Keeping private stuff private
July 22, 2008 6:28 PM   Subscribe

How do you protect your privacy when writing personal stuff down into journals, diaries, or self-help books?

I'm wondering what techniques might be adequate for me to overcome my hesitance in writing down extremely personal stuff. I like to write, and I feel like it helps me immensely - but the thought of someone stumbling across a detailed account of my biggest fears and inadequacies makes me nervous.
(hey look - a new inadequacy!)

Seriously, though... does anyone else go through this? Any advice on how to be able to write stuff down, but have it less 'incriminating' should it accidentally be read by someone else?
(especially in the case of a journal, which you might be apt to bring along with you - and run the risk of misplacing it)

I'm not sure if this is going to make sense to anyone. I'd thought I'd give it a try.
posted by Tbola to Human Relations (28 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
(especially in the case of a journal, which you might be apt to bring along with you - and run the risk of misplacing it)

Rule #1 of keeping a diary is that you don't carry it outside the room where you write in it.
posted by jayder at 6:47 PM on July 22, 2008

Maybe a safe with a combination that only you know? That might sound extreme, but safes are good to have in general, so this might be a good excuse to buy a small one and store other valuables there. You could write in a book, put it back in the safe, and maybe someday take out a section for a close friend to read.
posted by belau at 6:47 PM on July 22, 2008

Of course, there's always the Samuel Pepys method, which is to invent a secret code to write your diary in.
posted by jayder at 6:48 PM on July 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Do you need to keep a record of it? If not, you could do it electronically then delete it, or write it out on paper and then shred/burn it.

If you want to keep a record, you could change names/details such that it still makes sense to you but may not directly link you to it.

And if you want to keep goign down that path, you could write it all in code. That'd be a fair amount of effort though.

As for a journal, you can buy ones with locks on the cover. They're often fairly simple, but it would stop someone from casually picking up and reading it.
posted by twirlypen at 6:49 PM on July 22, 2008

One thing I do in my journals is to refer to other people simply by first initial. I know who I'm talking about, but anyone who *found* the journal would have to do a bit more detective work to figure out who it was who said that stupid thing that day.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:53 PM on July 22, 2008

Do you reside with people who have no respect for you? I have always been a writer-of-personal-thoughts, and I often write stuff that I'd hate for anyone to read. Generally all you have to do is say "please don't read that, it's private" and if the people in your life respect you, they won't! If you live with the kind of people who will violate your wishes for privacy then you should reassess them as friends.

Unless you are 13 and living with your parents who suspect you are on heroin, it shouldn't be a problem.

It sounds as though you are very nervous about it though, maybe you could start by typing emails to yourself or something, and then work up to having a physical journal. Writing your thoughts is so healthy and useful - Good luck getting over your anxiety.
posted by beccyjoe at 6:55 PM on July 22, 2008

Seriously, though... does anyone else go through this?

Yes and I decided 'fuck it', too much energy was being spent on finding a hiding place, changing names, etc, etc. Instead of worrying about whether someone will find out your deep, dark secrets and hurt you with them, accept that they will and that you can survive it. Because you can.

Only be being completely vulnerable can you be strong.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:57 PM on July 22, 2008

If the journal can be "electronic", such as a Word document on your hard drive, then just encrypt the file.
posted by Kevin S at 7:01 PM on July 22, 2008

It's been a while since I kept a journal, but when I was a teen, I created my own alphabet for just this reason. I'm the only one who can read it.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:01 PM on July 22, 2008

If you're interested in keeping a digital journal, I really like the freeware program MacJournal. You can set a password for it, so even if someone gets on your computer, they will (hopefully!) not be able to view your entries.
posted by polyester.lumberjack at 7:02 PM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

For sensitive stuff, I keep it in Russian and, when that fails me, simply transliterate English into Cyrillic. Any unusual alphabet would work for this. Another option is to come up with code words/phrases for various uncomfortable situations and write them down in another part of the diary or somewhere else entirely. This is useful if you're worried about glancing/inadvertent discovery rather than a full-on search of your diary; if you're complaining about eggplant or Aunt Jane, a quick peek isn't going to reveal that you're really mad at your sister. A detailed read might show it up from contextual clues but even that depends on how much context you typically put in diary entries, as opposed to cathartic ranting.
posted by posadnitsa at 7:15 PM on July 22, 2008

I like to write, and I feel like it helps me immensely

So write. Just don't keep it. Write to make yourself feel better, unleash what you want to say, and then.. throw it back into the universe by tearing it up, burning it, whatever. Problem solved, and you don't have the awkward moment of reading it back in the future and realizing how crazy it sounded.

