memory keeping, memory loss, and burning journals, part 2

There was a another thread to the discussion about memory loss and memory keeping that I was talking about last time – a reference to a blogger, Danielle LaPorte, who burned 20 years of journals. All of the participants were horrified.

But I went to see what the blogger had to say about it. They weren’t memory keeping journals. They were ‘write it out to process it’ journals, a purging, a brain-dump. This blogger strongly declares that she doesn’t care for nostalgia or leaving a legacy, she wants to live in the now, not in the past, so she felt that burning her journals was a release.

But of course that’s still a horrifying thought to most memory keepers.

I have a small collection of old journals from my early teenage years. And yes, I destroyed one a few years ago, and sometimes wonder if that was the right choice. But I did it very deliberately while saving the rest of the journals carefully. It was an utterly worthless journal. It was rambling and incoherent, an 11 year old kid trying to write a journal without really having anything to say, so it became a long catalog of who likes whom and who is cute (or spunky, in 1980s kiwi kid slang) and really, it was a bunch of nonsense. The following year I kept another notebook that was similar but somehow I think I had begun to find my voice. That’s the one I kept. That’s the one that’s embarrassing and silly, but doesn’t make me feel physically sick like the oldest one did. What’s the point in keeping something that makes you feel so horrible? I would have hated anyone to read that first journal and think that they were getting some insight into my 11-12 year old self. (I don’t think I was as crazy as those pages made me sound. I think I was trying too hard.) I’m not keen for anyone to read the later stuff either, but I think I could laugh at it, especially as I get older and more distanced from it.

I still have a suitcase full of brain-dump journals. I used to write pages every morning (“morning pages” of stream of consciousness writing) and I used to reread them. I haven’t been through them in a long time but I seem to remember being surprised that during some difficult times I never even mentioned the things that were really bothering me. That makes me wonder what value those journals hold for a future me. Their purpose was probably fulfilled as I filled them, getting the stuff out of my head and letting me release the emotions I was struggling with. Someday soon I might dig some out and see how reading them now makes me feel.

As Danielle LaPorte said about her old journals:

I’ve come to the conclusion that reliving pain is actually not that conducive to my joy, growth, or creativity. Nope, it just isn’t. I’ve tried recapitulation and obsessive attachment as a means to self-improvement, and it blows. I can find plenty to be sad about in my current life — I don’t need to dig up old material.

If all those old journals do is remind me of old grievances and sad feelings, are they worth keeping? If all they were meant to do was be a dump, a garbage bin for random thoughts, is keeping them the right thing to do? Or is it better to be rid of old rubbish?

Perhaps it’s not the right question to ask but if I woke up with amnesia tomorrow would reading these journals help me understand my life any better? How would I feel about digging into these old thoughts, long since past and forgotten?

It all depends on the contents of those journals and the feelings that they bring up in my life. As Danielle LaPorte said, she’s not advising people to burn their journals. She’s just sharing the lightness and relief that she feels since she burned hers, opening people to the possibility that it’s OK to choose that option.

On the podcast everyone reacted strongly in the negative. Of course self-proclaimed memory keepers are not likely to want to burn journals, but then again, they are probably keeping different types of journals for a different purpose. Memory keepers are defined by wanting to save the past.

I’m sure genealogists shudder at the thought of burning papers too. But again, the journals genealogists are seeking are not the scrap paper notes or brain dumps that most of the journal burners are destroying, are they? Would we really want to keep all of our ancestor’s pages of notes and complaints about what a prick John is being right now? Maybe we think we would, but would we really read through all of those notes to find the little bits that are significant? And will our descendants, who will operate in a digital world and will likely inherit thousands of photos and documents from us? And maybe even a Facebook feed. (Oh my goodness, I find my own Facebook feed hard enough to trawl through looking for the good bits. Can you imagine inheriting years of someone else’s feed?! And no, don’t trust the algorithms to show you what’s valuable. They have no clue!) I asked my genealogist friend and she agreed both that no one really wants to inherit everything. It’s too overwhelming.

I also noticed that everyone was concerned that she would regret burning her journals. Regret is a funny thing. We worry a lot that we’ll regret doing something or not doing something. But only certain types of people really dwell on their regrets. Most people have at least a few regrets, sometimes pretty big ones. But regret is such a pointless emotion. There’s usually nothing you can do about something you regret. You can apologize, or make a different choice in the future, but what’s done is done and dwelling on it is pretty unproductive. I don’t think Danielle LaPorte is the kind of person who beats herself up over regrets. Not that I’m not particularly familiar with her – I just got that impression from this one post on her blog. She’s not going to sit around crying about her lost journals in the future.

She might occasionally wish she still had them (or at least the IDEA of them, because as often as not it’s the ideal memory we wish for, not the actual reality of what something was). But so what? I regret not writing diaries during my college years. But I didn’t. I can’t change that fact now. So I write down what I remember and try to retrieve some of those details, and I keep a diary now. Would I feel worse if I had kept journals and then destroyed or lost them? Perhaps. Human psychology is a funny thing, and losing something is a lot harder than never having had it. But those of us who beat ourselves up over things we did (or didn’t do) need to work on that bad habit. It’s unproductive and unhealthy and we can’t live our lives protecting ourselves from the possibility of regret.

I don’t regret destroying that 12 year old me’s journal. I wish I had written a better journal when I was 12, but I did the best I knew how to at that time. Reminding myself of that part of myself that was pathetic and fake and trying too hard really doesn’t help me now. The other journal from the following year has enough of that anyway. I trust that I made a good decision.

And as for my brain-dump journals, in theory, and possibly in reality, I used those journals to process thoughts that, once refined and worked through, came out in the other writing I was doing. I guess that if I’d done those pages on loose sheets of paper I might have placed less value on them. Maybe it’s better to do that brain-dump on scrap paper and go through them regularly to glean the best ideas and words so that the rest of it can be dumped. Part of me wonders if I should read them and see what I wrote, but another part of me thinks that if I don’t know what I wrote, would I miss it if it was gone? If I lost all those pages without having read through them for years I might never really think of them again. Or I might fixate and dwell on them, mourning the idea of the lost thoughts, wishing I could re-connect with my younger self and see what she thought about things. Which version comes true is as much about my future psychology as anything. And that is unknowable. I am as likely to be upset that I kept the journals for some reason or other as I am likely to be happy I kept them. Even if I scanned them (another months long project I’m not even considering) I am likely to regret not having the paper copies because “it’s not the same!”

Ah well. I have rambled on for long enough. Burning journals is neither good nor bad. If you want to do it, you should. I have no plans to read through my journals right now, or scan them, or shred them…

…although I did just shred more than 5 pounds of old receipts and papers… maybe that’s a story for another day.

Thanks for stopping by,


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1 Response to memory keeping, memory loss, and burning journals, part 2

  1. juliegagen says:

    I purged my teen journal last year because it was both terrible and embarrassing. And I was so afraid my mom would find it. ;)

    I’m really REALLY happy about the decision (relieved, to be honest). And I appreciate this post. Thanks!

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