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.


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