Monday, February 13, 2006

Burning Diaries

Diaries are meant to be burnt.

So said my stoic grandmother. Why would you want to reread all those silly, petty feelings you had when you were ten?

I was ten or eleven or twelve when Grandma dispassionately mentioned that she had turned all her diaries into ashes. What's important to you now (every childish dream, every girlish desire), she seemed to insist, will seem foolish or frivolous in the future.

Grandma wasn't a particularly warm woman, and on this day, I found her especially hard. How can she possible think my precious daily diary will ever mean nothing to me? I don't want to grow up, ever!, if that’s the case.

I also felt cheated. Someone, at some time, had informed me that Grandma was not always an Old Woman, but I couldn't imagine her as young. I was absolutely convinced that she had been born old, ripe, white-haired. (How she came out of a womb, I never knew.)

But if Grandma had held onto her diaries, I could have read the girl she was. I might even have come to believe she once had been a child like me, but without any evidence, I couldn't see Grandma as anyone but Grandma.

Grandma has been dead now, several years, and recently, I started to see some sense in her words to me. I've even been tempted to light a flame to one of my teen diaries. But I'm torn...

Are certain periods of our lives best extinguished completely? Does that free us from an unhappy memory? Is Grandma right after all? I'm a Woman now. That Girl is gone. Should I let her rest in peace?

Or do burnt-diaries leave a hole in our life's bookcase? Or worse, a vulnerability that we might forget our history, and even recreate our own story to please ourselves (in lieu of honesty).

I haven't been closely following the saga of Frey's A Million Little Pieces, but I think, if I were ever to write a memoir, I had better keep all my diaries, because I would be sorely tempted to skip over the ugly bits.

Still...I sure would like to watch those pages burn.

17 repartee:

Blogger Golgotha_Tramp wrote...

"I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train." A very true statement if you ask me.

I have all my diaries from my childhood. I have re-read them once but the thing that strikes me the most is the development. I am not as interested in the dreams and wishes of being a child but the feel of it, the way my mind worked back then compared to now. if you could look back at the sapling does it resemble the tree it grew into? I found that I was a melancholy child, a little too thoughtful, a little too distant from reality. I suppose if I look at the person I've become I have nurtured these qualities becoming the sombre, philosopher I am now. I wonder if everyone was the same, mini versions of themselves with nubs where branches would grow, predetermined from such a young age.

2/13/2006 8:19 AM  
Blogger mysticgypsy wrote...

Hi Frankengirl!
Welcome back! :)

I think that it is important to hold on to every bit of the past, even the bad parts because these experiences make us who we are today. They teach us lessons we could use for the future. Of course, it may not be pleasant to read some parts of the past, but these entries capture a moment in time that is forever lost. The time when we were young, foolish, naive, vulnerable, and really, innocent. I don't like looking back on the painful memories, but I know that they live in the pages and if I want to feel a glimmer of pleasure I've had (before the pain), then I know I can read those entries..

I have a question though: Do people write entries when they have had extremes of feeling? Like when they have experienced joy or sadness? How about the more "mellow feelings" (for example, the monotonous activies of life?)When I look back at some of my old diary entries, I realize that most of them were written when I was really unhappy (or the reverse)and the only outlet was my diary. So how accurate would such diaries be as a record of a life anyway? The mundane is just as important, no?

2/13/2006 9:11 AM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

Hi Frankengirl--

I have been a dedicated journalist for most of my life. One reason I started blogging is that it seemed like a natural extension of my journal. That has, unfortunately, been true: it's SUCH a natural extension that it has pretty much replaced my journal. Recently--very recently--I have begun to do something about that; I want both a blog and a personal journal.

One thing that influences me is the fact that in Mormonism, keeping a journal is almost a commandment. All members of the church are expected to puzzle out their lives in a personal journals, and to write a life story for public consumption. I'm no longer a practicing Mormon, but I still keep a journal.

I started keeping a journal in about 1976, when I was 12. I am on my 14th volume of my journal, and I'm not talking small bound volumes: I'm talking big notebooks with pages 8 1/2 by 11 inches, and hundreds of pages in each volume. Along about 1987, I started typing my journal on a typewriter; now I write it on a computer.

I've written a memoir, an account of my experiences as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, and the first thing I did when I went to write it was transcribed my journal--all 300 odd pages of it.