Writing is therapeutic. Reading it back is often not.
posted by wackybrit at 7:15 PM on July 22, 2008

I've kept journals for many years (many many years) and once I was beyond being a young teenager, I didn't really care if people read it. Or, it wasn't so much that. I decided that the people around me would respect me enough to not read it. Or like David Sedaris once said, "If you read someone's diary, you deserve what you get."

I like keeping a record of my life and rereading at certain points. You may not. If it's just the writing process that's helpful to you, then maybe just write and don't keep it.

Codes/initials and all of that can be useful, but I know when I've been vague about things, what I've written is inexplicable to me later on.

(As for misplacing it -- just don't misplace it. If you bring it with you, keep track of it always. If you take it out of your bag, put it back in your bag. I've traveled often with journals and I've never lost one.)
posted by darksong at 7:50 PM on July 22, 2008

Write in a journal that is disguised into something absolutely nobody wants to read: "Macro Programming for Excell 2.0 for Dummies" or "How to get rich quick, the manual". And then put it in between other books in your bookcase/pile of books.

Just don't forget to remove it when you sell your old books in a garage sale.
posted by maremare at 7:54 PM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you have to write it in a "less incriminating way" that rather defeats the point, doesn't it? As someone who writes the sort of thing you want to write, I don't think I'd find that very satisfying or cathartic. You want some sort of outlet to get those things out, right? Write it openly and honestly. The privacy concerns shouldn't figure into that, at least in my opinion, and should instead be dealt with separately.

If you live alone, if you hide it anywhere you shouldn't worry about people finding it. No one should be rifling through your things without your knowledge. Stick it under your mattress, at the bottom of a drawer, in a box, in a bag in the closet, etc.

If you live with other people, of course, they shouldn't be looking either. But I can understand worrying that they will anyway, or that they'd find things accidentally when looking for something else. In that case, I think the idea of a safe is decent. It would give you peace of mind. Even if you live alone, that might help you feel better about it.

There are diaries with locks on them, which I don't recommend because they're very easy to pick; I had to pick my own diaries because I'd lose the keys. Many diaries with locks are just cheaply made, too, and you don't need to pick them at all; just jiggle them a bit.

From personal experience, the "secret code" writing was just frustrating; it took way too long to read or write. If you were determined, you could get used to it after enough practice. I felt it really ruined the catharsis of it, though.

Right now, I just write things in a notebook I keep in plain view in the bedroom. My fiance respects me enough not to read it, and I've never had anyone even touch it while they were visiting.
posted by Nattie at 8:28 PM on July 22, 2008

If you have OneNote, you can use that and password protect a notebook. I find it works very well.
posted by Autarky at 8:45 PM on July 22, 2008

I write really messy. You would have to make a real effort to figure out what the hell I wrote. Sometimes i can't even figure it out. I guess I am just scribbling in a book to get the thoughts out. Mostly it's just to write and I never re-read it. What a pointless exercise. But I still do it.
posted by extrabox at 9:06 PM on July 22, 2008

I find cathartic writing helpful, but reading that sort of stuff again doesn´t help my mood at all. I write on plain sheets of paper and pitch them in the shredder when I´m done. I don´t even want myself to read that stuff.
posted by yohko at 9:14 PM on July 22, 2008

Previous questions on obscuring handwritten text.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:13 PM on July 22, 2008

Google Docs or Zoho et all, unless you're the sort of person who prefers longhand to typing.

And I get a tremendous amount out of reading what I've written, I do like to keep it -- why not? I so often don't know what's on my mind until it's on the page (screen, for me), and, also, I know much more than I know when the words are flowing -- I look back at what I've written and I'm sometimes surprised at what I see.

