To Burn or Not to Burn: The Case for Journal Destruction

I read an article in Poets & Writers recently (albeit a few issues late) about successful poets and their usage of the personal journal. The women featured, Lisa Fay Coutley, Claudia Emerson, and Anna Leahy, were all in agreement that the journal is a helpful tool for writers. After all, it is both a means for practicing the craft while also giving an outlet for all of the things that we may have bottled up inside us. In many cases, the ability to journal in some form provides us an opportunity to improve our paper-623167_1280physical and mental health, which I wrote about on my other blog some months back.

I too keep a journal and have been doing so on and off since age 10. I suppose my need to journal was inspired by the Dear America Diaries, a historical fiction series where each book is meant to be the diary of a girl from some period in history. The books even have gilded pages and a ribbon bookmark, which added to my awe of them. Like the girls in those books, I wanted to be remembered years after my death because of what was found in my diary.

Obviously, I’m fully aware that each of those diaries was a made up work by a modern day author. Even so, the habit has stuck, and I continue to chronicle my thoughts about some of the more memorable things that occur in my life. But it wasn’t until I read the article that I ever considered burning my journals before my death.

The poets, who appear to favor Moleskin notebooks over the gilded pages I choose for myself, have gone so far as to burn 30 years worth of private journals. I felt a tightness in my chest upon reading that line, and the horrifying image of my own journals piled up and melting in my backyard fire pit flashed before my eyes. But then I went back and read the line they quoted from one of my favorite Joan Didion essays, “On Keeping a Notebook”: “So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking.”

So, that’s basically where I noticed the flaw in my childhood plan- 13 years after the fact. Did I want to be remembered by the emotional scribblings in my diaries? Do I want the world to know my demons, fears, anxieties, and most secretive opinions? Most importantly, do I want to be remembered by my edited and put-together published work, or be known as the chick with the loose screw? I haven’t been trying to keep a historical record: I’ve been writing my own, very biased viewpoint on things that probably aren’t so dire and tragic as I make them out to be in my head.

My journal is my place to be myself. I can let my guard down and not care about censoring what I have to say, which is not something I will always be able to do publicly. After all, if I wanted everything I wrote to be public, wouldn’t I just save myself some money and put it up here?

My husband keeps a journal as well. I discussed the article with him one night while we were both writing new entries. We have an agreement that should anything happen to either of us, the other is supposed to burn all of the journals. Like the poets, I want my husband to remember me not by what I wrote, but by my daily actions. Likewise, I wouldn’t want my lasting memory of him to be what he thought about me on x day x number of years ago when we were bickering about something. Even marriage doesn’t allow for total transparency, though I would never advocate dishonesty. Some things are meant to be turned into fiction or poetry or a personal essay. Other things really should die with their owners.

 

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