WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Buried bones

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Riffing this week on the dangers of keeping a journal. Especially when you’re an aspiring teen novelist.

There’s a podcast out there called “Mortified,” in which people stand up before a crowd and read from their teenage journals. The title is self-explanatory.

I’ve only listened to a handful of them so far, but the ones I’ve heard have been hilarious, and poignant at times. One boy describes his trip to Mexico as part of an Amigos de las Américas program, where he’s obsessed with becoming Amigo of the Year. Instead he gets dysentery. A nineteen-year-old girl talks about her first sexual experience, with a sleazy coach from her high school who contacted her out of the blue. Tres icky. “Well, kiddo,” she writes. “This is it. I made love.”

The audience goes, “Nooooooooo!”

This led me to dig out a few of my old journals. What a mistake.

Friends, mortified isn’t the word I’d use to describe my response to reading my own youthful words. Horrified? Vexed? Chagrined? Closer, but still not strong enough. Eviscerated? Filleted?

18th-century-fashion-plate-256For whatever reason — and it’s definitely a reason I don’t remember — I wrote when I was twenty years old as if I were this guy. The journal’s laden with “I cannots” and “to whoms.” Perhapses and indeeds abound. I almost barfed when I read, “Tomorrow I’ll lunch with …” No wonder I wasn’t getting any dates!

One day I wrote: “August 22, 1977 — Montag [sheesh!]. Perhaps there is yet hope. It seems that this affair may resolve itself before long. However, I recognize that things are not what they seem.”

God, I could throttle that guy. Or this one even more:

“Can I reach a significant core of being by eliminating one by one my various superfluous characteristics and habits? Or indeed, do these very traits constitute that core?”

Or:

“A mute entry is ready to sklup itself on the page, so beware. Some say ‘what a nice day.’ Others say ‘Tha an dores duige! Chan eil mo gabh fios.’ What is to be concluded but the obvious?”

I was trying to learn Gaelic at the time. Why?

Finally:

“I am more a unified man of contentment, of potential, of pure happiness than I have ever been or will be. Ahead of me lies the vast expanse of a lifetime; it’s like an immense overgrown field, tempting me in. I’d best begin on it.”

Seriously, why did I think I was the bastard child of Tristram Shandy? Why couldn’t I be like the other boys? (It’s so bad, in fact, that I’m tempted to say “him” instead of “me” to refer to the pip who’s writing.)

I guess you’d have to ask my friends of the time what I was really like, but at least I don’t think I came across as a pretentious fop in person. I’d like to believe I was approachable, if a little quiet. Funny at times — fairly often, I hope — and friendly enough that you wouldn’t avoid me if you saw me coming down the street. But who knows? It’s clear I was a weirdo. Maybe that came glaring through whatever façade I tried to put on.

One interesting thing, I learned in reading my ‘78 journal that Nostalgia Girl No. 3 (who died in 2007) loomed much larger than I remember. She wrote me several letters while I was in England, and she even called me up to invite me to the art museum with her and another couple over the summer. I’m sure it was a disaster for my prospects with her, which is why I’ve blocked it out. I never mentioned her again.

Fortunately, my journal voice started to normalize within a couple of years. By mid- to late ‘79 I sounded like a regular Joe who sometimes threw in a little flourish for effect. Probably by that time I realized I would never have an actual biographer who’d read all those magniloquent journal entries, puking every step of the way. By twenty-two, I guess it was pretty clear I wasn’t the bastard child of Tristram Shandy after all, so I might as well start writing like a twentieth century American guy.

In the ‘80s my journals became writing journals, a way to work out story ideas, plots, and characters — with the occasional tootle into details about my first marriage going in the tank. I was also just beginning to understand how difficult it was going to be to become a published novelist, so I wrote about that a lot. Now I know it was even more difficult than I imagined then …

I stopped keeping a journal somewhere in there, about the time, I guess, when I started writing on a PC and working out my fiction in note files. Personal stuff didn’t usually make its way into those.

As a matter of fact, I haven’t considered going back to a traditional journal in eons because of the fact that I did get awfully happy. I was wrong in ‘77. I wasn’t the happiest I’d ever be back then. God help me if that had been true.

