“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Flannery O’Connor
I was nine years old when I started keeping a journal, the first of many I received as a birthday gift. It was pink with some sort of design, possibly ballet slippers. It came in a little pink box with a clear plastic lid and keys that I kept conveniently tied around the lock.
I don’t remember why I started to write, but I remember sitting at the kitchen table one morning, looking over at my baby brother who was watching a children’s television show that I did not like. “Can I write that he’s watching a dumb show?” I asked my mum. “It’s your diary,” she said. “You can write whatever you want.”
That’s what I remember when people ask how long I’ve kept a journal. A long time.
I’ve recently spoken with a couple of people who look back on old writing. They write so they can reread later, verify their memories, reflect on situations and decisions, and understand who they are now. I’ve always just thought I’d burn everything one day.
When I think about reading old journals, my insides turn cold. My writing tells stories and relays events that I do not like to think about. I’ve been places I don’t want to revisit, and certainly not alone. My younger self needed to be held, needed to be shaken awake, needed to connect the dots in the writing on the wall, needed to learn, to grow, to love. The person I am now, as is the case with all of us, is a product experiences, responses to challenges, choices made. My writing on this blog tells me that I’m very consistent in many ways, but my personal writing is not nearly so tidy. Our public and private lives are often very different in that way. Is it enough to understand what is now without looking back to see how I arrived here?
And yet, there is a box of two decades of journals in my parents’ basement. Why did I once take the time to sort them, a harder task than it sounds because I didn’t always write the date when I was young? Why have I packed them into suitcases over summer holidays to place in that box? What am I saving them for? I’ve asked myself that question many times and I don’t know the answer. I’m saving them. The end.
I think better on paper. I understood what that meant to me long before I knew anything about cognitive processing, neural pathways, or emotional reactivity. I need to write like some people need a cigarette, and I get fidgety when I feel this way. I carry my journal around during difficult times and sometimes it’s enough to jot a note about what I want to chronicle (that’s usually the word I use) later on. It literally takes the edge off.
Sometimes I write with the intention of remembering, of preserving for as long as I can. But sometimes writing gives me permission to let go, to free up space in working memory so I can focus on something else. If it’s written down, I needn’t actively remember.
Writing is the only pursuit that I do not compromise, no matter how exhausting the day. At the minimum, it’s three things I’m grateful for. And I am grateful, every day, for knowing that there are things to be grateful for.