WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

The importance of (not) keeping a journal

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When I was young, I used to keep a journal. In spurts, at least. I wasn’t necessarily doing anything that needed memorializing, but it just felt somehow important to write down some of my thoughts and activities. For my future biographers, if nothing else.

One of my journals was “live” during the summer of 1974. I wrote in red Flair pen on orange ruled paper, kept in a lime-green three-ring binder. I hid this record of my teen life under my bed (which was in the basement at the time, in a “room” sectioned off with cheap Indian tapestries hung from the joists. I loved the isolation down there, away from my brothers and sister, who would have pored over the journal and mocked it if they ever laid their hands on it. The only one who ever came down was my mother, to do the laundry, but she was kind enough to give me my privacy, always knocking on the basement door before coming in with her basket. If I happened to be writing in my journal when she did, I slapped it shut and popped it under the bed — under the rug under the bed.

Aside from bemoaning the fact that I didn’t have a girlfriend, I was following, that summer, the Watergate situation. On August 9, I wrote about Richard Nixon’s resignation and declared that he’d been given a raw deal. From my vantage point (about as far away from Washington politics as one could be), he was simply unfortunate enough to have been caught at something they all do. At least that’s how I saw it. I probably said something like, “Mark my words. Someday they’ll look back and say he wasn’t the diabolical charlatan he’s accused of being.”

I had a real pretentious voice in my journals. I was also wrong about a lot of things.

Eventually I destroyed that document, though I can still see the orange paper and green notebook in my mind. The inside covers of the folder were plastered with the hype stickers that came on LP cellophane back then. “Contains ‘Stairway To Heaven’!” “Featuring the hit ‘Pinball Wizard’!” I kind of wish I still had the binder, but not its contents.

In college I moved to those bound journals with the word “Record” or “Minutes” embossed on the front in gold. I still have a lot of these, and I never look at them because I’d immediately die of mortification if I did. I thought I was Missouri’s Chuck Dickens, documenting my life for posterity.  Always bemoaning that I didn’t have a girlfriend, I also described what I was reading, where I was traveling, and what I was doing to try and get a girlfriend, including the slipping of notes into their backpacks, which they wouldn’t find till long after I had left their town or country. All of this is documented. I wrote, in these years, either with a brown Flair pen or with pretentious fountain pens in every ink color from teal to tangerine. Why? I’m afraid I don’t know. I never wrote down why. Only one of the girls I’d slipped a note to, by the way, ever wrote back to me. She said, “A shame you just didn’t ask me out. I thought you were cool.”

Doh!

The most recent journal I’ve kept dates back to the late ‘80s, when I was going through a tough time in my first marriage. I worked out book ideas in it and complained about my wife. I think she must have read it once when I was out of town because she was even worse to live with after that trip than before.

So I’m leery of committing my thoughts to paper (or .doc file) now, afraid to learn, years down the line, that my present self is no wiser nor less pretentious than my sixteen-year-old self, and that would leave me feeling pretty bad in the dusk of my life.

Best to rely on memory alone, which, I understand, isn’t all that accurate (scientists say).

All the better.

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20 comments on “The importance of (not) keeping a journal

  1. kingmidget
    August 25, 2016

    I, at times, have pondered keeping a handwritten journal, but who has the time to write down their thoughts anymore!!! I just blog instead. Unfortunately, blogging doesn’t quite get there as there are things I don’t feel I can blog about because of people I know who read my blogs every now and then. Some day though, some day.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 26, 2016

      I think a lot of people consider their blogs to be their journals. I tend to steer clear of the overly confessional ones, though, where you get TMI and wish the writer just kept an old-fashioned diary. 😱

      • kingmidget
        August 26, 2016

        When I started blogging, I read things about how a blog has to have a narrow, specific focus to draw an audience. I said “to hell with that.” My blog was going to be about whatever I wanted to write about. Food, writing, politics, parenting, the trauma and drama of life. Along the way, I realized there were somethings I couldn’t write about on my blog. At various points over the last few years, I have created two private, secret, hidden blogs that allow me to write about those things. They are the more confessional things that go to the very core of some issues that are holding me back in life that I can’t publish here because there are certain people who might occasionally read this blog. And also for the reason you cite — at some point there are things you don’t necessarily need to share in a public place.

      • Kevin Brennan
        August 27, 2016

        I didn’t want my blog to be solely about writing either. It’s a creative outlet, a dumping ground, a bitch-fest, and a place for funny stuff. Then again, I never thought of the blog as a journal, per se. If people knew my private thoughts they’d probably run screaming!

