I started journaling when I was 11. Wish I could remember who gave me My First Prayer Diary, a collection of cloze passages to be filled with particulars under headings like ‘A Prayer When I am Happy’ and ‘A Prayer When I Feel Afraid’, and surrounded by cartoons of animals.
For six years after all the other pages were filled in, one remained empty. ‘A Prayer When Someone I Love Has Died’. Nanna died when I was 17 and I completed the page I’d saved for that special lady. It felt like an important moment.
In the meantime, I’d started filling exercise books with rhapsodic doxologies, far-fetched fantasies, complaints and to-do lists. How many books have I written in the interposing almost-eighteen years? It must be hundreds! Thousands of pages! Hundreds of thousands of words, words, words!
If the stack of 16 books here beside me – documenting 2018, 2019 and the first three months of 2020 – is a fair sample, then it’s a lot. And that’s minus the seven I made sure to see dissolve into ash before I left the country…
I’ll never know exactly how many, not that it really matters, because I burn most of them when they’re full. Two reasons: 1. I just cannot live with the anxiety that comes with imagining someone reading my mind. And 2. I cringe so hard when I read back over my stupid anger and desultory self-pity.
I’ve occasionally kept one for a little while longer if there are entries I want to revisit or type up for posterity. (Yes, that’s supposed to sound ironic.) Then I burn those, too.
Turns out Helen Garner, one of my favourite writers, also burned her earlier diaries. (Twinnies!) Everything up to 1978, when she was 36: gone. I’m glad she kept them from then on, else I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing the first volume of the excerpts she published late last year. It doesn’t matter that lots of other people also have copies, there’s something intimate and deeply privileged about reading the diary of a person you find fascinating and admirable.
I learned a lot from Helen Garner aged 36 to 45, a remarkable woman who had at that stage already endured so much pain (and inflicted a bunch), and whose expansive sense of humour and reverence for ordinary time have given back to these long, lonely days a shimmer of the enchanted.
This post is dedicated to Katrina, my friend who loves at all times, in honour of her donation to my Writers Residency campaign. She buys me notebooks to fill up then burn in fires we build together from scratch, and she took me to hear Helen speak. If you’re interested, here’s my review of Helen Garner’s Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1.