IN WHICH FIFTEEN YEARS’ WORTH OF WRITING JOURNALS ARE BURNED IN THE BACKYARD FIRE PIT
A few years ago, I had developed the distressing habit of crying every time I left on a trip. I welled up in the drivers’ seat as I turned the key in the ignition; I wept sitting on the tarmac (fellow passengers often thought I was afraid to fly; once, a nice older gentleman offered to hold my hand). I had visions of myself dying, and my journals being all that was left for my family to remember me by. They would open those journals, tender, raw with love for me and their recent loss . . . and then they would read every petty, uncensored thought I’d written down, including several uncharitable ones about them, most of which I didn’t even mean. And that would be my legacy to the people I love most.
For the last decade and a half, I had done exactly what I warn my writing students against: I had mixed my personal journaling into my writing journals. In approximately fifty Mead three-subject spiral notebooks, sandwiched between a lot of stuff I would have liked to have kept — quotes from writers, thoughts on a recent book / movie / museum exhibit, early drafts, ideas for pieces — was a whole lot of emotional processing and other junk. I told myself some lie about why, in this case, it was okay, something along the lines that, because I often draw from life, this personal stuff needed to be in my writing journal. But the truth is that I was lazy and naive.
Having devoted much of my summer to re-reading over fifteen thousand pages of journaling, I can say with authority: all that emotional processing did not need to be there. There is little more boring to read, even and maybe especially when it’s your own emotional slither. Even and especially a decade later. No art is waiting to be made from any of it, and re-reading it didn’t teach me a thing.
I did learn a lot about myself in general, though, reading fifty journals at a time. The hardest lesson might have been that I don’t respect my writing nearly enough. I found any number of quite good, nearly-done drafts that I’d never bothered to type, finish, or send out. The sheer volume of writing was sobering, too: there was easily two books’ worth of work represented there, if I’d devoted that time and energy to making something I could have sent into the world.
Fail better, as they say. From now on any processing stays out of the writing journals, and from now on more work gets finished and sent out into the world. I ripped out any drafts that still looked viable and interesting, and let the rest go. On Wednesday, July 30, my husband and I took a few grocery bags full of notebooks and a bottle of red wine out in the back yard. We toasted to bad memories and ash, and good memories continuing to burn brightly, and kept one ear out for our sleeping daughter as we drank and laughed over the two hours it took all fifty to burn. And though a lost a few items I would have liked to have kept, I now feel free.