I recently celebrated my eightieth birthday, which—in an unexpected way—has given me permission to publicly claim my age and document this part of the journey. (Funny how that works, isn’t it?) In my reflection on times present and past, I began reading through the two memoirs and the many blog posts I’ve written over the years and decided to share some of these notes from past lives with you, excerpted, edited, and updated.
This first post in this series is about the essential craft of journaling, without which our recollection of a personal past is mostly fiction. It is excerpted (and updated) from a memoir I published with the University of Texas Press in 2008.
The Essential Journal*
This memoir [Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place] looks back over twenty-some years of life experience (1985-2007). It encompasses times of joyous discovery and hopeful anticipation, times of loss and sadness and anger. But memory is a shape-shifter and a deceiver, capable of altering our view of all past realities into a cleverly-crafted perception that explains and justifies our present view of self-in-world. Memory conceals, invents, flatters. Memory makes mythology. You can’t trust memory to tell the truth. I can’t, anyway.
What made it possible for me to write this memoir was not memory, that notoriously unreliable beast, but my habit of keeping a daily journal, or at least a daily diary, when there isn’t time (nor inclination) for serious, introspective writing. I’ve held on to these notebooks and computer files, resisting the occasional temptation, in a fit of housekeeping tidiness, to chuck the whole lot of them into the rubbish. There’s certainly a lot of trash in these pages—whines, complaints, angry rants, random raves, the effluvium of life captured on the fly.
But there’s good stuff here, too. Descriptions of people and events I’ve forgotten, feelings I’ve hidden, patterns I couldn’t see then but that emerged over time, details that slipped through the cracks of the floor of my mind and into the cellar of the unconscious, where unremembered things lie, dark and dust-covered, silent but still enormously powerful.
My journal was my traveling companion as I backtracked along the trail, writing. Because the journal was there to read and think about, I had to deal only with the distortions of the present point of view: that is, the present of the journal, on whatever day it was written, rather than the inevitable distortions I’d see if I looked at the reflection of that same day in the unreliable mirrors of memory. I can’t lay claim to absolute truth, of course, any more than you can, when you tell your own story. But the journal allows me to lay claim to the relative truths of my perceptions while I admit to their selectivity, slanting, inexactness, and incompleteness.
I’ve journaled since I was in graduate school at Berkeley in the late 1960s and early 70s. Oh, those years, chaotic, cataclysmic, incoherent—a single mother with three young kids, the campus up the hill, the Haight-Ashbury across the Bay, a dissertation in the typewriter. These were the years of the Flower Children and anti-war protests and Kent State, and all that tumultuous, ungovernable energy lives still in my journal. Sometimes I wrote regularly, sometimes intermittently, but more regularly and more obsessively as the years went along. Each year, on my birthday, I made it a practice to reread and annotate what I wrote during the previous year; every few years, I’d pick a period to revisit and spend a day or so rereading several years’ worth of journals. I have never failed to be astonished and enlightened and amused and perturbed and embarrassed. And I have never failed to learn something new about myself, something I didn’t already know, or something I knew once and had forgotten—or tried to forget.
The journal has lived through many incarnations, from notebooks (16 of them) to uncounted computer files and blog posts. It once was absolutely private, but parts of it became public when I began keeping this LifeScapes blog on my 1998 website. Now, my public journal is where you found this post, on WordPress–but I still keep a private journal. Together, these explorations are as reliable a record of my past lives and invented selves as I am ever likely to have.
If you have questions for me about journaling, post them in the comments and I’ll try to answer. Here are a few for you: Do you journal? Do you find it a reliable record of your changing selves? If you were writing a memoir, how would you use your journal?
Reading note. It is our inward journey that leads us through time—forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling. Each of us is moving, changing . . . As we discover, we remember; remembering, we discover.—Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings
*Updated from Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place (loc. 20-40).
I love reading your blogs and your books. I, too, am turning 80 this year. I enjoy your books about history such as Beatrix Potter. Thanks so much!
Susan, Your books are a real joy in my life. I am re reading the Robin Paige mysteries you wrote with your husband. I love the characters, the descriptions of the places and their daily habits. The historic piece is fun too — it is so interesting on so many different levels. I just bought a new car (Toyota Highlander) so we can travel and it was fun reading once again about the early days of unreliable cars and the competition between steam, gas and electric. I first read this series when I had Lyme disease — they were a great respite from the day.
Now I am semi retired and had both feet operated on and have thoroughly enjoyed them in my recovery phase. I can walk again!!
Thank you for sharing your creative and lively imagination and Spirit! I enjoy your books. Henrietta Lavengood
Through the years off and on I’d keep a journal (always one on the shelf waiting to be added to) I have such a hard time re-reading it though.. that younger version of myself sure had some learning and growing to do!
