Burning Your Diaries

Originally posted August 3, 2014 on etherealsolitude.wordpress.com. I am posting it as a pre-cursor to the project I will be restarting next year: recycling painful past journal entries to make new art & hopefully heal old wounds.

In 2011, an article appeared on an Archives mailing list I am subscribed to and it really struck a chord with me (so much so that I’m still thinking/writing about it three years later!). As my title suggests, the article is about the keeping, and eventual burning, of diaries.

My purely written journals were kept throughout my teenage years and, like the author of the article, I wrote in them compulsively. I would say I have about 80% of of my teenage days documented in those notebooks.  You might think that this is amazing, that I can reach under my bed and find out exactly what was happening 10 or 15 years ago, but those scribblings are hideous. High school was the worst time of my life and it definitely shows in those pages. You would think that over time I would be able to read them objectively, like looking into the life of someone else, but I can relate to the what the author says about that too:

[…] I riffled through the pages, reading. I was shocked that even things that had happened 20, 30 years ago felt as familiar and as raw as if they had happened yesterday. That so unnerved me that I stopped reading. I didn’t want to wade back into those depths, where a powerful riptide still churned.

Whenever I decide to delve into them for whatever reason, I’m transported back. I suppose it doesn’t help that the journals are kept in the same bedroom I did all the writing, but I’m fairly sure the same feeling will creep over me wherever they are kept.

The article also reminded me of something an English teacher said in class one day – that people pretended that writing diaries was for the writer only, but really they wrote in diaries secretly hoping that other people would read them, otherwise what was the point in keeping them? In my shy way I attempted to argue that keeping a diary was just a kind of therapy, to purge all the negative thoughts and try to make sense of the world. I think he agreed with that, but he stuck to his theory. It did make me question my motives for a while, as I used to have a fantasy that I would bury my journals somewhere and they would get found well into the future by interested people, but in all honesty I would be appalled if anyone read them – even people in the distant future who wouldn’t know me.

This is why the article interested me.  The author did not want to be remembered by those painful diaries, and so she burned them:

Burning those diaries, I realized I didn’t want my sons to know how profoundly I had suffered from the slides down the chutes, the tumbles through the holes that gaped open in the scaffolding of my life. That would be too hard for them. I wanted them to remember me as one who clambers back. That’s the person they grew up with. A person who picks herself up and gets going again.

I can relate to that. My journals were written when I had a lot of growing up to do… they are immature, melodramatic, and embarrassing. But what else can you expect from a teenager? I still don’t want to be remembered that way, regardless. It’s very difficult to decide what to do. If I decide to burn them all, then there’s no going back and I’d just have to let it go. I could be selective about what I remember from that time and wouldn’t have to deal with the pain after reading them. Sometimes I think that having too many memories can be a bad thing; maybe I would have let some stuff go a long time ago if they weren’t  hanging around? Sometimes I think that they have too much of a hold on me and it would be best if one day I just decided to dispose of them.

I always get the first part of the monologue from Marry the Night: The Prelude Pathétique by Lady Gaga stuck in my head when I think about this. It’s a nice thought. However, I don’t know if I could burn my journals. As much as I feel ashamed by them, I can’t escape that it all happened and led me to being who I am now. From an Archivist perspective I would also be destroying memory (or memory aids, at least).  I can’t help feeling like I would regret that.

Last year I had the idea to “recycle” old journal entries and make them into a new art journal pages. I described the project as attempting to make peace with the past; I guess I was trying to “fill in all the ugly holes”. Here are two pages I made using journal entries (and drawings) from 2001 (the lyrics on the right are by Slipknot, I promise it has relevance):

I’m not sure how I feel about the process now, especially since my journals were helpful in dating a lot of the photographs I’ve been organising recently. This is going to sound pretentious, but maybe I should write memoirs from them with all the “important” stuff (to me, I’m not honestly expecting anyone to be interested in my inane teenage years!) and burn or recycle the rest? I’m just thinking out loud, I don’t know if I’ll ever come to a decision with this.

I’d love to know how other people feel, though. How would you feel about people finding your journals?  Do you feel like you write purely for yourself? Could you ever destroy your journals?  I’m also really interested to know if fellow art journalers happily let others look through their art journals? Even though I share a good chunk online, they’re still journals and I’m pretty guarded about people having free reign.  Please share your thoughts!

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