Lately, over crumb-laden dinner tables and cups of coffee and on windy hillsides I ask friends, family, and peripheral acquaintances whether or not they write in a journal. It is one of a series of questions I ask in rapid fire when trying to assess their character: Do you believe in ghosts? Would you ever drink raw milk? Do you feel strongly about serifs? Do you write in a journal?
Over time, people’s responses begin to fall into recognizable patterns. The incredulous ask, “What? Like a diary? No, I don’t write in a diary.” Two male peers rebuffed my questioning with snorts of disdain. (They later added that they were occasionally prone to “jotting down ideas” in “some sort of book,” but this practice struck them as something different from I was asking.) The devoted tell me, “I try to write something everyday.” But the most common response is that of the covert—those who answer me with an equivocal yes, qualifying it with “only occasionally, and I always hate whatever it is I’ve written.” Like hearing your own voice on a recording device, reading previous journal entries instills a sudden flush of self-awareness. Red-cheeked from embarrassment, we reject the notion that that strained and breathy voice was ever ours, preferring instead the baritone version that plays in our own heads.
My first recorded journal entry is from 1998, when I was in third grade. It’s the only entry in the entire book, right there on the front page, transcribed after a muddy school field trip to Muir Woods. It begins:
When it rains the mushrooms magically appear! OR SO PEOPLE THINK. Banana slugs have eyes on their tentacles and tongues covered in teeth. They can smell a mushroom from THIRTY FEET AWAY!
I wince when I read this. I have never stopped wincing when reading something my younger self wrote, if only because it reminds me of what my younger self was like: an overly serious somebody, with severe bangs and a bowl cut that resembled Darth Vader’s helmet. What is a journal entry meant to do but bring you face to face with the person you loosely recognize as yourself?
Journal writing, like everything else, is made flat by extremity. We read the diaries of masters to reconfirm their undeniable talent. “See?” we say in admiration. “Every bit of them was brilliant.” We cradle them close, grateful to know that the human mind is capable of spinning and whirring like mad even when no one’s looking.
For this very reason, I love the autobiographical writings of Virginia Woolf. She meditates on the amorphous narrative of a diary, voicing her own insecurities but with an unparalleled degree of articulation and insight:
What sort of a diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection has sorted itself and refined itself.
All of us journal writers hurl the random bits of our daily existence into notebooks in hopes that from their lined pages will rise the story of our lives. It’s just that the Virginia Woolfs of the world have an easier time of making this happen, if only because their blips and blurbs are studded with the markers of genius. Their exceptionality is made brighter to me by the dull nature of my own entries. Though some of my entries are deeply felt and poignant, a lot of them read like a list I made for a high school crush when I was sixteen years old. “Pros: handsome, funny, likes the movie Clueless. Cons: he’s an asshole.”
I have no memory of what possessed nine-year-old me to write so fervently about the underlings of the forest floor, just as I have no memory of what it was like to not know how to tie a shoe or write out the particular loops and circles of my own name. I am young still, in my early twenties, but I have a hard time accessing what it felt like to be fifteen years old and bruised by something invisible. Our younger selves are different selves, and though we welcome the distance from life’s earlier undignified moments—the slippings and swoonings and sadness of being small—what strikes me as more tragic is feeling so apart from that fledgling version of yourself that you can’t even remember what it was like to walk under the canopy of trees and stare fixedly at something darkened with dirt.
Anyone who writes in a journal will recognize that his or her entries all conform to some false sense of continuity. To write in a journal is to construct a painstaking narrative linking authorial versions of ourselves so apart from one another that they feel disconnected. It is only when we go back and revisit those versions of ourselves that we realize they had anything in common in the first place.
In her diary, Virginia Woolf addresses her future self as if she were a distant reader, someone who has stumbled upon a forgotten book and cannot help but read it. She writes:
If Virginia Woolf at the age of fifty, when she sits down to build her memories out of these books, is unable to make a phrase as it should be made, I can only condole with her and remind her of the existence of the fireplace, where she has my leave to burn these pages to so many black films with red eyes in them…. The lady of 50 will be able to say how near to the truth I come; but I have written enough for tonight….
This passage resonates with me because I believe journal writing is largely anticipatory. To write in a journal is to consciously or unconsciously acknowledge the corrosive capabilities of time. Journal writing is an act of mummification: one embalms the present in expectation of a future hunger for remembrance. I build my memories out of these books. I write not because I think my life is interesting, but because I have a deep abiding love for imperfect systems of archive. On my splintering bedside table, I have a stack of five journals, all but one of them crammed full of entries dating from more than a decade ago. I did not write in these journals every day, and oftentimes their uses underwent strange permutations. They contain lists of baby names I thought were pretty, and fastidious logs of everything I consumed in one day, and incoherent, rambling descriptions of nightmares from when I briefly tried to take up lucid dreaming as a “fun” alternative to hobbies. More than anything else, I am thankful to my journals for reminding me of the remarkable. Few things remain private anymore—our propensity to share has exploded to the point of excess—and I’m guilty of this indulgence just as much as anyone else. So I’m grateful to go back and discover these rare instances of true secrecy. It feels like a kind of freedom. After all, I am an assemblage of an anecdotal hodgepodge in every way, wince-worthy moments included.
That very first entry I ever wrote ends with a more reflective paragraph:
Today I used my senses. I looked at the characteristics of a bird and saw his crown. He was black and blue. I found some dead leaves that looked like Stained Glass. I am looking forward to exploring the redwood forest.
When I discovered it buried behind my childhood bookcase a decade later, I felt as if I were going to cry. I worried I’d never be as earnest as I was then, but I loved it for its futurity. Sitting on the carpeted floor of a bedroom I no longer called my own, I strained to see a little bit of me in me. But this is the quiet, interior struggle of anyone who keeps a journal, and I have written enough for tonight.
Rumpus original art by Paige Russell.