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Thursday, July 31, 2008

All I Ever Needed to Know About Writing, I Learned in the 1970s

Inspired by Chesapeake Bay Woman's hilarity as she looks back at old diaries and provides a glimpse into the life of Chesapeake Bay Child, and piggybacking on Bejewell's recent confessions of having killed countless lovely hardbound journals in her time, I have gone on a quest to explore my own history of keeping a diary.

The thing that struck me most about Bejewell's post was the sense of good intentions going astray. I, too, have purchased many a gorgeous-covered blank book, intending to start a journal that would chronicle some passage of time. I was actually very good at this in the year that I lived in England during college. I would write about my day sometimes for upwards of an hour, every single night. Those entries are peppered with "quotes of the day" and all sorts of funny anecdotes that bring back memories I would never have otherwise been able to dredge up. They make it clear just why writing daily is so much fun for the you who comes back 20 years after the fact to read those words.

But most of the time, the journals I start devolve from entries every day to "catch-up" entries every few days to entries once a fortnight, which is just the guilty beginning of the end. The last entries are never interesting or immediate, only obligatory and deadly dull. In one book, a year or so after the last entry, I turned the thing upside down and started writing from what was once the back of the book, hating to waste so many blank pages in such a beautiful book. But, of course, I did not make it far enough into the year to have those two efforts at journaling meet in the middle.

I have a whole shelf of old journals in my study. Some are completely full. Others, half empty because the inspiration to start writing again has always occasioned in me a need for a new book, a clean fresh page, a lovely new cover.

The start I am most saddened about not continuing is the luscious leather-bound journal with the thick, creamy pages that I bought in the central market in Florence, Italy. I was pregnant with Son at the time. The initial entry is a long letter to my unborn child, detailing all my hopes and dreams for him. I wrote it while sitting on the deck of the overnight ship to Greece, watching the stars come out, and imagining the travels he would someday take in his lifetime. I intended to write in the journal once a week throughout the remainder of the pregnancy and his childhood -- and I had all sorts of romantic dreams of reading excerpts out of it at his wedding or something like that. I managed another entry while pregnant, a few in his first six months, and one two-page spread of a list of all his milestones (dates of first laugh, first steps, etc.). Then, nothing. He has photo albums and other records, but no consistent telling of stories.

In thinking about this tendency and wondering why it is that at some points in my life, I have been such a good chronicler, while at other times I've been awful, I went yesterday to pull down old journals and browse through them. For a lark, I started with my very first one -- a diary given to me shortly before my birthday the year I turned seven (1977). This is the first entry it ever contained (I've kept intact the spelling prowess of my six-year-old self):

April 10, 1977

Today I looked for my easter bastet. When I found it. I saw a cute bunny. I named her SnowBall. I love SnowBall. She is White with pink eras and brown eyes. I brought her to church. She stayed in the car. SnowBall has a pink saten bow. She is very cute and furry. She likes carrots ledes [lettuce] celry and Easter!

Isn't it a good thing that this diary locked? Wouldn't want a little sister spying on secrets like those.

I have realized something very important from this book, apart from how funny our childhood handwriting is: I have been destined to be a writer and reviser, a never-quite-finished-with-it author since at least age seven. Here is the frontispiece of this, my very first diary.
You may notice that here on the left, the publisher has kindly provided a prompt in the form of blank spaces to fill in the years this one year diary will span. And I, in my childish hand, have filled in 1977 to 1978. And then added "to 1979." And, in pencil so faded that it hardly shows up here, you will find faint tracings that cross the margin of the book that add again "to 1980." Yes, it's true. At the tender ages of seven through ten, I turned my one year diary into a three year diary because despite my best intentions, I hadn't written enough in it after one year to consider it respectably full. There are pages that have horizontal lines across them, with entries for different years above and below the line. But even after three years of writing, there are many more pages empty than full--which may be a testament to my lack of originality, or the uneventfulness of my childhood. There is, however, a fascinating progression of handwriting from awkward print in pencil, to bold use of pen (a verboten writing utensil in school), to lovely cursive in hot pink ink putting down my 5th and 6th grade girlish dreams.

Here is a sampling of the fabulosity within that garish-covered little book.

April 28, 1977
[Original entry in bright orange felt tip pen]

My Birthday

Today I went out to my birthday dinner. It was a lot of fun.


The End


[added content in pencil, in a handwriting that suggests revision two or three years later]
I had a whole NY Steak, 2 Shirly Temples, an artichoke, green salad, and mashed potatoes. It was at the Sandpiper. For about 4 weeks after that I couldn't look at or eat another steak.

