I reread my old journals last week. More specifically, the notebooks begin in eighth grade and go through college. I read all of it. Want one word to describe the reading experience? PAINFUL. That I ever worried about someone thumbing through those notebooks is laughable. Anyone who got through more than five pages deserves a medal. (I think there are lessons here for writers by the way, but I’ll get to that later.)
I expressed such depth of feeling on every page of those notebooks. Every bit of life was “amazing” or “horrible.” Really, the writing is so honest and raw, I often winced while I turned pages, read with one eye shut, or literally looked away for a minute before I could stand to read more. There was a long sob story on a night during my freshman year of high school when I realized I hadn’t made the pom pon squad. You would’ve thought someone burned down our house. Incidentally, I made the squad the next year and pretty much hated it. Since I’d driven my parents crazy claiming pom pon as “my ultimate dream” and taken someone’s spot, my parents made me stay on for my junior and senior year, providing me with a great topic for my college essay called “Be Careful What You Wish For.” I saved that piece of writing, too.
But I digress. To be fair, “painful” is not the only word that comes to mind. Another is enlightening. Before reading my journals, I remembered my younger self as a serious, studious person who was above all the petty teen “stuff.” Turns out that in high school I was boy crazy, weight obsessed, and that’s about it.
As for writerly lessons, I’ve thought quite a bit about the concept of an unreliable narrator since finishing the journals. There are events in our lives. Then there’s how we (real people and characters) interpret those events. Our interpretations color our memories and change them. We assign blame, motive—much of it a product of our faulty and unfair analysis of the moment while we’re experiencing it. Certainly our characters would do the same thing. They’d remember situations only through their already preconceived notions of the people involved, much like I erroneously remembered myself as serious and studious. If we’re wrong about how we remember ourselves, certainly we ought to be more generous in how we remember others.
Finally, I want to share two interesting moments from the end of the journal. We writers all have versions of our writing history. I knew I wanted to be a writer when . . . When I tell mine, I usually say I didn’t get serious about writing until 2007 when my second child was three months old. That’s true, but only to a point. Look at what I found in my journal from 10/17/1998:
- “I sent my poem to a poetry contest at The Missouri Review. I don’t at all expect to win, but it made me take my writing very seriously for a moment, and I loved that moment.”
The Missouri Review is serious business. (Of course they rejected me.) In 1998 I was a senior in college finishing a double major in political science and Spanish. Poetry? What the heck? Turns out the way I’ve been telling my writing story is a prime example of being an unreliable narrator. I had so much free time during my junior year abroad in Chile that I ended up playing around with poetry. How could you not in the land of Pablo Neruda? In my memory, that time of writing was a silly, playful experiment. But apparently, at the time I’d considered it something more.
And finally, here was THE short paragraph in my journal from June 1999 that made rereading some of those painfully dramatic pages all worth it. For some context, I’d recently graduated from college, and I’d been dating Bryan (now my husband) for six months.
- “For the first time, I want children. I want to raise them so they’ll be good people. I want to contribute something to this world. I want to write and be a good parent.”
I’m living the dream, guys. I really am. This is exactly what I wanted. And it’s so much better than the pom pon squad.
Do ever look through old journals? Have any of you decided to throw your old journals away?