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Place to Keep Secrets : In the turmoil of the teen-age years, youths find 'Dear Diary' a dear friend.

July 29, 1994|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Heeger writes regularly about readings for The Times

Epigram:

--April 23, 1994, 4:32 p.m.

"Katie lied to me, too. Minnie told me that Katie and Matt DID get together last weekend. I got mad at her, but things are fine now, although I still am a little hurt because I know I never would've found out if Min hadn't said anything. . . . "

--From the diary of Ashley Anderson, 16, of Westlake Village

From the vantage point of a teen-ager, life can seem pretty forbidding--a web of Byzantine social codes, parental judgments and looming responsibilities. But in the midst of all the Angst , some find comfort in a friend who won't criticize or talk back: their diary.

"Things happen in my life that I can't share with anyone," says Leslie Jay Griffith, 15, who recently completed her sophomore year at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks. In times of crisis, she reaches for a bound book with blank pages and a combination lock that she writes in almost daily, especially when she's troubled. "I write to figure out how I feel about a situation," she says, "and how I feel about myself."

A mix of confidant, running biography and social record, the teen-age journal has long been a standard icon of the tumultuous passage from youth to adulthood. But unlike the cliche of the carefree, 1950s-era adolescent lounging on a chenille bedspread writing "Dear Diary," today's young journal-keepers may face a level of stress unimaginable to their elders.

For those coping with the lure of early sex or drug use, living in fragmented families or going to violent schools, a diary can be a lifeline amid the confusion, a means of sorting out the conflicts.

"It's horrendous being a kid today," says Carol Walters, an eighth-grade English teacher at Holmes Middle School in Northridge. "Many have no one they trust to talk to. But getting your thoughts on paper can be cathartic."

One of Walters' regular in-class assignments involves journal-writing to taped music. "(Students) write whatever they want as they listen--whatever comes to mind," she says.

Although her pupils tend to steer away from the overly personal and to free-associate, Walters says, there are times when the exercise evokes a flood of feelings.

Alyse Wax, 14, of Northridge, for example, has occasionally been bored with Walters' class-time journal and usually sticks to musings on "shopping and fine guys." After the suicide of rock star Kurt Cobain, however, she "wrote and wrote. Miss Walters would say, 'Put your pencils away,' and I'd still be writing." The process eased her obsessive brooding, she remembers, and even helped her to sleep at night.

Ashley Anderson, 16, of Westlake Village has found similar relief in the discipline of personal writing. Since beginning a journal two years ago, she reports, "I don't have as many problems on my mind--with my parents, with my friends, with anything."

But in addition to its supportive role, she sees her diary as a detailed record of her childhood, which she and possibly others will someday read "to find out what really happened." Because of this, and because she is considering becoming a writer, she composes her entries carefully, to impress her future public. Which may be why, although she hides her journal, she isn't worried about discovery. "I'd be embarrassed, but I could handle it."

Others are more concerned. Leslie, besides keeping her diary locked, has inscribed the front with a warning: "If I ever die and someone finds this, don't read it and don't publish it."

To ensure that her deepest thoughts stay buried, Leslie sometimes illustrates them in a sketch pad instead of voicing them in her journal. She did this a year ago when a friend died. "If something happens that's so bad I don't want to write it out, I'll draw it out," she says.

As secret but permissible as diary-writing is for girls, it seems verboten for teen-age boys. "If they do keep one, they don't talk about it," Leslie speculates.

Exactly, says R. J. Comer, a 30-year-old law student and editorial consultant for Caffeine magazine in Woodland Hills. Comer, who has kept a journal for 15 years, recalls that when he first started, "I would never tell my school friends about it. It was a girl thing to do!"

He believes that many teen-age boys keep notes on their lives, although perhaps more haphazardly than girls.

His own journal-writing arose out of "a compulsion to make order out of experience"--the same need that moves him to write poetry and fiction. Indeed, many of his finished literary works owe their existence to journal entries. "A diary," he says, "is a refrigerator full of writing. You can combine things from it and make dinner."

His journal is a habit that he couldn't break if he tried. "I discover things about myself in it," he explains. "I can read back and watch myself mature. Somewhere along the line, I got what Socrates meant when he said an unexamined life is worthless."

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