Collections of things. Stuff – mental, emotional and physical. Don’t you find that there is just too much of it? Why do we keep stuff? Big questions that I won’t address here. But I want to share some stories about a particular pile of ‘stuff’ that I’ve kept for over 35 years.
When I packed up my worldly possessions last year, I found a number of boxes containing 17 diaries in a multitude of shapes, sizes and thicknesses. I’ve been an avid journal writer since I was 15 and I’d forgotten how many I have filled over the years. I scanned through them and re-packed them. I was keeping them – there was never any doubt that.
Fully aware that they add to the clutter I’ll be taking back to the UK, they have been on my mind. Do I really need them anymore? But a plan is emerging for them. It’s in it conception stage, so it’s understandably vague. To find out what that plan is, I ask you to bear with me, hear the story and read to the end! Go grab a coffee, find a comfy spot and join me.
Let’s time travel
The beginning – 1979
The only diary that doesn’t fit into any box is a strange shape – long and thin. On opening the front cover there’s a neatly written list of teacher’s names, my school timetable and a place for filing in test results. There was only one entry so I obviously got bored with that idea! It seems that I’d re-purposed an old school notebook for my first diary. I lived in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as a child and we had international sanctions. Paper was actually a rare and precious resource. Our schoolbooks were made from recycled paper.
This was my first diary. What made me start one is unclear but I’m still writing diaries and journals 39 years later.
Spanning my 14th and 15th years, this diary is a careful, mind-numbing, repetitive catalogue of the times I woke up, went to sleep, what I ate, sitting next to the phone on long telephone calls with friends (no, we didn’t have cell phones!) and all those other things teenage girls do. The slang we used as young teenagers must’ve been cool at the time. It was amusing for the first few pages but it became intensely irritating! I still understand what it means but it was a lazy way of writing. My handwriting style hadn’t formed either. It can only be described as erratic!
But if you look beyond the slang, the terrible handwriting and tedious detail you might just detect the bounding energy of youth. You might get a sense of this being a testimony of a teenager lacking in confidence venturing into her first relationships with boys and discovering how a broken heart feels.
My favourite stories are those about the three years I spent at university. Stories of carefree times, friendships made and nurtured, tales of heartbreak and the type of personal growth and learning that happens when you leave school and venture into the big world for the first time. At the back of each journal are lists that I did maintain: movies I saw, books I read and music I liked. One has music Top 10s every week as well as favourite quotes and lyrics from songs that expressed feelings that I wasn’t capable of putting into words.
These diaries are falling apart at the seams, bursting with “things” – the everyday memorabilia that I saved. These little treasures are more captivating than the daily entries. Letters from lovers, scribbled notes from friends, ticket stubs, programmes, invitations, poetry, postcards, ID cards, newspaper clippings, horoscope predictions, pledges not to drink ever again and so much more. (This habit of collecting memorabilia stayed with me for a long time, until I started moving frequently. I photographed it and ditched it. Ruthless. Decluttering). Nonetheless, these treasures provide a glimpse into other parts of my daily life that I did not take time to write about and draw in memories of the people around me.
In the “1983” diary there’s a long entry written by a good friend in his hand-writing. We were sitting in my university room reviewing the adventures we’d had over the last 2 years. I obviously asked him to write something and its almost as if he could see into the future:
“I keep thinking, sherbet Debs will read this and remember me by it so I better write something decent.”
As this friend has now passed, it is comforting to hear his 20-something voice talking to me from the past, about those happy, formative times. I’m immensely happy I have that entry.
My 30s and 40s
After my years at university, I attempted to maintain the journal writing and I was mostly successful although there are big gaps. But between 2001 and 2003 they begin again in earnest. Brimming with raw emotions and rampant angst, these journals cover the period when I was going through separation and divorce from my now ex-husband. They make compelling reading. As they bring back every emotion as I experienced it at the time, they’re tough too. As with anything distressing, they make me feel ill at ease and immensely sad.
But I know how much my writing helped at this time of my life. It was cathartic. My journals were a friend I could trust with my emotions and my secrets.
Once I began to recover from the sadness and pain of a divorce that I didn’t want, my journals document what I call my “Growth Towards Wholeness”. The need to call back the lost fragments of my self and wanting to understand who I really am is a side effect of getting older I suppose. I am still on that journey.
2007 to now
Strangely, there are no journals after 2007. What happened?
A few things. If I remember correctly, I wrote sporadically during this time in random books, not being organised enough to use just one notebook. I started and completed a correspondence course in Creative Writing in 2008 which gave me some exposure to learning more about writing prose and scripts.
Then I did my doctorate. Academic writing became my life and personal writing took a back seat for 4 long years.
I decided to use a research journal as one of my data collection tools. This is relatively commonplace in qualitative, educational research. But of course, I did not restrict myself to just one journal. By the end, I had four spanning 2012 and 2013, all invaluable tools for my research writing and my personal sanity. I started out recording all my research activities and reflected on these as they happened.
As the PhD progressed and it became more intense, exhausting and increasingly challenging, I used the journals to write down everything I was grappling with, my insecurities about writing a 400-page thesis, about being academic enough to do it, the emotional highs and lows of a research journey and so much more. I have often told other doctoral students that I could not have written parts of my thesis without the journal. But there are more private entries in those journals that certainly didn’t make it into the thesis for obvious reasons. But once again, journaling and writing had come to my rescue. The day I handed in my thesis for examination, I ceremoniously tapped the journals together and consigned them to a shoe box.
More recent journalling experiences
In 2015 I started my first version of this Everyday Delights blog which became a journal of sorts. It took a while for me to get out of the academic writing style and back into writing from a personal perspective. I struggled to strike the right balance. Seeing all the beautiful bullet journals on Pinterest enticed me to try those. There was an element of creativity in designing the layouts that I was drawn to and I used my own version for a year or so. But in the end, I found them too restrictive in format and space. My writing has always been unpredictable – sometimes I write tons, sometimes very little, sometimes a list, sometimes an essay or a letter. I began to see that and abandoned the bullet journal idea.
For many reasons, last year (2017) I felt the need to connect with my writing again. I did my first NaNoWriMo and managed to complete the target of 50,000 words in November. That felt so good. Woohoo!
When November came to an end I felt a little lost not chasing the daily word count. I was impatient for more. I wanted to maintain that regular writing habit. I needed to be creative every day. Somewhere I’d read about Julia Cameron’s tools for creative recovery. I began to write Morning Pages. They satisfy the need to write every day but also have a profound effect on my day. I’m less stressed, calmer because I write, get everything out on paper and then move on with my day. I’ve been doing those daily since December.
Back to now
Just memories or something useful?
I’ve carried these journals around with me since I was 15. They have moved houses and continents with me and they are about to move again. Why have I kept them for so long? Are my journals just a repository for my memories or do they have another purpose?
They remind me that I have lived a rich life. You shrug and say “So what?”
I’ve read them many times. With the benefit of hindsight and maturity, I’ve noticed recurring themes and it’s those that I’ve decided to explore this November during my second NaNoWriMo (yes I am going to do it again!). My journals are going to be my raw data and from them, I will attempt to craft something. “Craft” haha – that sounds very posh! At this stage, I have no idea what, so it might be more cobbled together than crafted!
How am I going to turn 17 journals plus numerous books of Morning Pages into something coherent with some kind of story? Divine guidance and inspiration?
There’s no harm in trying, right? What have I got to lose?
Tell me about your own collections of stuff, whatever they may be.
Or maybe you’ve written a book about your life.
Inspire me, please!