Recently (the past few years) I’ve been keeping a nature journal of everything from the first blooms, to interesting birds, and odd weather patterns, incorporating sketches and poems where appropriate. That has been an absolute joy to look back on.
The summation of your post really reminded me of May Sarton (I just finished her book “Journal of a Solitude”).
So many beautiful things to experience in 80 years around the sun, thank you for sharing them with us, and a very happy birthday to you!
Happy, happy birthday!! Thank you for bringing me many great hours keeping up with China and her crew.
Congratulations on your 80th birthday! I am well on the way to mine. My mom wrote in her diary every day and I need to see if I can find out when she began and whether her notes evolved over the years. When I am in Yellowstone I have a journal in my yellow log book that shows where I was and details of geyser eruptions and unusual comments. It is not too late for me to start writing in a diary or journal so I can reflect on daily life as you have. Thank you for this post. Mary Beth
I love travel journals–I keep a separate journal for each trip. (For a writer, this is also documentation for the tax claims.) And you’re right–it’s never too late to start!
Happy Birthday, Susan. What a gift you are to us. I have been an intermittent journal writer. You mentioned Kent State. Having been a student there during the event I wish I would have documented the times and events during that era. That historic event shaped my life in more ways than one but having occurred 50 years ago this year, my memories certainly have gaps. As a legacy writer, I am trying more consistently now to document a little something every day as well as my personal history and have been keeping a political diary since the 2016 election for which I am astonished to look backwards and forward at how this election continues to affect us individually, communally, and nationally. Thank you for sharing your journal experiences with us and by example encouraging us to do the same.
“A political diary.” What an important thing that is, Ann–and I can’t think of anything more important to our lives as participating citizens. Noting observations of political events will teach us to be observant. And may clarify some of those mixed feelings we have about candidates and platforms. Thank you.
As you probably know, I love journaling. Your comments about memory are so-o-o accurate. My husby and I both have imperfect memories and imperfect hearing. What a combo!
I have tons of hand-written journals from the days when my handwriting was legible. As soon as I find time (famous last words) I’m going to reread some, because I know I’ve changed so-o-o much in the last eighteen years!
Read with colored markers or colored sticky notes, Lynn (but knowing you, I’ll be you do that already). It’s the best way to track themes, issues, unanswered questions. Hope you can make time for this . . .
Happy Birthday Susan! My husband will be celebrating his 80th in a few weeks – lots to be thankful for!
Susan, I am 91 years old and every night I read the applicable page from your “China Bayles’ Book of Days”. (Even though August 31 is missing!) You have taught us so much and given so much pleasure with your books. Edie
So glad to hear that the Book of Days is of continuing interest to you.I need to post that missing page on the new site (it was on the old, but buried). Thanks for the reminder!
Congratulations on your birthday, I’m coming right behind you. I’ve enjoyed your writing, so glad you are here and sharing your talent. I especially like the stories with Beatrix Potter and the animals as the characters.
If there were world enough and time . . . (to quote a famous poem) I would write a whole series about those badgers, Carol. I loved each one of them.
Belated Happy Birthday Susan! I have made a few minimal attempts at journaling over the years. Just never got into the habit. Now that I have read what you have to say about it I wish I had taken the time to write down the days events. As I get older I find my thoughts often in the past. Typical I know. It would have been nice to have a written record to jog my memory. Thanks for your writings!
But it’s not too late to start, Lorrie. Try documenting a single week and see where it takes you. Or commit to documenting a trip, or a holiday, or a special event. You might be surprised.
A belated Happy, Happy Birthday, Susan. May your next year be filled with joy, contentment, and good health. I have loved your China and Ruby stories and look forward to more. My husband and I love your beautiful Texas hill country. We’re just north up I-35 in Liberty, Mo. but have a very different terrain.
I’ve finally retired after spending 40 years in daily journalism (newspapers, radio, and television). Your journal writings have given me a kick in the pants. I know it’s time for me to commit many memories to paper.
Hello, Caroline. I am in Liberty, MO also, the last couple of years. When I lived in the Waldo area, I was fortunate to attend a visit at the library by Susan Wittig Albert. We are about the same age. A few years ago, she made a long road trip by herself up to New York and that inspired me to drive to South Carolina. I’m grateful for her journey and sharing other life experiences with us. We’ve lived in amazing times! The Hill Country is a favorite of mine,too, as I’ve traveled from the Kansas City area to Texas several times. I wish you well as you write your memories.
Mary Miller – thank you for your comments. Stay well during this harsh winter.
Mary, that WAS a long trip (to the Roosevelt library in Hyde Park NY). I’m delighted to know that it nudged you to drive to South Carolina–a long trip from MO! Those library visits were always the high point of my annual four-five week book tours. They allowed me to meet readers in literally hundreds of small towns over the years. What an education for me–and a pleasure, each one.
