As of this month, I have been keeping a journal for 31 years.
Not the same journal, obviously. During those three decades I’ve filled up 14 notebooks, and I’m about halfway through no. 15.
This comes out to a little more than two notebooks per year since I got going in October 1988, when I was 9.
There would be many more volumes if I were strict about chronicling my various doings, but I am not. Rarely, in fact, will you find entries for back-to-back days. Sometimes when I’m traveling I’ll remember to provide consistent updates so that I can look back on each stage of the trip later, but otherwise my records are spotty at best.
This is especially true of the first three diaries, which mostly cover my tweenhood and adolescence. Whole years go by without so much as a scribble from my pen. Actually, I just checked and I see that two of the first three notebooks still have blank pages, so I guess my output is paltrier than I thought.
I’d like to blame my reticence on being a deeply closeted teen in hiding even from himself. To support this theory, I would point to journal no. 4, which I began in the fall of 1999, shortly after coming out.
It so happens that no. 4 breaks a nearly two-year dry spell on the journaling front, indicating that announcing my gayness perhaps ungagged me in other ways. (For the purposes of this exercise we’ll pretend that I can be gagged.)
But if that’s the case, then why did I remain a sporadic journal-keeper after coming out? Not as sporadic as when I was a teen maybe—I don’t think more than two weeks have ever elapsed between entries in the last 20 years.
But I am a far cry from a meticulous diarist such as the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who describes herself, in her graphic memoir Are You My Mother?, as having a “compulsion for keeping track of life.” The drawing below these words depicts two of her journals in thick black binders labeled by year.
I just checked, and even my journal no. 4 leaves off with blank pages remaining.
The real reason I don’t write in my diary on a regular schedule probably has to do with my ambivalent feelings about the project.
On the one hand, I don’t really see the point. I am not a believer in the therapeutic power of writing, perhaps because I am a professional writer and therefore in on the trade secret that writing is too frustrating to make those who do it feel better.
Nor do I have a “compulsion for keeping track of life” by putting it all down on paper. Is the idea there that when you write everything down, you can start to see patterns and maybe make sense of your existence? I am not a believer in that possibility, either.
I was in fourth grade when I was inspired to start my first diary after reading a chapter book called Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary. It’s a novel made up of letters and diary entries from the perspective of a grade schooler.
That’s all I remember, but I assume the entries gel to make a coherent story. That’s how chapter books work. But I have no illusions that life imitates art in this regard, whether you write it all down or not.
On the other hand, there have been times when I’ve thumbed through my old journal entries and happened upon some stray observation or description of an utterly inconsequential day that can either transport me right back to the time in question or, conversely, make me marvel at how alien my past selves can seem.
Those passages are illuminating, not because they bring clarity to everything, but because they briefly light up a darkened corner of memory in the same way that old snapshots bring back flashes of places, people, and sometimes whole eras that are threatening to slip into obscurity.
Granted, these revelatory glimpses are few and far between in my journals. But they’re a nice surprise amid the tedium, ungenerous critiques of others, thwarted hopes, and embarrassing political commentary also found in those 14 notebooks.
So I guess I continue to keep a journal in order to provide nostalgia fodder for a future self who will regard me as an alien. No wonder I can’t be bothered to supply daily updates.
And now, the first journal entry I wrote:
Today is my sister’s birthday. Today she is twelve. She got her ears pierced. Today I talked to Derek the whole recess. In math we estimated (boring) when we got home sis opened presents. We had supper (Lasonyana) then I wrote in you. Oh mom got real mad while we were eating cake. Me and Kelsey were running in the house and Eden kept spilling stuff.
P.S. Why do cursive L’s go below the line?
To answer call toll free 751-XXXX
Oh I forgot after I got my pagamas on Kelsey jumped on the stairs. It got on my nerves.
then Mom made a radio work.