      • kingmidget
        August 27, 2016

        If people knew my private thoughts I wouldn’t have a job or a family. Hmmm…

      • Kevin Brennan
        August 27, 2016

        Heh. Don’t get any ideas!

  2. Phillip McCollum
    August 25, 2016

    I’ve come to journaling late in life and I tend to keep things brief, but I’m sure I’ll look back in ten years just as I’ve looked back over my decade-old blog incarnations and cringe away. I’m okay with that. Important life changes are built on such painful moments!

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 25, 2016

      Yes, and if you’re lucky you’ll see you’ve changed for the better. Pain ought to produce useful results!

  3. pinklightsabre
    August 25, 2016

    We sound a lot alike here. The mortification of the pretense, for example. I did an exercise in a Sociology class where we had to mail copies of our journals to ourselves five years in the future. We gave the journals and money for postage to our teacher and somehow he coordinated that. When mine came I think I waited a good 10 years before looking at it. And then, what an odd sensation. Like a real time travel thing, and no, not altogether good, but real.
    It’s an interesting argument you offer there, relying on memory vs. journals. I think I like both, but the journal is a crutch, and it’s something I rarely go back to. I have shoeboxes full of pocket notepads from the last 20 years but I haven’t gone to them yet for material, I’m trying to see what happens with my impression of the past by memory alone — and you can actually tone that muscle, I think, if you decide to go there and really try to sift through it and tease old things out. It’s fun, I think. But I’m weird, and there again we sound a lot alike.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 25, 2016

      Weird is a good thing. Or at least “weird.”

      I do think it’s interesting to read old journals and see what was going on in the world at the time. Oh, I was worrying about not having a girlfriend when the space shuttle crashed! Or, Reagan got shot on the day I had my wisdom teeth out!

      • pinklightsabre
        August 25, 2016

        You having your wisdom teeth out was more relevant than Reagan getting shot.

  4. John W. Howell
    August 25, 2016

    Keep it all in the head is my motto. Then only high voltage can get it out. (or maybe a water board)

  5. Luanne
    August 25, 2016

    Hahaha, I have gone through a similar relationship to journals!

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 25, 2016

      It can be a love/hate thing, for sure. I’m glad I’m off the habit!

      • Luanne
        August 25, 2016

        Me too (that I am, not that you are).

  6. Audrey Driscoll
    August 25, 2016

    Hmm. I have a huge stack of journals (locked up, you may be sure) from 1969 until I stopped keeping one, just about the time I started writing fiction, curiously enough. At times I’ve considered mining them for plot material, but somehow the prospect of reliving those dead years doesn’t excite me. I’ve begun to suspect I’m not much wiser now than I was when I was making youthful mistakes, and don’t really need confirming evidence. BTW, I love that phrase, “the dusk of my life.” There’s an echo there of “dust,” which makes it worthy of contemplation. 🙂

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 25, 2016

      I never looked for plot material in old journals, but in a lot of them I wrote a lot of dialogue between characters, and between me and real people. Working things out. Maybe it’s a good way to learn how to write dialogue!

  7. 1WriteWay
    August 26, 2016

    I’ve kept journals off and on over the years and there’s quite a few that I wish I still had, ones that I didn’t intend to lose … like a journal I kept my first year in California, suffering the culture shock of moving too rapidly from a rural to an urban life, the drama (and often high drama) of relationships I observed and participated in. I didn’t have a TV so I wrote to entertain myself. Another journal I lost was one that I kept on my 2nd car trip from CA to NY. My memory has always been piss-poor so I’ve often relied on my journals to fill in gaps. Yes, a lot of the ones I’ve kept make me cringe, but if I keep the context in mind (rocky point in my marriage, lousy job, cutthroat politics of academia), it’s not so bad. My favorite journals are the ones I keep when travelling because, as I’ve said, I have a piss-poor memory. Interestingly (maybe), I’ve rarely used journals to develop my writing. More than anything, they’ve been a form of “talk therapy,” the classic write your feelings down in a letter and then destroy it kind of thing, except that I still keep my journals around me, scattered as they are in various notebooks and slips of paper.

    Only once did I purposely destroy one of my journals. I was 14, dating a high school senior. We were sexually intimate and I was conflicted because, frankly, I was too young emotionally for that kind of relationship. After I found out that my brother talked to my boyfriend about it, knowing what he knew because he had read my journal, I burned it (not really a dramatic thing to do … in the country we always burned our paper waste in barrels). Probably just as well. That’s one journal I don’t think I could ever read again.

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This entry was posted on August 25, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , .
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