What to do with old diaries (and letters)

When my dad opened an old trunk, he found two diaries his mother had kept from the years 1935 and 1936. At first glance they seemed to be all about the weather, not surprising for a farming man’s wife when survival depended on weather. Those were the days before we thought it was okay to spill all our thoughts into highly personal and private diaries and journals. People were generally more reserved then. When I sat down to read through them, beyond the weather details came a glimpse into a young mother’s life during the Depression years – quite fascinating to me. I found a three-dimensional grandmother, one I never really knew as a child, one who died when I was a young woman away at college.

The family history book I am working on was about done then, but I wanted to incorporate these diaries. Remembering how I did the book of my husband’s grandfather’s WWII letters home, I knew I had to do some serious culling. I ended up with 16 full pages of my summary statements interspersed with pertinent diary entries, often with the weather edited out, sometimes other unimportant details, too. Still, 16 pages to add to the book already full of stories? I emailed them to my sister to see what she thought.

My sister can be bluntly honest—a good trait for a beta reader. (A beta reader is someone who will tell you what she thinks about your work – for free – before you pay an editor and so you don’t publish and embarrass yourself). She said, “I think it’s too long.” Thank you! This gave me freedom to cull more entries out, leaving just the most interesting or most representative. No need to repeat points via multiple diary entries, just add details to my summary paragraphs as needed. Summary paragraphs are easier reading than a bunch of diary entries or letters. Below is a short (and edited) example showing how to handle the left out bits (the more boring parts) and include side comments.

Times were hard during the Depression. Sometimes Pete did not have work or he could not do farm work due to weather. Sometimes he would not get paid and had to go calling later to ask for his money.

Tuesday, March 26: . . . We washed this morning and it dried swell. . . . Chris and the kids and I walked to town this P.M. Pete is around the house every day yet, no work. . . .

Saturday, June 29: . . . Baked quite a lot after we came home. Pete sold all the beets but only got 1 1/2 cents for the last 200. The rest 650 for 2 cents [probably each, but packed by box or bushel].


Note that if you are leaving things out following a complete sentence, use the sentence-ending period followed by the ellipsis . . . so you end up with four dots, as in the first diary entry above.

You may want to include a photo of the diary cover or of the stack of letters as well as a photo of original handwriting. Putting every bit of every letter or diary entry into a book can make for a long, boring read for anyone who is not interested in minute details. You want your family to finish reading your book, not fall asleep.



About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; author of Poems That Come to Mind, for caregivers of dementia patients; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), poetry, and cats
This entry was posted in journal, letters, lifewriting and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What to do with old diaries (and letters)

  1. Awesome find! I have a couple of notebooks like that from one grandmother. Her entry about my father’s birth was “Baby born at 2:30 Doctor came at 5.” She never mentioned expecting a baby, and never mentioned his name. Funny!

  2. That is very funny, Sharon – no big deal!

Let us know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s