As part of the process of downsizing prior to moving house, I had to go through a packet of parental artifacts passed from sister to sister to me. It was my sad job to off-load 1940’s dance cards, 1950’s business newsletters and letters. Letters my parents wrote to one another, letters that barely helped us piece together the mystery of their union.
I kept photos, postcards, newspaper clippings showing one or the other parent, my mother’s short fiction. The rest are gone. As I write this, I cringe about those old letters, but I know that, if I were to tell my parents’ story, it would be better to fictionalize it, than write a memoir that no extant family member will want to read.
In my mother’s writings I found a journal she started in 1991. While she neglected to date the notes by the year, I knew when she had written these things because I was a part of them, like the family trip to Hawaii in February of 1991. As I read, knowing the things she was going through, and how she could not bring herself to put that on the page, I saw the clue that she had made a New Year’s resolution to keep the journal, bought a pretty blank notebook festooned with flowers, and managed to keep it up for six months.
I often debate with myself about the importance of journalism. Even with a gift of a diary, I didn’t start journaling until I left for college, and that step turned my life inside out. I have scraps from a cross-country trip with my boyfriend written on paper towels. I have a stack of spiral notebooks packed with cringe-worthy self pity and anger—mostly at the boyfriend and mostly at myself. I kept the scribbles up while finishing college and starting my new career.
Then they get rather spotty. Poetry took over the inner thoughtfulness. I abandoned yellow pad paper and took up a doc file. Now I make a note maybe once a year.
I typically don’t read journals published by writers—Anais Nin comes to mind. Unless they’re telling a story, I don’t enjoy them. Memoirs are different in nature because they chronicle a series of events—usually lurid, violent and strange—that grip the reader in the narrative. Autobiographies occupy yet another scale because these are generally penned by celebrities of media or politics and the lives of the famous or infamous are always interesting.
And there are blends of all these categories, describing self-discovery, weaving epiphany with story.
Honestly, rather than write about my life, I’d rather make up stories. Introspection is over-rated. I’ve been there, done that. These statements are made by my much older self—my younger self that bought self-help books and experimented briefly with LSD is horrified. I suppose this blog borders of self-absorption, and in the end we can only see ourselves as interesting subject matter because everything in our lives is filtered.
I really enjoyed reading my mother’s journal. Reading a family-member’s journal can be hazardous. There might be landmines. The boyfriend read my journal to find out the things I wouldn’t tell him. And then got pissed about it.
A journal, in my mind, is a private place of honesty, a sanctuary for those of us unable to say hard truths. But the argument stands that journals can be a gold mine for writers, a place to blather, perfect sentence structure, and not even worry about that ghostly editor breathing down our necks. As soon as a writer puts pen to paper in their journal, they risk the editor smudging the page with red ink if the writer thinks “Some day I’ll publish this”.
The journal can be a wall safe, a place to store loose gems until the perfect setting is found. Just make sure your boyfriend can’t open it.