Should I Toss My Embarrassing Journals?

Dear ‘Lena,
I’m fourteen, and I’ve been keeping a diary since second grade. Recently my mom told me to go through everything in my room and throw out whatever didn’t make me feel “joyful” (her word–weird I know). I started reading my old diaries, and was horrified to find that the writing is truly horrible. The middle school ones are the worst, all about crushes on guys I can’t stand now, and girls being mean. I want to be a writer, so this was really depressing. I kind of want to get rid of my diaries and start over. It’s not like I expect biographers to come knocking, but if they did, I would NOT want them to see anything in this “early work.” Is there any reason to keep them?

-Not Anne Frank

Dear NAF,

First off, don’t be so hard on yourself. A diary is meant to be a place to write without censoring yourself, to vent and muse, record observations and feelings. It doesn’t have to be literature.

By her use of the word “joyful,” I suspect your mom read a book by this Japanese organizer who promises that a life without clutter will be more serene. She might be right—but you’re fourteen. You’re supposed to have a messy bedroom and record your crushes in a diary with a teeny lock that doesn’t work, resulting in your “friend” reading it after you fall asleep one night during a slumber party, and spreading the stories of your unreciprocated crushes all around middle school.

Oh wait, that’s me I’m writing about. I too kept a diary, and the writing in it was truly awful. I know this for a fact because my own mother recently moved to a new house and sent me my old diaries. While I wasn’t thrilled by their (sub)literary quality, it was interesting to see these records of my bygone thoughts and feelings—like rough drafts for the person I am now.

And while most writers would probably shudder at the thought of their journal being published, a writer’s journal is the mine from which we dig up treasures that make our real writing sparkle. In Sparked, the mom has a boyfriend who wears skull rings, and he likes to squeeze his fist to admire them. I got that detail when sitting next to a menacing guy on a bus who was doing just that, and I remembered it because I jotted it in a notebook.

Your journal can also help your writing in another way–by giving you insight into how we feel at different ages. Let’s say you wanted to write about a nine year-old. You could go back and read your diary from third grade, to remind yourself of what mattered to you back then. Remember how you pined for the friendship of that one popular girl so much so that you gave her the crepe paper flower you were supposed to make for your mom for Mothers’ Day, and when she took it from you she looked at it blankly and said, “What am I supposed to do with this,” before throwing it away?

 

Oh wait, that’s me again. That was humiliating at the time, but maybe I’ll use that detail some day. Or maybe I won’t–that’s OK too. Writing a journal trains you to observe other people, to remember details and dialog. So throw out your old stuffies, if you must. Get rid of board games with missing pieces. But keep your journals–yes, even the middle school ones.

Warmly,
‘Lena

Do I Need to Write Every Day?

Hi,

I really want to be a writer, and I love to write, but I heard that if you want to do it for a living and get good, you need to write every day. I don’t always have time to write every day, and I worry that I don’t have enough to write about. Do you think that it’s essential to write daily? How often do you write?

– Wrist Cramps

Dear Wrist Cramps,

Writing is like working out—you don’t have to do it every day but you do have to do it regularly. That means you don’t sit around and wait until you feel like writing, because that will probably never happen—any more than you will just feel like putting on your running shoes and going for a 5-mile jog. (Congratulations if you are the kind of person who can’t wait to lace up her running shoes, but you are not normal.)

The key to getting fit—and to becoming a writer—is to put it on your schedule. I mean this literally: put it on your Google calendar. Set a reminder on your phone. Write it in your diary if you are an analog person. When and how often? There’s no one-size-fits all answer. Maybe you like to write when the house is quiet, so you write four times a week from 6-7 AM. Maybe your imagination is most active in the evening, so you put in a couple of hours between 8-10 PM.

Whatever your schedule, if you’ve already made the decision to write, then you don’t have to use your willpower to psych yourself up every time you write. It’s a habit. You just do it, the same way your CrossFit sessions or cook dinner or take out the compost.

You may be wondering why I am comparing penning the Great American Novel to dumping out a container full of banana peels, globs of oatmeal and other gunk. It’s because writing isn’t always fun. In fact, it can be downright unsatisfying and unpleasant. But if you’re a real writer, you just sit down and do it, even when you would rather lick the bottom of that compost container than pound out another word.

But here’s the good news. You know the “runner’s high”? Writers get a writer’s high: you enter the magical world of your own creation and everything else falls away. I call it being in “the Vortex” and it’s one of the best feelings there is. You won’t get that high the first few times. You have to put the practice in. And then one day you’ll realize that you’ve written far past your allotted time and your bedroom is a mess and you haven’t had a shower for three days and your last two meals have been stale tortilla chips eaten out of the bag. Congratulations: you are a writer.

Warmly,
‘lena