She set fire to her diaries; I’d run into a burning house for mine

The bulletin board at my desk is decorated with postcards from my friends, a favorite writer (Jonathan Franzen - second from the left) and myself.

If it is personal, I keep it. Even if it’s painful or embarrassing, often if it’s silly.

My penny loafers from high school. (It was the early 90s, the grunge era, and everyone else wore Doc Martins.)

Postcards: I have a sweet handful from friends in other states, another handful my grandparents bought during their honeymoon, and one that the novelist Jonathan Franzen sent me in response to a letter I wrote him last spring. (I have a copy of my letter to him, too, of course.)

Notes passed in class during junior high school. Thank you cards from colleagues and employees. Funny, sweet or complimentary emails in an Outlook folder labeled “Things I Should Keep”.

Photographs. Mine. My parents’. My grandparents’. My great-grandparents’. Distant relatives of whose place on the family tree I’m uncertain. (I framed a photo of my dad’s mother – in her 20s at the time – posing semi-nude on a coffee table, which I then hung above my dining room table. I show it to everybody!)

VHS cassettes of home movies shot in college. One of them was for a creative writing class; we had to write a screenplay and I co-opted my boyfriend and roommate into giving long monologues about sex, faith and death. (My favorite topics at the time.)

Letters. From my mother when I was a newborn, from my ex-husband shortly before he became my ex, from me to myself – intentionally tucked away knowing I’ll stumble across them later when I need them.

Journals from second grade on.

The journals in particular are profoundly important to me, which is why I was so touched and troubled by author Dominique Browning’s recent New York Times piece about burning her diaries.

Browning, who blogs at SlowLoveLife.com, wrote that privacy drove her seemingly impulsive decision to torch over a wood fire 40 years of private writing:

Privacy was, perhaps, the proximate cause of my recent pyromania. My sons were spending the summer with me, probably the last one at my home. They were on the verge of departing into their own adulthoods, moving into their own first homes. It had struck me, several years earlier, that once children get to a certain age, the age at which they start keeping their own secrets, becoming opaque to those who love them most, the age at which they start doing things they cannot dream of their parents ever having done, they (the children, that is) become voraciously curious about what exactly their parents did do, what were their secrets, who were they, anyway? Once children get curious that way, nothing puts them off the scent.

I have always left my diaries in plain sight of others, whether it’s a shelf on one of my bookcases, or my bedside table, or my desk, or the coffee table on the patio, or the kitchen island, or whatever place I happened to be when I finished writing and felt full and strong enough to move onto some other thing.

They are personal, and they look like it. Typically spiral-bound (because it’s easier to hold them open) with an artfully designed hard or leather cover (I gravitate toward florals, or bird motifs) and almost always unruled (so I can write sideways without dealing with any lines). Never labeled.

Even deeper than my trust that visitors to my home will respect my privacy is my trust in the small handful of people I’ve let read or hear me read from some of those tender-hearted pages.

When I was my daughter’s age, I often wrote to a future child. I have read some of those parts to her.

On a very rare occasion, I will read part of a passage to someone who has touched me, or because I think it may touch them. It’s a bit like telling someone when you’ve dreamed about them, only more vulnerable than that because it takes place in your conscious hours – both the writing and the sharing.

Once – just once – I gave away a whole volume. Sometimes I regret that, wishing my set of written memories was still in one place – and that the place was on my bookshelf. Other times I think what a gift it is to have trusted another person so profoundly.

Browning wrote:

The urge to burn may have been born, long ago, of the old prayer I said on my knees every night as a child: “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” My soul lived in my diaries, and that weighed on me; by the time I was in my 40s, if I died before I woke, I wanted Someone to snatch my diaries before anyone else did.

It is unusual for me to look back over my old writing – especially the raw material in diaries. Every now and then I’ll re-read an old newspaper column or blog post, and generally it’s because someone has asked me about a particular piece.

But I’d never scrap any of it – not inadvertently and particularly not intentionally.

All that stuff – from the raw, rambling, journaled angst … to the carefully considered, well-polished prose – is part of my personal daisy chain. One emotion led to another to another, and all of it adds up to who I am right now.

Progress, not baggage.

I told a friend who asked me what I thought of the Browning piece, “I think I’m too optimistic about where it’s going and where it’s been to ever consider burning my diaries.”

Even in a smolder of heartache, the smoke eventually clears. I have a written account to prove it.

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6 thoughts on “She set fire to her diaries; I’d run into a burning house for mine

  1. Fascinating — and tragic — story. The equivalent of this for me would be deleting my blog.

    While I can relate to the freedom of purging (e.g. clothes, even a DVD collection), the idea of burning memories doesn’t sit well.

    My mom kept volumes of diaries while I was growing up and still has them to this day. She taught me the importance of journaling, something I started doing as a teenager and still do (in one form or another).

    Thanks for sharing this along with your own thoughts, Knight!

    • Jeff, kudos to your mother for her influence on you. I hope I can say the same of Lily one day – that writing helps her along her path, and that her path is paved with memories she wants to preserve. Thanks for posting!

    • Indeed they are my heart, Mom. Tender sometimes, broken in a blue moon. But always mendable.

      I do understand those who view their diaries from a different perspective… Perhaps some things are just too much to think of again once you’ve put words to them.

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