Monday, August 25, 2014

Writing when no one's reading

So about those journals. The first and most necessary surprise--necessary in the sense of allowing me to keep reading the damn things--is that they weren't nearly as cringe-inducing as I'd feared.

To be sure, there are lots of things I'm glad to have grown out of: endless fretting and insecurity, for one, and a species of boy-craziness I'd mostly forgotten about. I remembered mooning after various guys and obsessing over ones who didn't work out, but I did not remember commenting on the attractiveness of just about every man I met, or how many crushes-from-afar I apparently had. (Who's this cute Art & Architecture student I mention a dozen times? Or that barista I kept running into? Or the guy a friend dubbed "Taller Tom Cruise"? Not a clue.) I also forgot how sexually frank my journals were. Notional future children, I'm sorry for grossing you out.

But although I often wanted to tell Younger Flavia "snap out of it!" or "honey, he is not into you," that phase of my life is far enough away that I can regard my youthful silliness with more tolerance than I probably could have even five years ago.

What most interests me is the rich social world these journals conjure up. I'd forgotten just how enmeshed my life was with those of my friends--including friends who lived hundreds of miles away. My journals are full of references to two-hour phone calls or lengthy email exchanges or weekend visits, and I summarize in newsy detail all my friends' goings-ons: what they liked and hated about their jobs, their roommates, their significant others. I talk about which movies I saw with whom and what we said afterwards, and where we went and who we met up with--and why I really can't stand so-and-so's boyfriend. Young Flavia is often very funny, and good at characterizing people through a single quotation or brief anecdote that recalls them perfectly.

It's sad, in a way, how thoroughly that world has disappeared. In the endless catalogue I give of dance clubs and dive bars, coffee shops and restaurants, at least half are gone and another quarter I can't visualize or place geographically. More importantly, though I still have most of the friends I had then, we now have partners and kids and busy lives; I'm lucky to see or talk to many of them two or three times a year. Here they all are, though, living on the page not only in summary and paraphrase, but often in their own words: their insights, jokes and apt turns of phrase.

I'm also struck by how seriously my journals take the task of figuring myself out. Amidst all the mooning and insecurity, there's a lot of self-inquiry: why do I feel this way? What does this mean? Would I be happier doing something differently? I quote the things my friends say about me, turning over their assessments and agreeing or disagreeing, wondering if they're right. And I refer back, continually, to events that happened years earlier, sometimes consulting prior journals for reference.

Reading through several years at once makes growth more evident. Young Flavia's oscillations between madcap enthusiasm and weepy doubt become less extreme, and she's more inclined to be generous to others. I note with appreciation the friends who don't let me avoid difficult subjects or who make me admit when I'm mad at them--and I comment with pleasure when I succeed in raising a touchy issue myself.

There's a lot to miss about what I find in those journals. The close friendships and the apparently boundless free time are the most obvious, but I'm realizing that I also miss keeping a journal. Those notebooks didn't record everything, and towards the end they're especially spotty. But I'm sad, now, that the subsequent ten years have no comparable record. Reading about my early-grad-school lunacy reminded me of parts of the crushing grief of my big break-up seven years ago--but I have no record of the latter.

Naturally, I record bits and pieces of my life on social media and on this blog, and it has always been my goal to keep my blogging emotionally honest--not to paper over disappointments, anger, and frustration--but there's a lot that I can't say (whether due to professional discretion, personal discretion, or FERPA). For that matter, there's a lot I don't want to say in this format.

Indeed, in the era of social media and "don't say it if you don't want someone to see it," those journals feel vaguely illicit. I found myself grimacing occasionally at just how much I revealed about others' lives: their words, their actions, and my own occasionally nasty gossip or speculation. Though these notebooks exist in only a single hard copy, which no one else has access to, I've so internalized a sense of what I can't write about electronically that I almost can't believe I wrote such things at all.

I value my public writing, and I have no desire for it to be more rawly confessional. But I think I'm going to try keeping a journal again. The entries won't be as epic or as searching as they used to be, I'm sure--but I'm curious what I might have to say to myself when no one else is listening.


sophylou said...

I've kept a journal since I was in high school. I've found it even more necessary in the age of social media precisely because it is a safe place for me to express whatever I need to without feeling like my words are going to be seen or judged. I set the context, I write what I want to/need to. I'm fundamentally an extrovert, but I've always needed to keep a private journal; I think it was Carol Gilligan who described journal writing as a relational act because you're essentially connecting with yourself, and that's always been necessary for me.

And it's something I've definitely needed in the last few weeks, as I've watched the town I grew up in become national shorthand. I've needed a lot of privacy for that, and keeping a journal has given me important space for processing my thoughts and my own particular memories of having lived there during formative years.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

"I'm also struck by how seriously my journals take the task of figuring myself out. Amidst all the mooning and insecurity, there's a lot of self-inquiry: why do I feel this way? What does this mean? Would I be happier doing something differently? I quote the things my friends say about me, turning over their assessments and agreeing or disagreeing, wondering if they're right. And I refer back, continually, to events that happened years earlier, sometimes consulting prior journals for reference."

I never thought about it this way before, but this is pretty much what I did during my years of intensive psychoanalysis. In many ways, my therapist was my journal. (But I don't want to solely objectify her like that. Her deep humanity played a huge role in how beneficial my relationship with her was.)