I will never get rid of my journals.

2/13/2006 9:53 AM  
Blogger UltimateWriter wrote...

i think diaries are good to keep around for at least a historical perspective, who knows? maybe you'll entertain your great grandkids with it someday...

2/13/2006 10:46 AM  
Blogger JLB wrote...

Golgotha_Tramp, an Oscar Wilde fan perhaps?

Totally know where you're coming from FrankenGirl... I've been hemming and hawing over burning my teenage diaries for the last several years (after combing them to cull the poetry, of course). So why are they still on my shelf?

2/13/2006 10:54 AM  
Blogger Panacea wrote...

Actually I completely agree with Mysticgypsy on this point, most of my diary entries are written when I'm facing extreme emotions particularly sadness, grief or confusion. My diary is mostly an outlet for me to ponder over my thoughts and some select memories and sometimes it is a pleasant experience to re-read them.

Also its always nice to see how you've changed or the development in your personality over a period of time. Maybe your hopes and aspirations have changed over time but they are still experiences that have helped to shape up your present personality. It also may be painful to read about the hard times in your life but reading over them now makes you feel proud of yourself or just happy that you're finally over those problems that you previously faced. Its just a moment in time as mysticgypsy said that is captured and saved forever in your diary.

Also, at an emotional level, I could never burn my diaries however much I wanted too.

2/13/2006 11:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous wrote...

I have never really kept a diary. Somehow the idea always appealed to me but I lacked both the intimacy (I shared my bedroom with a very nosey sister) and the "imagination". Much as I tried I never knew what to write, and on the few occasions I put pen to paper what came out was a mere account of my day - as objective as it got. Boring, really.

But, as I say, I love the idea of diaries, and don't think they should be burnt *ever*. If we want to burn them - perhaps we're still too close to taht situation, because it still affects us to want to get rid of it.

I love to look back and know what I was doing months or years ago, and sometimes I think a journal will be great. I wouldn't like everything I wrote, but would cherish it both as part of who I was and who I am now. Diaries are meant to be kept.

I once read on a blog of a girl who kept a diary and when she felt her life was going through a major change, she burnt uit and started anew, as if she was really opening a new chapter. Much as I loved the image provided, the burning bit made me gasp.

Have you read Diary of an Ordinary Woman by Margaret Forster? It's fiction, but based on a true story (a woman that had kept a diary that spanned most of the 20th century). I enjoyed that book immensely.

Oops, excuse the rant - got carried away.


2/13/2006 1:46 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Golgotha – Oscar Wilde is wildly wonderful! Yes, diaries, as you say, offer us a glimpse at our own evolution (sapling to tree / nubs & branches). Hmm, have you been walking through a wood lately, hehe! Your post reminds me of Michael Apted’s UP SERIES where a group of children are interviewed every seven years (it’s fascinating stuff!).

Mysticgypsy – Yes, I think the lesson aspect of diaries that you mention is exactly what prevents me from destroying those bits I don’t particularly fancy. Life often has a way of presenting us with the same obstacle more than once, and hopefully, each time we face it, we pass it more quickly, more gracefully.

Like you and Panacea, I tend to write entries mainly when I’m propelled by emotion – rather than using a diary as a descriptive life-log (like Holly, whose stamina and steadfastness I envy!). When I was very young, I wrote more about daily details, trips, weather, but later on, the stormy weather of emotions took center-stage.

But I think you’re absolutely right! The huge waves come and go, and it’s those daily, small, “mundane” waves that make up the greater part of our lives. And we might not give them due respect, due importance. I know I’m guilty of that - ;)

Holly – as noted above, I’m really impressed by the constancy of your journaling (14 volumes!) When (not if) you publish your memoir, I look forward to reading it. Your Mormon background and feminist outlook are a fascinating combination, which I always enjoy reading about on your blog.

One thing though - I’m confused by the Mormon expectation to “write a life story for public consumption.” Wouldn’t this lead to writing stories which accommodate Mormon doctrines? (And is this its very purpose?)

UltimateWriter – from the hilarious stuff I read on your blog, I imagine your journals would be very entertaining to grandkids! :D

JBL – Thanks for chiming in - :) Yes, it’s definitely “teenage” moments that make me most squeamish. Ugh. But what can we do? They are what they are. And we were what we were...

