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Journals Ready to Burn

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – At the back of a closet, in a box that I was sure had been lost, I found a treasure trove of old diaries. As I write in my journal most every day, come rain or shine, depression or ecstasy, I have plenty of old journals lying around. But these were the oldest ones, from my own Precambrian, when I first began to write with urgency and continuity, as if, perhaps, my life depended on it.

Reading through, it is curious to see how much I have and haven’t changed. I see my current self shining through that old self: the shunning of convention while still admiring it; the hunger for connection, no matter the price, born of some deep solitude; the doubts that send me tunneling down agonized corridors of paragraphs.

In my journals, there’s the never-ending search for a writing project in which to sink my teeth; the chance encounter that leaves me addled and expectant; the little descriptions of the mundane world recorded just because the world seems to me a beautiful place.

Flipping through the pages I see again the older black woman at a gas station who convinces me to give her a ride. When she gets in my car she tells me to call her “Mom” and says, “If I were younger, I’d sure as hell fool around with you. All my men were pretty men. My first husband was white but he gave me all black children.”

There’s me standing beside the Green River in Utah, on a solo cross-country drive, wondering what on earth to do with all the desire inside me – and with my not writing: “I have discovered that as long as I try to be a writer, I will also be a great reader as reading is the very finest way to procrastinate on writing.”

There are aphorisms galore (my journals are still replete with these), such as: “Life is not for the timid” or a title for a short story never written: “The Two-Story House” with separate but interconnected stories taking place on each floor.

I invented the e-reader in a note scribbled back in June 1992: “a computer screen, paper thin, that flips the pages just like a book.”

Or the heart-breaking pain of a note penned 14 June 1992, the day before my twenty-seventh birthday: “I’m getting really anxious for this part of my life to be over.” And the day after my birthday, “I’ve got to shake this current way of life. It’s killing me.”

Or my pleasure today when I see my erstwhile choice of words as I describe a hard-to-understand auctioneer speaking “like a baby with fat lips mumbling under water.”

If you were to compare a journal entry from nearly 30 years ago, just before I set off for Argentina, and the ones I wrote this week, not much has changed really. Indeed, I haven’t changed at all. I just have more experience being me – and make fewer apologies for the results.

There was a time when I fancied burning my old diaries in a bonfire, more for house-keeping reasons than modesty – exhibitionism being a necessary vice in any writer. But for anyone who ever loved me, I think they would be more a burden than a joy. At other times I have fantasized about donating them to a library, but it seems unlikely that anyone would take quite so much interest as that. A better way to think of them, I believe, is as an old friend, the one who knows you better than anyone else, the one who has shared all your confidences and holds you dear, warts and all.

If so little has changed, there is one thing that has. Before, I would start journals and not finish them. They would be abandoned with two-thirds of the pages unwritten. Not anymore though: these days, every page is filled with words and often even the covers are scrawled.

These are my words. Like life, they are raw and glorious and unkempt – and filled to the brim.

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