A few weeks after my mother died, my sister and I went through her things. This involved scaling a gigantic mountain as my mother was a hoarder. At one point I heard my sister sobbing and found her holding my mother’s diary. It was an odd journal, full of stories of things that hadn’t happened, cruel comments about her children that made no sense, and serious signs of instability. But all my sister saw were the horrible words written about her. At the time we had a bonfire outside and so I took the diary, plus more of my mother’s that I found, and threw them onto the fire with broken-hearted fury. And then I went home, gathered the diaries that I had kept since I was nine years old, and burned them, too. There was a rage inside that words could so hurt. I didn’t ever, ever, want something I had written to hurt another person so deeply.
It probably wasn’t smart to make such an important decision that impacted not just me but siblings as well, when none of us were emotionally stable. And over the past few years I have had brief moments of regret.
And over the past few years I have never again kept a diary.
Here’s the thing though. Most writers keep some sort of notebook. Something that holds bits of over-heard dialog, descriptions of someone passed in a street, ideas for stories, and random thoughts on writing. I keep having this little nagging voice whispering to me that I should be writing life down. Added to that, I know there are many types of diaries. I know people who keep weather journals, nature journals, bird journals, and even one who keeps a running tab on river levels. So if I really wanted to keep a diary, there are a lot of forms I could choose.
Yet I keep going back to that moment when my mother’s words devastated my sister. And I believe that if I started a diary again, the words would be false because I would mentally be editing them out of fear of hurting someone. And that kind of writing is dangerous because there’s the possibility of the writing becoming a lie. I find myself in this quandary of wanting to keep a journal and yet not knowing how to make it both honest and painless. This is a common tightrope for writers to walk. The work needs to be honest. A friend described this beautifully when she said she was using a pen name to remove the inner critic that sat on her shoulder whispering, ‘what would your mother think?’. But a pen name and the anonymity that brings isn’t an option when it comes to a journal.
Fiction is easier. I have written stories where family members have been represented in characters, and not always favorably. Do I worry about offending a family member? Heck no. I can always say, ‘it’s fiction’. That excuse doesn’t exist for journals.
I went into an office supply store this weekend and stood before the variety of notebooks thinking how much I would like to take on those blank pages. I haven’t felt that desire to journal in a long time. But as I reached for one, the fear came back. I believe journals are important, especially for writers, but I haven’t found a solution to writing honestly without possibly breaking my son’s heart some day. Even though I’m not my mother, and even though I want to record my writing life, not his life, is it worth the risk? Some day I’ll find the balanced answer, but obviously it’s not today.