Totally Brainwashed! (Okay, just kidding, it wasn’t exactly 1984, hehe!)

Panacea – I like how you use the word “proud” – how you find pride in reading past experiences and seeing how you’ve moved beyond them. Pride is a lovely way to view it. We’re all dealt a few blows along the way, but here we are, standing still, and we should be proud!

Cristina - just as I was posting this I noticed a "rant" by you! Can't wait to read it - ;)

2/13/2006 2:53 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Cristina – As far as rants go, I found yours to be very polite and sensible - :)

I really appreciate your description of the girl who burnt her diary as a rite of passage, because that’s precisely how I had been considering the act: as a symbolic gesture; a cleansing or clearing away of old cobwebs.

But I agree with (all of) you. It’s a mistake to think that burning any book will erase its contents. The memory remains for the writer/reader, and without the actual physical aid, the memory is bound to shift and reshape (possibly growing too light, too dark).

Still, the temptation remains! Aren’t we relieved, at times, that we have a delete key on our keyboards?

I haven’t read Forster’s Diary of an Ordinary Woman but thanks for the recommendation! I’m especially drawn to novels in diary or epistolary form.

Btw, as far as dull diaries go, one of my earliest is so dull it’s funny! “It snowed today. I went out to play.” My enthusiasm for snow certainly didn’t translate onto paper. :)

2/13/2006 3:50 PM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

I’m confused by the Mormon expectation to “write a life story for public consumption.” Wouldn’t this lead to writing stories which accommodate Mormon doctrines? (And is this its very purpose?)

That is indeed the purpose: these life stories--and even the journals, for that matter--are supposed to be faith-promoting, and one's devotion to the church should constitute a major part of the narrative.

When I was 11 years old, the leader of the church issued a public statement encouraging all young people to
Get a notebook...a journal that will last through all time, and maybe the angels will quote from it for eternity. Begin today and write in it your goings and comings, your deepest thoughts, your achievements and your failures, your associations and your triumphs, your impressions and your testimonies.

Imagine! Before I was even a teenager I was told I could have an audience of angels. Who could resist the allure?

But I became well aware that my life was not turning out the way it was supposed to, and that my journal was not the faith-promoting document it was supposed to be. At one point on my mission, I wrote, "I have decided that the angels will not even flip the pages of this journal, though imperfect beings might find something of interest here."

It sounds pretty flat, but it was actually written in profound despair.

Which goes back to what I was saying in the comments on the Emily Dickinson and Ursula Le Guin posts: audience matters.

God, I sound so pompous and earnest when I talk about this! Well, I'm not always like this, really--I swear, I've posted some funny things lately on my blog! But keeping a journal--well, I do take it pretty seriously, and I do believe in keeping a journal--not just writing it, but hanging on to it, even when it's embarrassingly naive and you can hardly recognize the person who wrote it. As Joan Didion writes in "On Keeping a Notebook,"

I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.

Pretty much.

2/14/2006 12:27 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Holly – Thank you for that Joan Didion quote. It’s so good it gave me chills. I also love your own quote in your journal:

"I have decided that the angels will not even flip the pages of this journal, though imperfect beings might find something of interest here."

What tremendous pressure to write for angels! (My own journal of shame is also related to religion.) Thanks for explaining the Mormon-journal for me.

Back to audience, I think I’m slowly coming to understand your POV. If the audience is too narrow, one might be deceived into believing the whole world would respond the same - when, in truth, in a larger sphere, you would be sure to find likeminded people who would support and also be supported by your words.

Btw, I don’t think you sound pompous. And if you were perfect, you would definitely be banned from this blog - ;)

2/14/2006 10:51 AM  
Blogger The Poodle's Friend wrote...

