I’ve been reading through my diaries, and have found plenty of scandal that made me laugh so hard I cried*:
We all hate Crystal now. Guess what! We’re having a prom! (April 15, 1986; 11 years old)
We don’t hate Crystal. I’m glad because she’s a lot nicer than Hilga [who determined who we hated and who we didn’t]. We didn’t win quizbowl. (May 10, 1986; 11 years old)
Today was my first day of middle school. We have 4, hundred pound books and we have to carry them home and to school and all that junk. (August 25, 1986; 11 years old)
I love Teddy so much! He’s so cute. He’s got blond hair, he’s tan, he’s got pretty straight teeth, he eats a lot. (October 12, 1986; 12 years old)
I was always into straight teeth.
But what is strange to me is that these things that I’m reading from my 11-year-old self are not the things I remember from being 11 years old. The people I mention are contemporaries of plenty of people I do remember, but until I read my diary, Crystal and Teddy had evaporated completely from my psyche.
It makes me wonder about the whole trustworthy narrator thing. Several times I have read my own words and thought, that’s not how I remember it. In my little blue diary I wrote that I was excited when I started my period, but I don’t remember being excited. I remember being mortified because I couldn’t get to the bathroom and I was afraid I’d have a stain on my jeans and omg everyone is going to know I’m on my period. It seems strange that the memory that I’ve carried with me my whole life is so unlike what I recorded on the page.
Terry Tempest Williams wrote a beautiful book, When Women Were Birds, in which she inherits her mother’s journals, a tradition within her Mormon clan. Her mother told her, “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” And when Terry looked at them, after her mother was gone, she found that they were all empty. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice is Williams’s grappling with those blank pages – why are all the books empty? Where is her mother’s voice? Why would her mother buy all these journals, not write in them, keep them, and then pass their silent pages down to her?
There are many entries like my first-period entry, entries that jar me in their discordance with my memory. The memories that stick with me are the ones I took for granted at the time, that weren’t remarkable to an 11-year-old girl, that didn’t merit recording in a diary. Like how pretty the marsh looks in summer, when a storm is coming, and the grass looks neon green against a blackening sky. Like the mud-romping shoes I made with my brother, and the heavy stillness of the marsh at low tide, when the sun beat down on us, and I could barely breathe through the thick humid air. Like laying on my clean, cool white comforter and reading books after I’d showered, when I was rewarded with coming inside into the air conditioning after Mom had turned us out of the house for a few hours.
None of those things – the marshes, the mud-romping shoes, the books I read – made it to the pages of my diaries. I know because as an adult I wanted to write about them. These scenes are vivid in my memory; if they are the things that stick with me from childhood now, they must have been important to me then. Surely I can mine my diaries for details.
Perhaps Willams’s mother recognized this, this limiting of narrative that a journal necessitates. Perhaps she knew that what she recorded on the page – the page that would eventually be passed down to her daughter – would be but a small part of her whole experience, and that words on a page would inevitably narrow her existence to anyone who was not her, who did not have her memories that filled the negative space between the lines, the everyday things that she took for granted, the things that didn’t merit recording in a diary.
When I began scanning my teenage diaries, I could only read a few minutes before having to go outside and soak up some sunlight. They take me into that dark place of adolescence, of not being sure who I was, of being a follower, of wanting desperately to be liked, of trying not to stand out. It doesn’t feel good to go back to that place. When I read the melodrama of my 16-year-old self I think, my God, I hope our kids never read this, they’ll think I was a miserable soul.
In my memory of teenage life there is glee that balances the angst recorded in my diaries. I remember riding with the top down on my VW Super Beetle and singing at the top of my lungs. I remember slumber parties with pizza and cake and Pretty in Pink. I remember laughter with my best friends, and coffee at Daybreak Café, and reading our musings about the universe to each other at Waffle House, smoking cigarettes and eating grits.
In my diaries there is only venting. In my teens I wrote when I was upset, when I needed to process. Anyone who found these diaries would only get the darkness, and not the light, of my teenage life. A writing buddy inherited her mother’s diaries and what she finds there distresses her. I told her about my teen diaries, and how filled with angst they are because I only wrote when I needed to vent, when I needed a place to sort my thoughts and vomit emotion. This was eye-opening to her, that perhaps that was her mother’s method as well. That perhaps the pages did not tell her mother’s whole story.
Maybe Terry Tempest Williams’s mother knew this as well, that journaling to sort, to process, to vent, to vomit could leave a powerful and potentially inaccurate legacy.
Despite what I’ve learned about the (un)reliability of my childhood diaries, I don’t care about incongruity when it comes to my journals as a new mother. What I remember about my colicky newborn son’s first weeks is desperation. When I remember myself during that time I picture my eyes as a dying horse’s – wide open and rolling in panic. What I remember is do-gooder’s poo-pooing my anxiety, saying “Oh, colic usually goes away after three months,” and my fright that I wouldn’t make it that long. What I remember is standing in the street waiting for my husband to come home so that I could hand our screaming son to him. So that I could collapse into tears myself.
