by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Spalding MFA Writing for Children and Young Adults
AGE NINE. How I coveted my brother’s green leather diary! He made a great display of writing mysteriously in its pages and then locking its tiny gold lock with its tiny gold key. He lectured me on the privacy of his diary, telling me that I could never ever read it.
My liver burned with envy. What did he write that was so secret? Why couldn’t I read it? Why couldn’t I write down thoughts and lock them away?
My brother hid in his bedroom. Was it my fault he wasn’t home? Was it my fault that the diary lock was easy to jimmy open with a bobby pin?
Of course it was. But that didn’t stop me. To this day, I remember one particular entry: “I built a fart today.”
My brother was nearly two years older. He was science-y and artistic and imaginative and knew everything. When I read that he had built a fart, I believed with all of my nine-year-old heart that he had happened upon some great scientific discovery that would make him famous.
Not many days later, I spied my brother crawling out from the space between the grape vine fence that bordered our property. As soon as he headed into the house, I hurried over and crawled in.
It was the perfect hiding spot for a fart machine. The hand-sized grape leaves formed a sun-warmed canopy that smelled of earth and leaf and ripening purple grapes. As I sat crossed-legged in the splattering of yellow and green light, I realized my brother hadn’t built a fart. He had built a fort.
FAST FORWARD, AGE 10. Inspired by Harriet the Spy, I kept a secret notebook. I was soon given a taste of my own nosy medicine when we moved mid-school year. I longed to make friends in my new fifth grade classroom, but a ring of girls had made a secret pact not to talk to the new girl. Nobody told me about the pact, and so I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Was it my glasses? My hair? My clothes? Me?
One day, after an incident, I stayed behind at recess and wrote in my secret notebook “I hate Anne S.” I can still feel how good it felt to write the words I couldn’t say. I slid the notebook beneath the books in my wooden desk and headed outside.
After recess, I returned to my desk. Someone had rifled through my things. I opened my notebook and turned to a clean page. A tracing caught my eye. I tilted the notebook and saw the words: “We hate you, too.” The writer had torn out the sheet, but the palimpsest was still clearly visible, etched onto the plain white paper.
I remember gasping and snapping the notebook shut. I remember my eyes stung. I remember it felt as if I’d stuck my finger in an electrical socket. I can still hear the giggles and the whispered “She saw, she saw” that buzzed from desk to desk. I remember the snickers that floated up and hummed in the florescent lights.
After that, my stomach often hurt too much to go to school. A facial tic affected my mouth. My mother pressed me to tell her what was wrong. Finally, I did. She met with the teacher. The teacher uncovered the pact.
But that wasn’t all. My ever-wise mother made friends with one or two other mothers and invited the families to dinner. She made after-school cookies and invited the girls. The transition gradually got better.
FAST FORWARD, 9TH GRADE. I bought a 29-cent black duo-tang notebook, decorated its cover with bright striped wrapping paper, and filled its pages with lined notebook paper. I wrote every single night.
My junior year, I made the decision to leave high school early and begin college. I was sixteen. One summer night before my college classes began, I pocketed matches and tucked my journal beneath my shirt. I hiked to a clearing in the woods near my house, struck a match, and torched my journal. It was a very dramatic thing to do, and I still don’t regret it. For the next few years, I didn’t keep a journal.
FAST FORWARD, TEACHING 8TH GRADE. As soon as I graduated college, I landed a job teaching 8th grade. Soon after, I began to scribble away again in a journal.
Just as I had during my growing-up years, I wrote about daily events. I vented. I gossiped. I recorded conversations and interactions with students, colleagues, and administrators. I did every writing assignment that I assigned my students, from poetry to short stories to essays.
TODAY. I use a plain, unlined Moleskine journal. In its pages, I vent. I record observations, images, feelings, dreams, and conversations. But I also look for the “poetic moment” of each day, a moment that has a turn or a discovery.
I often turn to my journal to find my subjects and themes. For example, my journal pages are where I recorded the dream I had two weeks after my stepfather died. I rewrote the dream as a pantoum and then rewrote it again as part of a scene in Down the Rabbit Hole. I also used bits of conversation that suited a character perfectly.
My journal helps me move my thinking deeper. For example, after interviewing Karl-Heinz Schnibbe and Gerhard Kunkel, freewriting helped me think through the brother relationship in my novel, The Boy Who Dared. It helped me process the most difficult research I’ve done to date: a three-day Klan rally I attended in rural Arkansas, as part of the research for They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group. It helped me sort through my feelings about Mary Mallon, the woman who became known as Typhoid Mary, and George Soper, the engineer-turned-epidemiologist who first tracked her down. This research became Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America.
Looking back, I can see that my journal-keeping was training me to become the writer I am today. I had no idea that I was collecting the seeds that would later germinate into poems and stories. (Perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve published three epistolary novels.)
As for my 5th grade classmates? We became friends. We keep in touch. At a party a few years ago, several classmates were reminiscing about elementary school. One of them asked me, “Did you go to grade school with us?” I just smiled and said, “Yes.”
How about you? Do you keep a journal? If so, tell me about it. How has it influenced your writing?
Susan Campbell Bartoletti writes poetry, picture books, novels, and nonfiction for children and young adults. She’s mostly known for her nonfiction work, which has won dozens of awards and honors, including an ALA Newbery Honor, ALA Robert F. Sibert Award for, YALSA honor for excellence in nonfiction, the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Nonfiction, a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction, among others. Her latest nonfiction book is Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).