I was actually thinking about diaries when reading the discussion in your previous post about when a story is a story. If we went with what half of us, and Ursula LeGuin, thought, then diaries are not stories, are they? They're supposed to be private, and certainly are not meant for a larger audience, so following one line of argument, they're not 'real', however weird that sounds.
But then I thought, are diaries even meant to be stories? Aren't they more concerned with a stream of consciousness type thing, an outlet for all the useless stuff that goes through our heads all the time, random musings and ramblings that have no other place but our own mind (and the pages of a journal)?
This, for me, implies that the content of diaries is anything but solely inspired by moments of intense emotional upheaval. Personally, I see the diary as a day-to-day (or week-to-week, if you're as lazy as I am) record of the most trivial particulars of our life. I've always wanted to keep a diary for that very reason; to have something where I could write about random thoughts and feelings, not necessarily teen angst, but even how I feel about stepping on dog poo on the way to school, or about the ink running out of my pen and having to borrow someone else's... If I'd ever actually managed to keep a diary in a regular fashion, I think it would have been filled with useless stuff like that (hmmm...sounds a lot like my blog, doesn't it?), and burning it would be the last thing in my mind, not because of emotional attachment or the need to look at the past and grow, but simply for the pleasure of reliving the tiny details that make life. Don't we all think we're the most interesting person in the world? I know I do.
Am I sounding overly weird? Blame it on background radiation.

PS: another Earnest quote, from the uber-cool Cecily: 'I keep a diary in order to enter the wonderful secrets of my life. If I didn’t write them down, I should probably forget all about them.' So true.

2/14/2006 2:57 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi! I’m so glad you bring up stream-of-consciousness. Julia Cameron believes artists should write three pages of stream-of-consciousness each morning and then stick the pages in an envelope – perhaps to send to our future selves?

But I do know many who treat diaries like a memoir, writing very meticulously about events and reactions. I had the honor of reading a friend’s diary once and it read just like a novel (a good one, at that) and I was a character there! The Cecily quote reminds me of this: “enter the wonderful secrets of my life” as if entering a field of imagination or escaping into a novel in which we play heroine.

I really like how you want to include the tiny (and sometimes icky) details of each day. I admire people who can see stories in the smallest things and revel in the ordinary (even a pile of “poo,” hehe).

“Don't we all think we're the most interesting person in the world? I know I do.”

Lol! Well, let’s hope we do delight in ourselves to a certain degree and find ourselves fairly interesting company, since we are rather stuck, aren’t we? ;)

2/14/2006 4:20 PM  
Blogger The Poodle's Friend wrote...

This might look like I'm spamming you, but I just thought of another reason why I would never burn my diary (assuming I had one in the first place). In my mind, diaries are somewhat akin to books, and burning books is blasphemous. Therefore, I could never burn my diaries.
I remember watching 'The Day After Tomorrow' and positively having a fit at the part where they're freezing to death in the library and decide to burn books to keep the fire going. I mean, with all the wooden furniture lying around, they have to go burning books? Honestly!
Incidentally, 'The Day After Tomorrow' is one of the worst movies I've ever seen in my young life. And I've seen 'Battlefield Earth'. In Turkish.

2/14/2006 4:22 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

:) TPF, I often leave more than one comment within moments of each other – sometimes one thought just happily leaps into another! I haven't had the misfortune(?) of seeing either Day After Tomorrow or Battlefield Earth, but (since I'm strangely reminded of the title of a Buffy episode), I'm compelled to write: "Book Burning Bad."

Thanks for your thoughts (and do try to keep away from radiation and pan out of prison)!

2/14/2006 6:08 PM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

OK, I couldn't resist: I had to post something about this on my blog.

you can find it here:

It's long--an essay I wrote and published a couple of years ago. In case you don't want to read the whole thing, here's a relevant paragraph:

Many people consider a journal the most private and intimate of texts. In certain ways my journal is intensely intimate, in that it contains personal details and deep yearnings and struggles. Nonetheless, I was affected very early and very thoroughly by the Mormon view that journals are documents providing personal accounts of shared experiences--an example being the diaries or journals kept by those who crossed the plains--and are in some ways intended to be shared, just like the experiences they record. I took to heart the admonition that someday, when I am dead, someone, somewhere, might come upon my journals and use them--as faith-promoting stories, as cautionary tales, or simply as historical documents. Thus I have long been acutely aware of audience--it's a concept I understood instantly when teachers tried to explain it in composition courses. And even though I began to suspect early on that the angels would not quote from my journal, filled as it was with doubt and dissent, still, I couldn't help wanting, at the very least, to entertain and edify those other potential readers, the human ones--to give them an occasional good laugh, or pose from time to time a difficult question worth pondering.

2/15/2006 9:05 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Holly - it's great when one post inspires another! I read yours and enjoyed it immensely.

2/15/2006 3:20 PM  

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