I love going back through old journals -- I've got one from 1988 in which I wrote just the dailyness of my life, what I did with who, and opening it is opening a window twenty years gone by, names I've forgotten now back in clear focus, an afternoon at The Art Institute, that series of Danish films at the museum in Houston, animosities large and small at people who I do not even remember, etc and etc.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:50 PM on July 22, 2008

Write it in shorthand?
posted by flibbertigibbet at 3:51 AM on July 23, 2008

Write about what you feel about the possibility of someone reading it. I've kept a journal for over 20 years off and on, and I decided long ago that the therapeutic value of writing (and keeping for future reference) what I wanted to write about far outweighed the possible problem of someone reading it, and part of how I decided that was by writing about it, writing helps me work out where I stand on things. I also use my own shorthand, but it's far from a sekrit code. Just write, and be sensible about where you keep your journal if you live with people who don't respect your privacy (and write about THAT too).
posted by biscotti at 5:01 AM on July 23, 2008

Some good suggestions here. I'll add:
  • Keep it away from the computer. Assume that anything written down as text on a computer will inevitably find its way onto the internet. Naturally hosted solutions for saving text such as Google Docs, writing mails to yourself on webmail, etc. are even less advisable for your purposes than offline textfiles.
  • Write it in a shorthand, without making an effort to be neat. Use initials or pseudonyms for people, and abbreviations only you would know. Doing this might obstruct your stream of consciousness at first, but it won't take long to build into your writing style. I disagree with some posters here - keep your secrets close to your chest, as even if they're innocent and harmless they can easily be misinterpreted if they're discovered. The lower the risk of discovery, the more you'll share with your diary, and the higher the value of the exercise; whether you're documenting your days or just emptying your head of thoughts.
  • Use a small, durable notebook that's easy to conceal. Moleskine has some excellent examples - they're pricey but worth it.
  • As to where to hide the diary, I wouldn't risk the bookshelf, even if it has a fake label. Go for an old suitcase with a combination lock, kept in an inconspicious 'storage' area like at the bottom of a wardrobe.

posted by scrm at 5:26 AM on July 23, 2008

Some great ideas here!
I'm going to look into the shorthand idea (that might be beneficial for writing speed anyhow!)... and I'm curious to hear more about why some are FOR/AGAINST using Google Docs.
(just out of curiousity.)
posted by Tbola at 8:11 AM on July 23, 2008

I write it in/save it in the drafts folder of an email program I only use for journaling. I've got thousands of days worth of entries. It's password-protected and it automatically dates them all, which is nice. Also it's nice because you can write anywhere you can bring your laptop.
posted by np312 at 9:38 AM on July 23, 2008

I recently discovered my old journals (from ages 11 to 19) at my mother's house. When I was younger, I was clearly terrified that someone would find and read my thoughts, so everything I wrote was vague and I had code names for everyone. Now, almost 2 decades later, I have almost no idea what I was writing about. I can tell I was holding back on myself, and I've lost access to those years of my life. I wish I'd been less paranoid and had just written frankly.

In the later journals, though, I wrote a LOT--names, details, my thoughts on everything that had happened. On re-read, I get a much clearer sense of who I was then, and I remember more clearly what I was going through. I probably learned more about myself when writing by being so open; I know I learned more about myself when I reread them. Interestingly, the early journals had locks on them; the later ones were just blank books, which I guess shows that I eventually gotten over my fears of being "discovered."

If you're really afraid of others reading, accept it and take all precautions. Write in shorthand in another language, in a diary with a lock on it (a combination lock, even); lock it in a desk drawer, or hide it in your room. Hell, lock it in a desk drawer and hide the desk if you can. Just do what it takes so you don't censor yourself; that defeats your purpose. Maybe eventually you won't need the lock, or the shorthand. And even if you think you'll never look at those entries again, keep them. You never know.
posted by Ms. Informed at 10:27 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I keep my journals small and hidden. When I fill one, I scan in every page and turn the journal into a PDF. I keep the PDFs in a hidden folder on an encrypted drive which can't be accessed without a password and whose location is hidden. Once the PDF is made, the original physical journal can be destroyed.

I works for me, but I'm crazy :).
posted by prefpara at 10:34 AM on July 23, 2008

If reading it back is not an interest, you could try what I do. Just write what you are feeling, but use only the first letter of each word. Once it's out and I've worked through my thoughts, it doesn't matter who finds it--even me--it makes no sense. But it still felt good to get it all out.
posted by agentwills at 11:45 AM on July 23, 2008

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