Old journals and diaries kept during a time in your life you want to write about can provide raw material for more formal, refined writing. But even if you weren’t in the habit of spilling your guts out on the page when you kept a journal, a journal can still be useful for detecting certain elements about the character you were in the past, and the settings you inhabited.
“Never throw away anything you’ve written” is advice I’ve given elsewhere. It’s good advice for journals, too, even though they may be an embarrassment.
When I was in my twenties, I destroyed part of a journal written at seventeen.
It embarrassed me. Not because of actions or emotions I confessed in the journal. Because of the voice. I remember thinking it arrogant and overwrought. But I can’t know for sure if the voice was arrogant and overwrought, and I can’t reproduce that voice now because those pages no longer exist.
The most obvious use of a journal or diary for a memoir writer is that a journal can help you fill the blank spots in your memory with details, the sights and sounds of past events in your life. Physical artifacts — the notebooks we used to record our doings — can also spark memories of details. Look at your old handwriting on an old page, feel the smooth paper with your fingertips, and open your mind to memory.
But even for those of us whose old journals are boring and repetitive, finding value in them for a memoir is still possible. An old journal can give you a sense of your voice during the time in question. Were you using youthful slang or professional jargon that you no longer use? Longer or shorter sentences? Odd punctuation like a row of exclamation points or, heaven forbid, a little heart in place of a dot over your “i”? Did you scratch things out, or underline? All these can be keys to your character in the past, and your voice.
The style of the notebook you used can also be telling. It may say something about style or popular colors during the period in question, or it may say something about your personal style back in the day. As an artifact, it can provide a cultural context for your past life.
The two journals in the photo above are from the 1980’s, a time of shoulder pads and cinched waists for women, mullets and Jheri curls for men, glass skyscrapers, glass-top tables, and lots of teal and pink. But these two journals are very plain. In this case, plain didn’t mean cheap; I remember buying the journals at a bookstore near Harvard University. They were quite expensive, and I’ve always been, well, “frugal.” Those two journals-as-artifacts say something about who I was back then, and they also give me a cultural context, even if it’s really an anti-context.
Finally, a third use for old journals and diaries is to find a sensory door in to a larger story. Why did I want that pair of sneakers so badly? Why did my friend and I construct piles of ketchup and salt to dip our french fries in? When that person held my hand too tightly, how did I react?
You may find mysteries, too, like events you wrote about but cannot recall. Yet there they are, in black and white. Or purple and ivory if you had an individual aesthetic.
Being unsure of reality every so often is refreshing. Every mystery is a lesson in human fallibility, something we writers and artists can’t be reminded of too often as we create and re-create reality.