archives of the self

Diaries are pretty standard fare for young people, from childhood into early adulthood.

The hardy writers continue their journaling practice, and if they later become famous writers, their journals too are published. I have the five volumes of L.M. Montgomery’s Selected Journals (initially denied funding because of the ‘second rate’ status and “limited appeal” [Rubio, 52] of their author, and then first published in a small print run  because the publisher wasn’t fully convinced by their value, but still in print almost 30 years later), Vera Brittain’s Chronicle of Youth: The Wary Diary, 1913-1917, and excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s journals on my bookshelves. I’ve also read parts of Frida Kahlo’s diary and many others besides. And I spent three years reading Suzanne Necker’s Mélanges and Nouveaux Mélanges, which feature maxims, scraps of writing, thoughts, essays and letters culled from her extensive private writings and published posthumously by her husband.

Other writers draw on their journals when they write memoirs. Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World, Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir (to name a few on my own bookshelf) could not possibly have been written without the help of extensive journaling. The details are too vivid, too clearly painted, and too many to have been carefully stored in memory banks.

But most of us drop our early forays into the intimate life of the self. The allure of the book with a lock and key gives way to the reality of a daily writing practice. Perhaps we lose the key. Or perhaps the paper doesn’t feel quite right. Or maybe we discover the dreariness of the everyday. And suddenly, the romance is over.

I’ve gone through various phases of diary writing. After the early journals that marked my childhood and teenage years, I took a break but returned to my practice with a vengeance into my 20s and 30s. Another break followed and now I’m back at it. The question I never quite sorted out was: “What do I do with all of this stuff?” There’s something romantic about reading that a writer stored all their journals – each written in exactly the same kind of notebook, of course – on a special shelf, the volumes accumulating over years.

But most lives are much less organized than this.

I suspect that my approach – journals spread in various boxes in at least two locations (my own basement and my parents’ house in another province) – is actually pretty common. Over the Christmas break, I brought my journals home, and now, for the first time in over twenty-five years, all of my journals are in one place. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with them yet, and maybe I won’t do anything at all and maybe they’ll all end up in a Rubbermaid bin (so much more prosaic than a special bookshelf…).

It takes a special family to care for an individual’s journals after they themselves are gone. A colleague here in St. John’s wrote her thesis on a writer named Phebe Florence Miller. She based her work on Miller’s journals, which had just been donated to Archives and Special Collections here at Memorial University by one of her descendants. Just before she was ready to submit her thesis, she thought she’d return to Newfoundland to check on the original sources one more time. Lo and behold, the collection had grown as Miller’s descendant had found another several boxes of journals! Her research quickly expanded into a post-doc.

In France, autobiography scholar Philippe Lejeune created the Association pour l’autobiographie et le patrimoine autobiographique. This organization collects journals, diaries and other intimate writings for the sole purpose of creating a substantive French “autobiographical heritage.” These are the writings of everyday individuals. Some wrote just three pages. Some wrote volumes. Some were adults. Some were children. Some men. Some women. But all of them spent some time writing about themselves: their thoughts, their hopes, their fears, their daily lives. And together, these writings offer insight into a huge diversity of voices and experiences and stand as a testament to the relevance of personal writing to understanding not only individual lives, but the society in which they lived. Dreary accounts of the everyday some of them may be, but they are all valuable documents nonetheless.

I don’t know yet what my early journals will reveal. A quick look at 1986 revealed that a friend I met in England at a flute workshop went to school with Mick Jagger’s daughter (at an elite school in the south of England). It also revealed the typical angst of teenage years. But that’s about as far as I’ve got. Perhaps reading them can be a new year’s resolution?



Rubio, Mary. “‘A Dusting Off’: An Anecdotal Account of Editing the L.M. Montgomery Journals.” Working in Women’s Archives: Researching Women’s Private Literature and Archival Documents. Eds. Helen M. Buss and Marlene Kadar. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2001. 51-78. Print.


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