I’ve been transcribing my childhood diaries off and on for the past year, and while it’s not as horrifying as I thought it might be to revisit teenage me, I am let down. Not by what’s in there, but by what is not.
I have memories of specific scenes from my life — Grandma showing me how to brush my teeth with my finger when we spent the night with her and forgot toothbrushes, riding out a thrashing thunderstorm in an open boat with my dad, needing Outback Red shirts and Sebago shoes in 8th grade — but none of those things are in my diaries. In fact, there are no descriptions of anything real or physical. There are only my feelings and what’s going on in my head.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and why it might be. The most obvious reason is that the primary purpose of journaling was never to record scenes or paint pictures for future me; the purpose was always to process my thoughts and feelings. Writing in a diary was my outlet.
Also, we have no idea in the moment what is going to be most important and memorable to us later. What I’m most worried about in my life right now, today, is not going to be something I even remember 20 years from now. Likewise, the priorities I felt compelled to write about in my diaries as a teenager are not the same priorities I have as a 45 year old woman transcribing those diaries so I can throw them away. We don’t know what will be memorable or important to us later. It will likely be something very different from what’s important to us right now.
If I’m honest, I am sure I left things out because they were too scary to admit. I certainly do that now, and I’m trying to correct it because that’s where the really good stuff is.
But the most interesting reason I see for not recording scenes in a journal, for not writing down the details of a person’s face, or what the air smelled like, or the sounds in the background, is that they feel unremarkable when you’re living them. Mundane. So why would you write them?
Looking back, I wish I had written them because they are the physical details that anchor the moment. It’s hard to remember what a feeling feels like, but boy do I remember the earthy damp concrete scent of my grandparent’s garage when I’d go out through the kitchen door with Grandaddy on dewy mornings, knock spider webs out of Nannie’s boots, and clomp with him through the wet grass up to the barn to dump the cantelope rinds from breakfast. I was probably too young to know I felt safe and content in those moments with Grandaddy, so I would never have written about walking to the compost pile as an 8 year old. When I write about it now, I realize that’s exactly what those quiet morning walks with Grandaddy made me feel: safe and content.
Since my old journals don’t include scenes I remember and I so wanted to read about, I’m making more of an effort now to include physical details when I journal. It’s not easy. I often feel like it’s either / or — either I’m writing about what I’m thinking and feeling, or I’m recording a physical scene with no action or thoughts included. Joining them seamlessly is a challenge, but I guess that’s why we keep trying.
Writing is hard.