about your prize winning post is about you as a person. You come across as a person of immense poise, self descipline, and quietly confident yet not unvulnerable. Very humane, and an unconditional writer. your child hood writings stand testimony to all this, and your narrative in between shows you to be who you are now. it's a great write up.

And the matter in your blog: Reminds me of the days (years) that I wrote my diary. They are all there - me saying I will be a writer. I think were are times when I wanted be my 'mom', and then a film actor, a rock star, and also a country head, if you please. most times I became my teacher and took lessons for other kids. I was all in one, but it turned out that so far I havent become any of those. But the urge to write, (and write I certainly do though I am not a professional writer) has always been the strongest. I did write a couple of books (fiction) on the lines of Nancy drew, Mills & boon, and later Georgette Heyer (she has been my all time favorite). I still posess these treasures/manuscrpits, and wanted to inculcate this love in my daughters who are now grown up. Some how they are the facebook people ( even I am on FB) and the reading material they love is mostly autobiographical or Obamaniacal, or Wall street stuff at best.
But writing is such a pleasure. It gives me a high just to write. I may never be a writer, but I still write. Like you said "There is something special about writing only for yourself. You can be more honest."
And I am sure your daughter will be a writer too. Good Luck.
I will be back to read more of your blogs, if I may.
Thanks for sharing parts of your diary with us.
You are amazing...!!

Cheffie-Mom said...

Super post. The photos of the journals are great. I love how children view the world. I came over from David's blog - congrats on POTD.

Rune Eide said...

A very personal post - a post I wouldn't have dared to write. But then I didn't wouldn't have dared to keep a diary either :-)

PS Congratulations with the POTD!

Eddie Bluelights said...

Hi Sarah. I've popped over from David to congratualte you on POTD. I just loved your post and it was wonderful to see your diary written as a child - it was so funny - so innocent and sweet kids are. Eddie

Margaret's Ramblings said...

I also came via David's blog. He has led me to so many interesting places. I loved your post on your diaries. I also have a hidden bundle and still keep one. My one question about keeping a current diary is, what do you do with them? Do you leave them for you dearest to read once you have gone and does this have any effect on what you write?

I will be coming back to visit and am listing you on my daily read blog list.


Sarah Laurence said...

Natalie, I used to pretend I was Harriet with my friends too. How much fun that the same game could be inspired by one book on opposite sides of the world.

AnreA, welcome to my blog and thank you! I enjoyed your blog too. I’m happy to have connected with you through David.

Introspection, welcome to my blog and thank you! You live up to your handle in your thoughtful comment. How interesting that you could read so much into one post. I guess I am self-disciplined. That’s a job requirement for a self employed writer and artist. As a child, writing was just one of my dreams including a bareback rider in the circus, a jockey (there’s that horse theme!) a vet and a field biologist. I loved Nancy Drew as a kid and saved my collection for my daughter too. That’s great that you are following your passion for writing. You are more than welcome here.

Cheffie-Mom, thanks and welcome. It’s fabulous to see so many new faces here thanks to David. I enjoyed looking back at the world through younger eyes.

RuneE, congratulations to you on your POTD too! As my regular readers will attest, this post is unusually personal for me. This positive response makes it easier to open up. I think blogging is bolder than keeping a diary. You have to put yourself out there. Nice to connect with you.

Eddie, congratulation to you for your POTD mention on authorblog too. Welcome to my blog! Some of my entries really cracked me up – kids are funny.

Margaret, welcome to my blog and thanks for following too. The diary legacy issue is an excellent question. I should write this response for posterity and remember to cc my lawyer! No one has ever read my diary (that I know of!) before these excerpts that surprised even my parents.

My daughter asked me a related question: who is the diary written for? I think I was writing them for my older self – at one point I even mentioned an incident “which would make me laugh later” and it did!

I’ve told my husband and kids they could read my diaries after I’m gone. I should add to that: and do NOT publish/share them. My generation lacks the journaling finesse. What I wrote was extremely personal. As in interesting to me and most probably tediously boring or embarrassing to others. That’s the point of a diary – it is not self-conscious. Knowing that my family might see it after I’m dead doesn’t change what I write as long as they respect my privacy while I’m still breathing.

All, I’m so pleased by this huge response to my post and to the one I just posted yesterday. It may take me through the weekend to visit everybody, but I will. Thanks so much for such thoughtful comments. You’ve made me think more deeply about this topic. This discussion makes sharing so worthwhile.