(I'm probably going to switch gears with my blog, as I realized the way I was going about this was doing nothing but contributing to my already massive insecurities as a writer. Just as an FYI.)
I read "The Silent Woman" by Janet Malcolm earlier this week, and not only did I come away from it thinking that Janet Malcolm was a bloody genius and also that I was due to revisit Sylvia Plath and her art, but I found myself re-considering the whole process of keeping a journal. Plath was evidently a prodigious journal-keeper, and the excerpts Malcolm included of her journals fascinated me. She laid herself open and bare in the pages of her notebook, and in this kind of raw, impressionist way that I found very compelling.
I myself have a very fraught, complicated relationship to journalling. I was raised in a culture that put a lot of emphasis on keeping journals and diaries, not necessarily the way a lot of people do so today, where it is as much about mental health as it is about documentation, but rather for the sake of posterity, for the sake of genealogy. The idea of journalling within the LDS church seems to be a very practical way to keep you in touch with your forebears, so you don't think of them as simply dusty old folks rolled out of a backroom closet for family gatherings and then tucked away again with the nice linens and the fine china once the guests leave. You have a sense of the kinds of sacrifices they made and their feelings and their ideas and the way they spent their time and their interactions with others - all of the little bits and pieces of information that go into constructing what it means to be a person.
I didn't really understand this on a visceral level until I started researching an ancestor on my stepfather's side, who is this remarkable woman who was the first female doctor in the state of Utah and who was responsible for training hundreds of midwives and nurses throughout the western half of North America. (Oh, and by the way, this was in the 1800s. Her accomplishment is impressive by modern standards; just try to imagine it pre-electricity and in the middle of the salt-cracked frontier.) She was a dedicated journaller, and she was incredibly honest in her journals, writing frankly about her love for her husband and her distaste for polygamy and her struggles to reconcile her desire to be a good Mormon woman with her desire to be the only woman in her husband's life. Through reading her words, I've been able to bring her to life in a way news clippings and museum plaques and declarations from historical societies have not been able to do so.
But despite the importance placed upon journalling in the culture I was raised in, I never really took to it. My boxes of personal possessions are littered with notebooks that contain one or two journal entries, spaced a year a part, all of them starting the same way: "Dear Diary, a lot has happened since I last wrote in you..." I was hardly the most disciplined child, we'll put it that way. But laziness wasn't the whole story. Rather I knew the vulnerability that came along with journalling, the way that putting your feelings and your ideas down on paper could leave you exposed to the world, and consequently exposed to anyone who would use your words as weapons against yourself. Which has, unfortunately, happened to me, a few times. I have heard of other instances of people who were much more dedicated to their notebooks than I was, and who have also had their own writing used against them.
Journalling is a very powerful thing. Used properly, it can help us to know ourselves and to know each other. But it can also be wielded like a machete and used to destroy your sense of security in the world.
I've decided to take it up again, and to make a concerted effort to write in a journal on a daily basis. Not with the expectation that, you know, I'll become a famous writer, drop dea and then have them published. (God forbid. Besides, they would be insanely boring, with far too many passages about my fears of writerly mediocrity. Like anyone wants to read that.) Rather, I like the idea of honestly documenting my life, without having to think about an audience, the way I do with my blog or my zine or my manuscript, and just putting it down the way I see it, warts, zits and all. I like the idea of a space of raw, unvarnished truth, unmediated by fancy technology and editors and self-consciousness.
And I'll admit, there is a part of me that hopes that maybe, some day in the distant future, I'll have a descendant who gets curious about the people who came before her, and that she'll want to know about the way we were, not the way journalists said we were, or the way historians said we were, or what she saw in the movies or on TV or whatever is going to pass for mass media in the future. Maybe she'll read my journals and realize that, for all the changes that have taken place between her time and mine, what hasn't changed all that much are people themselves.