Keeping a journal

The early spiral notebooks are now yellowing, which is why I have switched to acid-free bound books.
The early spiral notebooks are now yellowing, which is why I have switched to acid-free bound books.

I’ve kept a journal for 32 years, starting at the age of fourteen. Over the decades it has become an intrinsic part of daily life. I don’t leave for vacation without packing it; and when important events happen I set aside time in order to record things properly. My pens need to be dark and the paper smooth and frictionless.

By this point, scores of notebooks and bound books fill two heavy plastic storage bins in my basement. My entire life is in those bins. There I am as a teenager, giggling with my girlfriend, learning to drive, getting drunk for the first time, and going off to college. Then come the trials of early adulthood: lovers, adventures, hopes and fears. Then comes marriage and parenthood; then middle age with its calm confidence and new abilities. The journal has recorded my life better than any photo album.

When I began keeping the journal in the ninth grade, I had no clear idea what I was getting into. I never considered whether I’d still be keeping the journal as an adult, or whether the journal might evolve over time. During the ninth grade my only goal was simply to record the things that happened each day in school: sneaking out of class without permission, annoying the French teacher, doing gross things with food in the cafeteria:

In science class, Mrs. Detwiler was unpacking 20 gallons of frogs and several more gallons of starfish, clams and baby pigs. We gotta dissect them later, ecch! Clark Watts came into our room to “help,” as he put it. He snitched a starfish and went around tossing it onto girls’ desks to make them cry out. Detwiler chased him out. I got out of English to go downtown to see the matinee opera, which was Le Bohème. It was pretty good, considering it was just an opera.

I soon became more interested in the world around me and began to describe non-school life:

The little rabbit was still there this morning, all stiff and covered with dew. I brought him in and Mommy and I cared for him all day, giving him a mixture of milk and baby cereal with a little sugar, like someone told us to do. We marveled at his beauty. His lovely fur was brown on top, shading off to white on his stomach. His two ears were flat upon his neck, and his eyes had not yet opened. He was one of the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen. Towards evening he lay listless, refusing the eyedropper with food, and he grew colder to the touch. At last, near midnight when Mommy went to check him, he was dead.

At sixteen I discovered Boswell, a king among journal-keepers. Boswell’s journals, begun at the age of 22, describe him making the rounds of 1760s London society, imposing upon others, collecting famous men as others collect stamps, picking up strumpets in alleys, and reproducing the conversations of people who had no idea he was listening. Boswell appealed to me because he was only a few years older than me when he wrote these entertaining accounts. I liked that he could be sensible and sensitive one day, but a complete idiot the next. Despite the fact that he obviously thought very highly of himself, his flaws were very visible. This provided an important insight for me. Although a journal-keeper might try to depict himself in the best possible light, the reader has the advantage of objective distance and will generally see through any attempt at deception. So I adopted a more honest narrative voice in my own journal, which allowed me to admit my own frequent failings.

When I got home from work I discovered to my horror that the back zipper to my skirt had never been zipped up, and my bottom under my tights had been clearly evident all afternoon at work, and down Kirkwood on foot. The zipper, of course, was of the gaping variety. I was horribly perturbed.

When friends read excerpts from my journal they’re surprised to find themselves actors in my drama instead of the other way around. Nevertheless, they are fascinated by the difference between my journal accounts and their own memories.

After work I was weary. I decided to go to the Trojan Horse for dinner. Halfway along Kirkwood I was hailed by Bill D, who had been driving his motorcycle and stopped when he saw me. Since I saw him last week he had managed to wreck a car belonging to his employer, and fracture three vertebrae into the bargain. He was in a body cast when I saw him, bitching bitterly about the inconvenience, swearing he’d by-god better find a doctor who would agree to put him in a back brace in no more than two weeks, or he’d take a jacksaw and cut himself out, regardless of losing his 100% medical insurance coverage. He was out riding around on his motorcycle looking for friends to complain to.

I reproduced conversation whenever possible:

Emily related various adventures. “We found Tristan Tzara’s grave,” she said. “It’s not in Pére LaChaise, it’s somewhere in Montparnasse. We came upon it by chance. We danced on his grave!” General laughter. “Yeah, well, we looked all around, to see if anyone would see us, and we got up on the flat square marker and danced away” —she executed a swift flamenco—“and giggled like crazy.” “You danced?!” I said; and she grinned, “Yeah, and we spat and cursed too!” —I suppose it was the Dada thing to do.

