Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Boxes upon boxes

The attic clean-out project continues, and the archive problem grows only more complex. Earlier this month I wrote about not knowing what to do with a box of letters sent to me from myriad different friends when I was in my twenties. But that was just one box, and at least the content of the letters was ultimately the responsibility of other people.

All of which is to say that the letters were nothing compared to the journals.

I started keeping a journal when I was in fifth grade. That was 34 years ago. I have a paper trail that leads continuously from 1977 to 2003, when mercifully I started storing journals electronically instead of in print. That’s a lot of looseleaf binders. Boxes and boxes of them. Binder after binder. Thousands and thousands of pages covered with my blue-inked script. Friend issues, school woes, fitness concerns, academic successes, job aspirations, job disappointments, blind dates, breakups, engagement, marriage, travels, pregnancies, parenting. Page after page after page, filling binder after binder, which fill box after box. And all of them heavy and hard to move.

So it’s the same problem as with the letters only hundred-fold. I don’t want to read them. I don’t want anyone else to read them. And yet I just can’t see heaving them into the recycling bin.

I have often said that memorabilia isn’t particularly important to me because the essays I’ve written and published ever since I was in my early twenties serve as record enough for all that has happened in my personal life over the years. And in a way, that’s true: everything significant appears somewhere, in some form, in a published essay. But at the same time, the essays present a sanitized version. It’s not that they’re all humorous or that I avoid anything difficult when I write essays, just that even the edgier topics get spun, reworked into an appropriate telling for a public audience. The journals are raw, uncensored, unedited. If my children want someday to know what I thought about corporate life or toilet training toddlers or attending back-to-school night as a parent, they can find an essay of mine about it and read the version for which I chose my words meticulously. That’s a much more comfortable fit than thinking of them paging indiscriminately through my journals.

My sister told me that once when she was home visiting my parents, she found a journal she kept in college. She read the whole journal cover to cover and then threw it in a trash bin at the airport as she was flying home at the end of the visit. She chose the airport for its anonymity.

For me to throw my journals in a random trash bin would constitute an environmental disposal hazard punishable by fine or imprisonment, at this point. I’d almost have to haul in one of those transportable dumpsters that people use when they are moving. A bonfire would be no less environmentally hazardous. I’m afraid for the time being, I’m stuck with them.

It’s ironic when I think of all the classes I’ve taught in writing personal narrative and how many times I’ve encouraged my students in those classes to keep a journal. “Keep” is obviously the wrong verb. Write a journal, I’m now tempted to counsel instead, but find a way to dispose of each day’s record as soon as you’re done writing it.

Fortunately, in 2003 I started keeping my files only electronically. I save them and even back them up, but they aren’t taking up any tangible space. They’re in The Cloud, that appropriately named ephemeral space in the Ethernet where files exist in impalpable form. And although I’ve been warned by various computer security experts that they could become lost from the cloud at any time, that doesn’t scare me. In fact, it’s a little bit tempting. A small part of me hopes they do.

But that’s just the past nine years. It’s the records of the preceding quarter-century that are the problem. They fill box after box, big heavy boxes. Perhaps we could use them as sandbags to stop a flood. That would kill two birds with one stone: help remedy an emergency situation while also potentially ruining the journal pages with water damage. It sounds like a good ending to my journals. But I don’t wish for any floods to take place. So as of right now, they’ll stay in the attic, filling box after box, until I come to peace with them.


  1. Hi Nancy, I've just come across your posts about journalling and find it interesting. I have always journaled in hard backed bulky notebooks, carried them around, kept the old ones locked in a tin at home, but the weight of them and the risk of privacy invasion started to bug me so I had them scanned and now they are on an external hard drive, I destroyed the hard copies. I do keep a written diary still but its a visual diary and doesn't contain anything personal, its more like a scrapbook, it was my friend's idea for us to keep one and I really like keeping this in paper form and sticking in photos etc. However, I still feel the need to journal to process my thoughts but don't want to keep this stuff hanging around again. I've tried writing and then throwing away the paper but then I find writing it isn't the same because I know its going to be thrown away. I've tried to journal on the computer, I am a fast typist and can get loads off my chest that way but I don't find it the same as journalling in an lovely notebook. How do you manage to keep up journalling electronically, what do you do if you feel the need to write but you don't have your computer near you? I want to keep my visual diaries as they are in exercise books, take up hardly any space and I don''t mind who sees them, but I still have this urge to vent and processing my innermost feelings. Any advice would be welcome.
    Thanks Jill

  2. Hi Jill - Thanks for reading and commenting! You've asked some interesting questions. I actually journal at the same time every day, first thing in the morning, per the methods set out by Julia Cameron in "The Artist's Way" and "The Right to Write," so it isn't so much a matter of the urge overtaking me at any old time during the day. However, I do get inspirations for essays, articles and blog posts throughout the day. The fact is that my life and daily routine is such that I'm never too far from a keyboard -- if I'm not at home or in the office near a desktop, I'm likely to have my iPad with me. If I happen to be someplace like on a walk and get an idea, I just jot down the bare bones of it in my phone. Does that help at all? (By the way, I use Dropbox to make sure that anything I write on any computer -- home, office, library, friend's house, anywhere -- gets saved to the same place. Highly recommended.)

    Best, Nancy

  3. Hi Nancy, thanks for your reply. Do you write in a journal at all now or do you journal all electronically.