A "magic table" my daughter set up before we moved house.
The “magic table” my daughter set up before we moved house.

At  work today, a colleague asked if I knew anyone of my writing contacts who’s dealt with the question of what to do with decades of journals.

The question was unexpected, and as we talked, it shone a light into my own boxes, decades of life on the page, which my dear husband recently helped move from the attic of one house to another.

Take a walk through my first grade storybooks, stroll over to the first five year diary, with key, where I wrote things like, “Today, it was fun!”  Lean into college, its composition books covered with artsy collages featuring the amazingly beautiful and androgynous Famke Jansen.  (Wince at the terribly bad poetry inside.  Remember the heartbreak.)  Take care not to topple the towers of spiral notebooks full of Julia Cameron-inspired morning pages that helped me find my path. Live your life.

I’ve been keeping words written on paper almost my entire life.  What kind of magpie keeps this notebook?” Joan Didion asks, in her essay “On Keeping  A Notebook.”  I know this question.

What to do with them, the books, the boxes, the bins?  I used to think some day, when I was famous, and possibly dead, a biographer would hunt through them, knit a portrait of me.  I used to think, “Some day I will have time to read them all.”  (I used to think I would want to.)  I used to think  some day my child would want to know me better, to see how I was.  To know all those words written, breaths taken before she existed.

I once heard about someone whose journals were taken by police investigating a murder of her friend.  (Imagine the violation in that!)  I can’t recall the details now (I probably wrote them down somewhere in one of the bins) but the person who told me the story said the most sensible thing to do with journals is burn them.  (I’m not unconvinced.)

But surely there’s something there to mine, to harvest.  Ideas, images, patterns.  Surely more than just kindling.  Surely shape can be made from mess.  Surely there was a point to keeping those words.

As I talked with my colleague today, it became clear that we understood each other–that each knew the deep strain in the question of what to do with these paper artifacts.  We decided to keep talking about the question, to see what happens.  To look into that abyss a bit.

So writers: Do you keep a journal?  What will you do with it?

5 thoughts on “Journals, documents of a life, what to do with them

  1. I do not consider myself a “writer” in the way I think you mean it, but as I think you know, I have always kept a journal. Less and less over the years. I have re-read random ones and random times and been amused and/or horrified. In many, I have included photos and ticket stubs and other kind of time capsule-y things, which are fun to see. And I’ve always put quotes that I find either profound or funny at the top. So, if nothing else, those are worth preserving, at least as long as I am preserved. :)

    1. g2-35d2406dcff9d49c0c4b2093282368e9, I meant “writer” as “a person who writes.”

      There is definitely something important about keeping track of it all, in the time capsule way, and having those tactile reminders of how the time has passed. Nostalgia is so powerful, for me, at least. (I’m sure you’ve seen, and maybe we even talked about, Andy Warhol’s diaries, right? And the time capsules? Those are probably a bit more obsessive than what you’re talking about…)

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