On days when little happened, I looked for an observation that could be pursued on paper for a couple of lines:

I worked in the garden until nightfall, laying stones for my pathway until well into the dusk. Heat lightning lit up the haze in front of the slender new moon. The aroma of the valerian blossoms hung with heavy sweetness in the air and seemed almost evil, like the scent I imagine Nimue to have worn while seducing Merlin. Something gleamed pale yellow in the soil in front of me, then another a few inches off. They were not fireflies, although the color of the glow was similar; they were larvae or grubs, I assume of the firefly. I have never seen a glowworm in my life before. Almost 40, but never until tonight a glowworm! I haven’t lived, in many ways.

One unintended consequence of journal-keeping is that as a young adult I often intentionally plunged myself into chaotic or picturesque situations that made good reportage.

I have never sat through so much loud music as last night. Band succeeded band, each one louder than the one before. The noise resounded and reverberated off the walls, turning the room into a hissing hell of din. The big drum on the kit onstage vibrated inside my guts each time it was struck, in a most unpleasant fashion. P. sat next to us smoking cigarette after cigarette. B. drank beers and shouted at the various performers, “Make me come!” I very swiftly grew hoarse from shouting and inhaling smoke. The smoke was worse than any I’d ever experienced before, making my eyes sting at intervals as if I had been chopping onions. Each spotlight over the stage had a pale beam hanging below it, the smoke showing up as an almost-solid outline beneath each bulb. But it was fun. Why? How could such physical distress be so amusing? Good company, a succession of beers, a good audience to inspire us, and one band following another at 15- or 20-minute intervals. One band was an all-woman group called Cruella DeVille, a spin-off of the sort of ghoulish punk that the Cramps used to do. They had an automated mannequin at the front of the stage, with a skull for a head and a wig for hair, which repeatedly stabbed itself in the chest with a long knife through a rip in a red-stained shirt. This was called the “Stab-a-tron,” and it kept plunging its knife into its heart for the duration of the set.

In the following entry from young adulthood, I inadvertently captured a moment when one chapter of my life was ending and a new one just beginning:

I was pensive all day. In the evening I walked up to Seventh Street to check out an apartment advertisement I had seen. The apartment turned out to be the house right behind the Bluebird on the alley. A band was playing and I could hear the noise as easily as if I stood inside at the bar. It was a hot night and the alley smelled of stone-dust. The house had no yard and looked dismal. I went away in disappointment and returned home by way of the Old Library. I heard fiddle music, and looked into the basement windows. Folk-dancers were whirling to Irish jig music, men and women holding each other close, children running around their parents’ legs. A feeling of desolation overtook me. I watched from outside the window while joy and peace reigned within. I was shut out from this happiness. I went home slowly, head down, musing.

The journal has captured countless little moments of human existence that would otherwise be lost forever:

I caught a shuttle bus back to Bloomington, and a taxi from the Union to my house. The driver got out of the cab to get my baggage out of the trunk. The night air was amazingly clear, with hundreds of stars shining overhead. “Look, there’s the Big Dipper,” he said, pointing to the east instead of the north. “That’s not the Big Dipper,” I said politely, “that’s Orion, the hunter. See his belt and the sword hanging down from it? And if you look down low in the sky, right over that rooftop, you can see the Dog Star, Sirius, following his master on the hunt.” I paid the fellow and left him scratching his head, still staring up at the sky and muttering to himself, “Orion!?”

I’m not just a smart-aleck telling off a poor schmuck; I have also been the taxi driver. For every time in my life when I’ve corrected someone else, there’s been another point when I’ve stood flushed with chagrin while someone else set me straight. It’s all there, in the journal: the good, the bad, the ugly. Often the things described were foolish, but sometimes they were noble. I look at the two bins filled with notebooks now and understand that it’s not simply a daily record. It’s much more than the private conceit of a narcissist. Instead, it has cultural and historic merit. These thirty-two years of journals are probably more interesting and relevant than anything else I’ve ever written, including my eleven years of reportage for the newspaper and my book for IU Press. I look forward to posting additional excerpts from it on this blog.

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