And thus we have proof that I was an inveterate editor of my own prose before my age hit double digits (and also that I had a shocking appetite as a child). Not that what I was writing was particularly good, mind you. Only that apparently, the desire to be more thorough in print was somehow deeply ingrained. And that my own quest after the substance of a story had matured slightly from "a lot of fun" (which is a phrase occurring with mind-numbing frequency in the entries from 1977 and 1978) to an inclusion of much more specific detail.

May 24, 1979

Today I had to clean my room! It was very boring after that I looked at my 5,000 puzzles, games and jokes boook. That was alot of fun. I wonder weather my parents will ever get married again. I hope they do.

Your friend,
ChildTime


And there we have it. The only sentence in the entry that merits an exclamation point is that I had to clean my room. (I still feel that way about cleaning; it's always an event when it's successful.) The nonsequitur from what I did to what I wondered is certainly surprising, but when I read this, I do not really feel pity for nine-year-old me. I only feel a slight sadness at my inability to tell weather from whether at that age. (Lest you think I am either heartless or astonishingly repressed, I will admit that I felt like someone punched me in the gut when I came to the end of the book and found that the only entry in the address book section was for "Daddy.")

I don't know what else happened that summer besides one room cleaning and a bit of idle speculation. A much bigger event was at the end of the summer:

August 27, 1979
[the following is written in large cursive letters with excessive flourishes on all the capitals, and words so large that the entry fills the whole page with its giddy frillyness]

Dear, Diary,


Today I started 5th grade. I got the best 5th grade teacher. Her name is Mrs. Stewart.


Love,

ChildTime


[in very tiny print, squeezed in at the bottom]

(P.S. It is now March 1980 and I found out she isn't the best)


I think that P.S. says it all. I honestly don't remember Mrs. Stewart. But I'm not sure that if I did, there would be more worth saying than that pithy observation recorded a long three months before the end of the school year.

May 10, 1980

Dear Diary,


I have a boyfriend his name is Matt K--. He likes me. I have known him since before the 1st of Jan. He is very nice. He has brown eyes and dark hair in small wings. He also has some freckles on his face and neck. He is quiet but when you know him he's fun.


November 12, 1980

Dear Diary,


Today we played Mrs. Strickland's class at Nucumb (noo cum). Matt's in her class. A couple of times I think he tried to throw the ball to me but every time Geoff would jump in front of me and grab the ball! It made me so mad! I hope Matt asks me. I like him alot.


Love,

ChildTime


P.S. He waved to me when we were going out to P.E. But I think he tried to make it look like he was waving to a boy.


And thus we have the history of a childhood in a few easy entries: an astonishingly large restaurant meal for a 7th birthday, a parents' divorce--mentioned throughout the whole book only obliquely in two entries about staying with Dad for the weekend, one sentence longing for a remarriage, and an old address--and nearly countless posts about the beautiful, elusive, quiet, mysterious, fascinating Matt K-- who asked me to be his campaign manager for a school election, whom I referred to as my "boyfriend," and who yet didn't talk to me but only waved with such secretiveness that it could easily "look like he was waving to a boy." In case you're wondering: he lost the election and I cried and wondered if he felt like crying; he did NOT "ask me" (to do what, I have no idea); he "asked Kristen A--" much to my ten-year-old shock and outrage and confusion.

And there, in the fall of 6th grade, is quietly recorded my first heartbreak, complete with some amazement that after a whole week of nothing going right, all one had to do was tell all to one's mother, and suddenly, nothing was going wrong any more.

At some point in the last year of keeping this diary, I went through and added details, including putting years at the top of all of the entries for clarification, annotating what really happened subsequent to the events recorded, and fixing spelling errors in the early entries with a vehemence of crossing out that indicates a certain level of disgust with my younger self.

The consistent repackaging of diary entries written by an eight-year-old to bring them up to the standards of a ten-year-old is for me the most interesting part of this whole book. I have, apparently, been interested in crafting sentences ever since I knew what a sentence was. I've also always been a judgmental Bossy Boots when it comes to my own writing. I've long felt the value of re-reading, revision, rethinking the focus of, augmenting, ruthless self-editing. Perhaps this explains why it takes me so long to write anything now.

At the very least, it proves that I come by my love of crazy colored revision inks honestly.

And that I have forever been a sucker for the quiet dark-haired boy whose advances I have to interpret.

23 comments:

Saniya said...

Hi,
This was a nice post.

All Adither said...

I have NEVER been good at journaling. But I do save all my old calendars, which is kind of fun. Especially to see what was important to me in college, young adulthood and now. I've been considering doing a post on that too.

Say hi to Snoball for me.

houseofD said...

I find you to be quite possibly one of the most entertaining writers I have ever read. I enjoy reading from you.

LceeL said...

well done. same boat.

Mark Salinas said...

A very nice read...I like your site.

The day you found your bunny Snowball
my wife turned five that day.

MultiplesMommy said...