Flavia said...


You're ahead of me, then! But I'm glad that you've found it useful, especially right now.


What's awesome is that my journals also record some of the things the shrink I saw in grad school said (or some of the things that I said to her), and mostly things of which I literally had no memory. As with everything in my past, I think I remember the key details, and maybe I even do; I certainly recall a number of the realizations she helped me toward. But I was really surprised by some of the conversations I recorded, and the reflection they sparked.

My own shrink wasn't great, so she actually was more like a journal--I talked myself into self-awareness more than she guided me. I've only been in therapy twice, but each time I've wished for someone like yours sounds--who did more inquiring and gentle directing of my self-investigations.

undine said...

Flavia, I love that you are writing about this. I have had journal-keeping impulses all my life but early on learned that I could never keep one that someone didn't find and read, to my mortification, so I gave up long ago. I now just write down dreams, which seem pretty safe. But reading about what you've learned makes me think it might not be too late to do so.

sophylou said...

My phone ate my comment! I've had that same experience of looking at old journals and being reminded of conversations etc that I've since forgotten. Weirdly, I've also had times where I dug out old journals to see how I described an intense event, and found that I wrote absolutely nothing at the time. There's one conversation in particular that I so wish I'd recorded, but, I just didn't. Don't know why -- maybe I thought I couldn't possibly forget? Oops. Glad you kept yours!

PhysioProffe said...

My analyst is an incredible person. I haven't seen her in nearly twenty years, but she still has a vivid presence in my daily thoughts. In all the years we worked together, I don't think she ever once told me something. Which was pretty fucken liberating, since I spent my entire childhood and adolescence being constantly told what my thoughts and actions were supposed to be.

Anyway, TMI!! LOLZ!

Flavia said...


I could never keep one that someone didn't find and read


OMG. That would be such a trauma. I don't think I ever worried about that--even when I kept my old journals stacked in a semi-accessible location.


Yes, this is true for me, too. Often my memory is frighteningly similar to what I've described (I guess not so frightening: the act of recording probably helped fix the narrative in my memory), but there are things I'm really surprised to have forgotten, and other events of which I retain a vivid memory that aren't recorded at all. Fewer things from my early 20s--I am not even kidding when I say that 1/3 of the journals I kept for those 12 years cover just two years of my life--but increasingly as I age.


Well, different strokes! I kinda resented that my grad school shrink said almost nothing. I would have liked just a little more directing, or at least helpful open-ended questions.

On the other hand, I'd forgotten that I referred to her (privately, & to my friends) as "shrinkita," so that was an awesome rediscovery.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Oh, she did say things and ask questions. It's just that she wasn't telling me things, if that makes any sense.

Jeff said...

Lovely post and lovely thoughts, as usual, Flavia.

Inspired by your journal rediscoveries, I've started digging through a box containing every postcard I've received since 1987. I plan to re-read them all, in chronological order, but one thing I'm already struck by is an exuberance that feels, like your journals, almost illicit. The pre-Internet postcards contain moments of personal candor and lightness of wit that would now be muted in disposable email or honed into hokeyness by public performance in social media.

Not quite the same as your journals, I know—but it's still charming to see what people once wrote for an audience of one.

Anonymous said...

I very much relate to CPP's comment; I have recently started "seeing" a journal-slash-therapist to process an impending divorce, and it can be surprising to see that, even as someone who considers herself quite self-aware, I can still learn things about my own thinking or map out solutions to a problem in writing that aren't quite evident in plain thought.

I was never consistent in my journaling, but I did enough of it when I was younger to notice that, as a working mother in my 30s, the act of writing is now accompanied by calming feelings of engaging in a vital form of self-care as well as the sense that what I'm doing is a luxury of sorts.

Flavia said...


Thanks! And yes, I'm a letter reader and writer as well, though less often than I used to be. I have big file folders full of my friends' letters (organized by author). Usually they just sit there in the file cabinet, but occasionally I'll read through them. It's a really lovely way of reencountering my friends' earlier selves (& by implication, my own).

sophylou said...

I have kept letters over the years too, but not as organizedly. I've been really trying to go back to writing letters, too. It's interesting now how strange it feels these days to ask for someone's mailing address.

When I was recuperating from surgery a couple of year ago, I asked my long-distance friends to send me mail. A bunch of people sent cards etc. right when I got home from the hospital, which was lovely, but a couple of people kept sending things (books, notebooks, one friend went all out and sent a big care package with food etc.) throughout the whole six-week period, and I loved the tangibility of having mail from people who were thinking of me.

phd me said...

Although reading it a bit late, this post really resonated with me. I kept a journal for most of my life, starting somewhere in my angsty early adolescence. I have all of them still, in a crate that's moved from place to place with me, and every now and then I'll pull one out and riffle through the pages.

I stopped in my late 20s when I got married. Why, I have no idea. You'd think the excitement of love and marriage and a new life would have been an inducement to write but it evidently wasn't. So, I don't have a record of my marriage falling apart; all I have are my memories, which are just as subjective, perhaps, but not committed to a page that won't shift as my memory fades.

I started blogging in grad school - not the same as a journal, as you said, but as close as I've come to the soul-searching attempts to understand my life in my old notebooks. I've tried to keep a real journal a few times but I don't stick with it; I hope you have more luck.