What I wrote about in my journals were our son’s laughter, his coos, how fulfilled I felt holding him, gazing at him, feeding him. How he melted my heart.
He turns his head and looks straight into my eyes. And then he smiles. No matter how tired I am, when he does that it’s all gone, and I’m head over heels in love. (December 28, 2003; Mom 29, Baby 4 weeks)
Those journals and the joy they contain show me that I wasn’t the monster I remember myself being. The words that chronicle our son’s first year do not reflect the angst I remember but instead record the glee.
I like the Mormon tradition of Terry Tempest Williams’s family, of women’s voices being passed down through the generations through their diaries. I am sad for Williams that her mothers journals are empty, and she does not know why. Perhaps her mother was wiser than I and knew that whatever she wrote would tell a slanted tale, and knowing her words would be passed down, she could not be free with them. By leaving the pages blank, she gave Williams a gift of exploration, a wide open story instead of a narrow narrative.
I was not that wise or creative. Instead, after toting my childhood diaries around for 28 years, never considering that my children might one day read them, I find myself wondering now – is this the narrative of my life I want my children to know? Is it true?
My husband has always told me I’m a black and white person, that I see the world as This or That, rarely as a blending of both, as I’m currently doing, pitting diary against memory, as if one were truer than the other.
In the end, there wasn’t one thing about him that was truer than the rest. It was all true. – Paula McLain, The Paris Wife
Memory and diary are not mutually exclusive. They both contain truth. As a woman with a fickle memory, I would have once said that the diary was the truer – it is a written record of the events of a life as they were happening, when they were fresh, when time and consequences hadn’t yet shaped them into something more or less than they were at the time. Now, though, looking back on the bits I chose to record and holding them up against the memories that never made it onto journal pages – the blank bits behind the words – I realize that my memories are equally real, equally valid as records of my life. Diary, memory – it is all true.
I don’t know what I’ll do about my childhood diaries. I’ll keep them through our kids’ teen years to remind me what it was like to be that age, but after that I don’t know that I’ll pass them along. Those aren’t the story I want to tell.
My motherhood journals though. Those I’m hanging onto. Unlike my childhood diaries which disappoint me that they don’t contain the memories I cherish, my motherhood journals make me so grateful I want to cry. My motherhood journals do not tell the whole story, but they tell the story I had forgotten was there. My motherhood journals tell the story I want to remember, and am thankful the pages record: the joy, the wonder, the beginnings of brand new lives. They tell the story I want to share with my children – their story, our story – and we can fill in the blanks together with our memories.
* Names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty).
10 thoughts on “Diary or Memory: Which is the Reliable Narrative?”
This is a lovely post. I always thought that a diary was more accurate as well but you provide a new angle…thanks
I was surprised too. Reading through them has definitely informed my current journaling, though. I am more aware now of providing the details I want from previous diaries, though often the page is there just to receive whatever it is I need to pour out.
Great post, and something to ponder. I think journal entries tend to be unfiltered and uncensored compared to the narrative we tell others and ourselves. That may be why I quit writing a journal about 20 years ago. Filters can be good, especially the ones that scrape away the sense of self-loathing that my adolescent journals reek of. 🙂
Yes. Filters are good. It was cathartic to write things down then, and it still is now, but I know better than to trust the written word as the only truth. Diaries should be taken with a shaker of salt.
Watching yourself growing , amazing.
Yes, that is very true – that’s an aspect of diaries that is very revealing. I noticed that as I aged, journal entries became broader than whatever emotion I was feeling at that second. The entries are both outward- and inward- focused, and that is fascinating to me.
I wish i would have started writing a diary when i was a kid , sadly i started quite late like 3 years ago.I do still appreciate being able to see the changes in me , and who knows maybe fiding cures for my soul.
Congrats for being inspired at a very young age to write 🙂
Beautifully done. I never kept a journal as a kid. I tried. But at that age I never felt quite confident to express fully what I was feeling. I wish I would have not cared about how I expressed it. I wish I had the actual writings of my teen self in it most simplistic or complicated form. It’s truly special you have those. But I too journaled as a mom. I dedicated a complete journal to each child recording my pregnancy adventure.
Wow, first of all, I’m amazed that you have journals from childhood to motherhood. That must be amazing to have those records and be able to reflect. Second, I think both your diaries and memories have truth to them. Of course, the diaries from your childhood are limited by the ability of a child to express themselves, but nonetheless have something to say. Even memories can sometimes be misconstrued, with things forgotten or added. Having both diaries and memories is such a great way to reflect on your past. Great post!
Both memory and diary or journal do contain truth…it’s true. I’m glad in a way for my journal, because I know there’s a lot I’ll never remember with my bad memory that even though maybe some of it needs forgotten, I want to have a way to remember. The other thing I’ll say about truth is I know with my journal entries, how true they are depends on how truthful I am with myself. I know sometimes there are things I’m reluctant to write, because I’m holding back somehow…like when things are too painful to admit.
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