What a fun post! I actually remember the day you came home, crying hysterically as you got off the bus, because of the whole election & "he didn't ask me" fiasco. It clearly made quite the impression on my 6-year-old self, 'cause I wondered for weeks afterwards what a boy could possibly have done to you that was so bad it made you cry and so mysterious that no one would explain it to the nosy little sister. Gee, I wish you'd recorded what the asking was about. It still haunts me 29 years later! :-)

bejewell said...

So beauifully written. I love that you still have those old journals to flip through. I just toss mine in disgust.

Oh, yeah, also? I'm totally taking credit for the fact that you wrote this bad ass post.

heather of the EO said...

I love this. Such an endearing young lady you were, I'm sure.
What I hate about journals from my twenties is that I'm blathering on about some "new" understanding of life. Only to realize that I had the same light bulb moment three months ago and was so excited it was "new."
Oh, how quickly I forget learning my big life lessons. Over and over and over....

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

First of all, thanks so much for the link back, and second of all, if I had seen your Too Cool for School diary back when I was a kid, I'd have thrown my plain one out and insisted that my mother get me one like yours. I love it.

Also, I am most impressed by the 2 Shirley Temples.

The reference to your boyfriend's "wings" is also hilarious. I'll bet there aren't many young people these days who know what they are. I always loved a guy with wings. And Jovan Musk for Men.

Good stuff.

Adcock Circus said...

Too cute. I loved my Hello Kitty Diary.
And the Shirley Temples... I loved those. While stay at this really cool hotel we took our 2 older boys the the lounge and I ordered them Roy Rogers (the boy version of the ST) - they about gagged.
Thanks for sharing the memories.

Lipstick said...

Great post. I used to drink Shirley Temples all the time at Nonna's house....in fact, I could go for one right now.

Ok, Where Was I? said...

How wonderful that you have all of those--even if half written. I've never, ever been able to maintain a journal past a few weeks. I too did the whole 'I'm going to write through my pregnancy' thing with a journal and lasted for about 8 entries. I'm mad at myself for that, b/c I'd love to revisit that first pregnancy.

Chelle said...

I loved this post...it reminded me of many of my diaries. I found a few of them in the attic at my parents house and was cracking up at my entries--to be that young and have no worries except if he likes me or if my sister will snoop and find my diary or not :)

Carol said...

Absolutely loved this post!

Made me think back to my childhood. I wish I had been even as good at jounaling as you back then.

anti-supermom said...

What a great post.

I never wrote in a journal, except for when I studied in London because I was encouraged to do so, they all ended up being drunk rants about my ex boyfriend (who is now my husband!)

Really fun read~

mom2natnkatncj said...

How awesome that you still have your diaries/journals from when you were a child. It's fun going back in time like that isn't it?

Diane said...

I wish I had kept a diary when I was a little girl. It would have been so much fun to go through it.

Sandy C. said...

What a great post! I love that kept these. I really wish I had kept my journals from childhood. I did keep some calendars from recent years to look back on, but it's not the same.

Mamasphere said...

This was such a fascinating read- I soaked up each and every word.

A few years ago I gathered up all of my journals that had writing in them, including my very first locknig diary, and burned them. It felt like I was giving myself a new start at the time, but a lot of good memories got lost along with the bad. Now I kind of wish I'd kept them.

Jaina said...

I used to write about boys in my diaries. But then when I'd get over them I'd get embarrassed and rip out the pages to start fresh as a "big girl". I regret losing those memories.

McMommy said...

Reading this made me wish I had held onto my diaries from when I was a little girl! I think I threw them all out...for fear someone may find them and read all my TOP SECRET entries. Like how I loved so-and-so and how much fun our Disney trip was. Um yeah...real earth-shattering secrets...

p.s. I'm laughing at Bejewell's comment!

BookMomma said...

Oh, wow - great post! It makes me want to peek into my old ones (spiral bound was a MUST for me) but I'm afraid of what I might find. Angsty, boy-obsessed heartache among some catty Mean Girl comments. I'm a much beter grown up than a girl...

Happy POW! Thanks for posting.

foolery said...

I am so very thankful for diaries and baby books, because my colossal failure to adapt to their formats was the seed that germinated as my blog.

I think my English needs a good going-over but I'm too lazy to go look stuff up. In any case, I used to have a diary as a child, on and off, and the vast wasteland that was my diary was later unceremoniously destroyed with no regrets. Who cares what Laurie ate today? Who cares whom Laurie was in love with Tuesday (as compared to Wednesday)?

The important thing remained -- with you, with me, with so many of us out here -- and that is the need to explain, to be understood, and to create. That is way bigger than the facts contained among the pages.

Great post, as always, MT! You make me think, laugh, sigh, and write (when I'm done being silly).

-- Laurie

 

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