Last March, at a public event about the things we keep – a rambling conversation that took us all into the recesses of our memories – talk turned to diaries. One attendee had brought her diary from the late 1960s and shared with us the entry she wrote on the night she got engaged, almost fifty years ago.
Others had different stories. One woman had recently read through all of her diaries – 7 volumes in total – and then, afterwards, she systematically destroyed them, tearing them up, one by one. A writer, she wasn’t sure what it all meant; she just needed them gone. And then someone else recalled that her mother, who had kept a diary for decades, lining them up on two shelves in a prominent place in the house while telling her children they would be toast if they’d access them, burned all her diaries when the family sold the farmhouse. One of the attendees gasped; it seemed so violent. But then someone pointed out that burning things isn’t so hard in times when there was always a fire in the fireplace.
But it got us all thinking about stories, and who they belong to. As a researcher who works with archival materials, I know that my whole career – and honestly, all of my passions – are based entirely on the assumption that people will keep things. More specifically, my passions depend on the passions of those who came before: their hopes, dreams, disappointments, struggles, fears…. as captured in letters, notes, and diaries. I’m not interested in grand history; I’m interested in the every day. Words up in flames are words that I’ll never be able to read.
And perhaps, for the mom in question, that was the whole point.
Another participant said that what she loves about her diaries is that they make sense only to her.
“Are they written in code?” someone asked
“No,” she replied, but when she described her process it quickly became clear that although they are not in code, they are encoded; that is, she’s written in a way that is so internal that you’d have to know the intimate workings of her mind to figure out what she’s even getting at. Further, although she writes every day, she doesn’t date anything.
What a puzzle these books would be to the researcher who happened upon them a century from now! It all made me think of this story about two friends who found a collection of 148 diaries in a Cambridge dumpster and about one man’s journey to find their author and tell her story.
As one participant said, a diary only offers one side of someone. It’s a single window. It’s not the whole story. It can never be. Fans of L.M.Montgomery were distressed when her journals were first published; here was a woman they did not recognize, and more than this, a woman they did not like. How could this woman – frustrated, cantankerous, dark, troubled, tired – have written an irrepressible character like Anne?
It’s clear from the journals that L.M. Montgomery was aware of the possible literary or historical value of her writing; some time after writing her entries, she went back and revised them. She knew there might be an audience. So, too, do many young people today keep audience front and centre as they develop their online personas. Recent research, for example, suggests that many keep two Instagram accounts: one that is carefully curated for public consumption, the other that allows them to share the messiness and silliness of their lives with those closest to them.
I have my own teenage diaries in a blue Rubbermaid bin next to my desk. I brought them home to St. John’s a few years ago, after they’d spent decades moldering in a cardboard apple box at my parents’ house. I’m not sure what to do with them. Every now and then I reach for the bin, but I always stop before I get near to opening the lid.
What might this Pandora’s Box reveal about who I was? I’m not sure I’m ready to know. Part of me wants to just toss it all, to burn it and be done with it. And yet the other part of me knows that doing so would be the height of hypocrisy: how could I, someone who feeds on the stories of others, deny others the possible opportunity to feed on mine? And further, as someone who has spent the past few years excavating my longer family histories in order to figure out my place in them, how can I justify ignoring my more recent histories?
The woman who shared the story of her engagement was reading an entry she penned 49 years ago. Twenty years from now, will I have the courage to share my diary with a group of people talking about the things we keep?
I really don’t know. Would you?
(c) Sonja Boon, 2018