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).