Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
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?
For 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?”
“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?
“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 …