Somewhere in a closet at my parent’s house is a journal I kept as a child. It’s orange. It has gold pages. There’s a painting of a cat on the cover. I don’t remember much of what’s written in it, save for the fact that I assigned each day a letter grade, a decision inspired by a book I’d read by Judy Blume. Days when friends came over, or when I managed to sit next to the older girls at summer camp, or any day on which a birthday party occurred received an ‘A.’ Bad weather, chocolate milk shortages at lunchtime, or having to accompany a parent on bank- or insurance-related errands merited a ‘C,’ or worse. Really bad days (missed soccer goals, botched trips to the zoo) were accompanied by a drawing, barely discernible, of a hand with the thumb pointing downward.
As must be the case with most children who like to write, I was given countless journals as gifts over the years. For whatever reason, this one was the only one I ever used.
Years later, in high school, I filled two large, spiral-bound books with what I referred to as my thoughts on “reality, rebellion, and rock ‘n’ roll.” I wrote extravagant, long-winded essays – all by hand, a feat I can hardly fathom now – on art, and music, and the meaning of life. I cataloged regrets, made lists of goals, and — because I was, in the end, a teenager — diligently made note of each and every movement made by the floppy-haired boy who sat behind me in math. (Taped to one page of the journal was a tiny balled-up clump of paper he threw in class one day, intending to hit the back of a friend’s head. It landed on my desk instead and I saved it, convinced its altered course was a sign.)
I found these journals — the cat one, and the two from high school — a couple of years ago as I packed up my room before moving to New York.
I read through each.
The one with the cat cover, filled with chicken-scratch entries that made me smile, went back on the shelf, where it remains today. The other two, whose pretentious ramblings I could barely get through without vomiting, went into the shredder.
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a group of MFA students about how hard — and how painfully embarrassing — it can be to read old work. I’m not sure what I was thinking as I destroyed page after page of those spiral-bound books, but at the time, I felt that the many hours I’d spent recording my thoughts were less important than the possibility of someone finding them. And judging them. And thinking that the words on these pages represented me.
I realize now that those journals were like marks on a growth chart. That I needed to go through certain phases in order to get better. That attempting to “cover my footprints” was unnecessary. But I’m still not immune to the urge to hide work I’m not proud of anymore.
However, now that so much of my writing is public, I no longer have the luxury of being able to rip up my work if I decide later that I don’t like it. The thought of this sometimes makes me uncomfortable, but the solution’s clear: my only choice is to write as honestly as I can. Then, there’s nothing to regret.
In college, I attempted to write a story about an artist in diary form. It contained two parts: one was a journal he wrote for his eyes only, and the other was one he wrote with an audience in mind, one he hoped people would find after he died.
I never finished the story, because I couldn’t keep track of the two voices. I can only hope that as a writer, I never have that dilemma myself.
The challenge ahead is to create a single voice; for better or for worse, an honest one, my own.