Last night, I was reading from a book called The Point: Where Teaching & Writing Intersect, a Teachers & Writers Collaborative publication from 1983 that contains a variety of works by the group’s foundational members about their experiences and findings. As this school year ends and as I am finishing this Surdna Arts Teacher Fellowship that has helped me to rethink the way I am teaching and writing, this collection is something I have been intending to read.
So I sat down on my couch, after the kids were in bed, and flipped randomly to a longer piece by a woman named Barbara Danish. Her essay focused on journaling, which she used as a way to bring out honesty in young people, who can often remain guarded even in the most private of writings, like a journal or diary. She wrote about how, even there, some writers can have the fear of being “found out” or of the book falling into someone’s hands. Because after all, journaling is talking to yourself, right? It’s thinking on paper. What is written in journals is not meant for consumption.
When I was first becoming a writer, journaling was one of my first forays into the art form, aside from attempts at writing poetry and songs. I was a senior in high school, and the first in a long series of black-and-white composition notebooks was dated January 1992, during a troubling time in my life. I disliked the private school I attended, and the financial reality of my parents’ divorce was affecting my college possibilities. I was going to have to attend college in town and live at home with my mother. Also, my high school girlfriend had already graduated and had broken up with me after only a few months in college; by this point I understood that she wasn’t coming back. Everything was falling apart, as I saw it. And the few times I have looked back at the entries in that notebook, it was all laid out there.
I continued keeping journal notebooks for years, probably until I was in my late twenties. As I grew older, the content became less autobiographical and more studious and literary. In college, the gushing and tirades were interspersed with notes from libraries, where I was spending sometimes whole days hopping from subject to subject and jotting down book titles and passages to come back to later. That habit faded out, too. By the time I got married, I was writing journals on the computer, which was a bad idea. More than once, I caught people reading them, with the history on Microsoft Word, which was probably my final prompting to quit.
For whatever role that journaling filled for me, I must have moved on. This blogging is as close as I get to it now. I don’t feel the need to write down my whole story anymore. The best stories leave out what doesn’t need to be told. I hope I have quit because I’m learning what doesn’t need to be told— not out of fear, but out of an understanding of what isn’t important. I am learning that being truly honest does not mean that I have to write everything. I have also grown to understand that there are many things that I can’t make sense of, and there’s no reason to try.
Last winter, as a final and cathartic move, I stood in the backyard over my fire pit and, with twigs for kindling, burned most of my journal notebooks a few at a time. About a year before, I had taken my creative writing class over to the photography class to hear a guest artist named Joe DeCamilis, whose work combines visual arts, literary elements, and book arts. He told this story about his friend, who traveled the same festival circuit, throwing a big party at which she put all of her past and unsold artworks into the bonfire, to purge that old spirit and to make way for moving on. I thought a lot about that story, and within a few months made a decision to burn my old notebooks from high school and college, everything before age 23. I had lugged them (and their content) around long enough, and I was no longer that sad and stranded kid who wrote all that stuff. The friends and girls described in the notebooks are all gone now, and the problems I had been writing to work out are no longer my problems. There was no sense in keeping them. My wife seemed shocked and wanted to know why: Was I beginning my mid-life crisis? Should she be worried about me? No, I assured her. It was just time to let go of the teenage boy who wrote all that stuff. The person I have become is still alive and well. It’s like in the song “Thrasher” by Neil Young: “. . . better down the road without that load.”
If someone asked me if I would suggest journaling to a writer, my best answer would be: if you need to. If you have to make yourself journal, then it isn’t the answer you’re looking for.