I have been cleaning up and cleaning out lately (at the ripe old age of 40, I’m about to get a writing room of my own for the first time), and have come across stacks and stacks of old journals, bits of writing, photo albums and housebooks.* Many times I have heard people lamenting burning or otherwise destroying their old diaries: reading cringingly through some of mine, it is all I can do not to do the same. The old writing, naff as it is, I can stomach, showing as it does that my present writing preoccupations have been with me for decades. But some of the teenaged journals – shallow and self-involved, melodramatic yet lacking in detail of the texture of my emotional life, in thrall to the intellectual, psychological and spiritual whims of those around me – are hard to keep. Most people can forget about what they did or thought when they were young: journal writers have no such luxury, because it is there in ink, marked with old coffee stains, old ink blots, notes from what I was listening to or reading, allowing you no comfortable revision of how cool or collected you’d like to have thought you were. (I won’t even start on the old letters – the fact that I considered them worthy of sending and at a later date stealing back is enough to make my stomach gurgle with embarrassment, even now). Meanwhile, I completely neglected the things of real importance that were going on.
So why keep them?
Frankly, I keep them because I would romanticise what things were like then if I didn’t; they do contain passing references to things or people that still matter; and they are the record of a life, and proof, if I needed any, that experience is important in tempering the emotional swings that so plagued me and many of my friends in those turbulent years. Yes, life does get better, if only because you learn to handle it better.
Also, if the worst comes to the worst, I can use them for material. As a reasonably rational adult, it’s easy to forget how completely different the world seems to teenaged and early twenties eyes. For example, I took everything seriously and personally. Like, everything – I felt as if God was personally punishing me for unknown misdemeanors, when really, it was just stuff. I walked around a lot of the time in a kind of chip-on-shoulder rage because I hadn’t worked out my place in the world, and didn’t think I was ever going to. I felt like a misfit, and resented everybody who didn’t (hmmn, some things never change :)) If I hadn’t kept the journals, I wouldn’t be able to relive that intensity, and maybe use it in my writing sometime (if it doesn’t exhaust me).
I also wonder, if there had been blogs and Facebook and the whole online environment, whether the possibility for online communion would have soothed some of the experience of isolation – and whether that would have been a good thing.
*Do people in sharehouses do housebooks anymore? The one I have custody of is a marvellous assortment of dreams, shopping lists, phone messages, cartoons, confessions, and reflections on the world circa 1991, all contributed by housemates, lovers, visitors, partygoers and neighbours.