Glad to hear that, Caroline. I suspect hat once you get started, you’ll find it so rewarding that you’ll continue.
Happy Birthday, Susan. I also have been journaling since I was 16 years old, and often refer to the journals as I work on my writing. Your book Together Alone was deeply insightful, and a great pleasure to read
I am 86 years old now. It was fun to see that you are in your eighties also.Daniel Levitin has just published a book called Successful Aging., full of interesting research about aging. Being older allows us to benefit from all we have experienced and learned, and to rely upon our hard earned resilience. It can be a truly joyful time. I know you will find it to be so.
Thanks for the reading suggestion, Blaire. I’ve just downloaded a sample of Levitin’s book. I’m glad you enjoyed the memoir. It’s been 10+ years since that book and age brings many changes. Thinking that it might be time to write another.
I keep putting off writing my autobiography; that’s the story of my life.
I’ll join you in age in September. I think often about our young lives together and am happy we have remain touch since, Happy birthday belated though I am!
Karen! So lovely to hear from you. I was smiling the other day, remembering a time when I was driving your brother’s car (no recollection of why) and you and I were laughing so hard that I drove off the road. No big deal on those one-lane asphalts back in Illinois, but a memorable experience nonetheless. Lots to remember!
Happy Belated Birthday!!!!! I love, love, love your China books, I have them all, and looking forward for the new one. I just finished the new Dahlias book, hated to see it end. Before that one I read the Ruby’s three little stories, and can’t wait for more of her. Thank you so much.
Looks like there will be another Dahlias before the next China, Elaine. Glad you’ve enjoyed Ruby’s adventures!
Happy Birthday, Susan. Please keep sharing. I do love your thoughts and words. I’ve tried to journal but have never kept it up. Maybe I will try again.
Please do, Sammie. Try just a week. Or try it on your computer. Maybe a new format will help get you into the habit.
A belated happy birthday to you Susan. I just hit 81 and treasure those journals I have written intermittently over the years. Most writing has been done while standing at the threshold to something new, i.e. a new job, a new child (3), going back to school three times and new self discoveries such as writing and making visual art. Such writing, when reflected upon, is the glue which holds the self-structure together upon which I daily build.
You make an important point, Barbara. I think we journal at transition moments (as one of my friends calls these) because we are facing a journey into unknown territory–and a journey invites a record. Periods like these can teach us who we are, as well as who we want to be. Thanks for sharing this insight!
First Susan…Happy, Happy, Happy Birthday! 🎉
I have collected journals for many years with barely a few words written. Why? Because I felt I would ‘ruin’ them with my insignificant babbling. Gratitude to you and others who have left comments here. You are an inspiration and possibly a catalyst that will finally give me ‘permission’ to jot my ramblings worthy or not. I became a mixed media artist in my 60’s so why not a journal writter in my 70’s?!
And mixed media can create fascinating journals, Linda! Look at this book: https://www.amazon.com/Art-Journal-Your-Archetypes-Techniques-ebook/dp/B01KGO49VU/ref=sr_1_3
Wow! I would never have thought you were 80. I have always sort of pictured you as China. I don’t know why I’m so surprised–I’m 72 and know that we are not our age in years. We are our age in spirit! I hope your birthday was very happy. And thank you for all the China Bayles books. Love them!
I would love to be as ageless as China, Linda! I notice that Brian and Caitie are getting older, but she never seems to. Wish she would share her secret!
I too have reached the big 80- isn’t it wonderful ! I have so enjoyed all of your books and blogs and wish you a most Happy, Healthy and successful year ahead! Onward and upward.
Thank you, and yes it is–wonderful in its freedom. Thank you, Jean.
I’m almost 76 so I can say this – you write vigorously and I would never have guessed you were older than me!! I am embarrassed to say I never journaled diligently until January 2019 as we faced selling our home of 41 years and moving to an Over 55 development. I miss my woods and my critters, but I’ve met some terrific people! Just goes to show one that kindness and joy can be found anywhere!!
Moving to a new place (or starting a new project or getting involved with a new passion) has always been an invitation to me to journal. Takes a lot of courage to make those steps, sometimes. They are worthy of being documented. Woods are wonderful, but there are other wonderful things out there in the world, as well. Glad you’re finding some of them, JaNelle.
Love your writing, ramblings, thoughts in this time and space. (As joyful, delightful and enticing as smelling vanilla‼️)
Interesting to me to see we are the same age this year and I am very interested to see what you have to say, in your future writings, as to your perspective on this phase of our earth adventure.
I don’t know yet what form that writing will take, Vivian. I’m still very interested in fiction, but I loved May Sarton’s series of journals in her later years–thinking of that. Thanks for your note!
Very happy belated birthday. I so enjoy your books, with the facts and history….great joy. Thanks.