It’s possible, now that I think about it, that by using a nauseatingly formal voice in my journals I was subtly distancing myself from some of the pretty difficult emotional stuff I was going through at the time. That seems kind of sweet. I couldn’t face the reality of a lot of it and must have put on a costume so I could at least write it down. Not even to remember it but to oust it.

I couldn’t have seriously believed anybody would ever read that shit. Not even my older self, who is now wondering if a ceremonial fire is in order …

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16 comments on “Buried bones

  1. vishal4u
    January 3, 2017

    It is nostalgic to go through our journals after so many years, it feels as if it is not our, but to someone else.
    But our journey and various moments and emotions are some were hidden between the lines of those journals

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 3, 2017

      So true. It does feel like reading someone else’s thoughts at times. I just wish I were as profound as I thought I was!

  2. S.K. Nicholls
    January 3, 2017

    I didn’t keep journals after about age 14 when I burned all my diaries. I did keep poetry books and ran across one of those a while back. As I read through, I was reminded of all the demons in my head at the time I wrote those poems. My fears. There was so much to be afraid of back then. And now. Writing them down through poetic words somehow made things more bearable.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 3, 2017

      I find some comfort in the fact that all my cares and woes of the time got sorted out eventually. When you take it all in at once, rereading that old stuff, you realize you’re a survivor after all.

  3. luannemart
    January 3, 2017

    Great post, Kevin. I’m in favor of burning parties. 🙂

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 3, 2017

      Roasting marshmallows over old journals … Sounds like a plan!

      (I just wrote you an email, btw.) Happy New Year!

  4. Phillip McCollum
    January 3, 2017

    You are a brave man. I can’t bring myself to read something I wrote two years ago, let alone decades ago. Still, it’s a piece of you and it’s interesting to see the seeds of today’s Kevin!

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 3, 2017

      It wasn’t easy! Strange feeling, disavowing yourself …

  5. 1WriteWay
    January 3, 2017

    Maybe you were channeling your inner Tristram Shandy. Or maybe like a lot of us, you were just trying out, auditioning for that noble of all titles, Author. I know I went through a period where my personal writing was pretty stilted. I wanted to “sound” smarter than I knew I was. I guess those days are over given that I’m more likely to use four-letter words … And a bonfire sounds like a good idea 😉 I know of one journal I literally burned when I was a teenager. I have no regrets that it won’t ever be read by anyone ever again.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 3, 2017

      Yes, I think I was trying Great American Writer on for size, but I got the wrong century.

      I do remember one journal I got rid of, though I don’t think I burned it. That’s the one where I absolved Richard Nixon of wrongdoing after he resigned. Boy, did I have my head up my ass!

      • 1WriteWay
        January 3, 2017

        I think you mentioned that one before. Funny, even though you got rid of it, you can’t forget it 😉

  6. pinklightsabre
    January 3, 2017

    I guess there’s that notion you get the bad out and then you’re done with it (or some of it) like the to whoms and the Tristam Shandy and the Gaelic, I guess. That’s been my “post a day” MO for a while more or less — not just to get the bad out, but to get better by scraping the inside of the jar, or something. Bad metaphor right there, see!

    I don’t do straight journaling so much anymore but write by hand when I have ideas and then carry them over to computer. It feels like once I’ve written by hand it’s cemented, or taken to another level — then sometimes I don’t even have to go back and look at the notes.

    Like you though, I read some stuff I wrote in the UK last year and wanted to throttle myself. And then I read some stuff that gave me hope, so there you go. Don’t tell me how hard it is, I don’t want to know.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 4, 2017

      Yes, getting the bad out. Maybe it’s akin to playing a lot of clumsy scales in music so you gradually turn them into fluid, elegant scales and then actual music.

      It’s been quite a while since I’ve written anything by hand, but I see the attraction of your method. It’s sort of like developing film before you make a print. (They used to do that …)

      And now I’ve used two metaphors in one comment, so I’ll stop.

      • pinklightsabre
        January 4, 2017

        Don’t let the colors bleed with the metaphors, ha.

  7. prexybasco
    January 15, 2017

    I keep my old journals but I haven’t had the guts to look into them again for fear of finding things I should have done better or things I shouldn’t have done. lol Kudos for taking the first step! I can imagine what you’ve been through and now I am even more afraid lol

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 15, 2017

      It is scary! But it has given me a lot of things to think about, and write about, so I guess that’s one good thing. Our younger selves are embarrassing, but they’re awfully earnest.

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