When I started to write in a journal as a kid, my mother gave me one piece of advice: ‘Whatever you do, don’t throw them out. I threw them out and I’ve regretted it ever since.’
This seems to be a common refrain amongst the journaling community and especially for memoir writers. Don’t throw out your journals—they are tiny pieces of you. They are the raw materials for whatever autobiography you may want to write later. This seems like solid advice. On the surface, it is. For years, I clung to my journals without understanding why, but in the end, it felt much better to throw them away entirely.
When I was fifteen, I was hospitalized for anorexia nervosa. I weighed 85 pounds and had a heart-rate in the low 40s. Though I was convinced I was fine, everyone else treated me like I was on death’s door. One day, as my mother sat by my bed, she handed me the notebook I had been journaling in since I was ten. ‘When you’re out of this, your journals can be a memoir. A success story. I will even help you transcribe them.’
Suddenly, my time in the hospital took on new meaning. Since I was forbidden from getting up due to my condition, I could really only read and write. I soon filled one coil notebook and started another one. When I was moved from an inpatient to a day program, I worked on completing another and then another. I ignored margins and filled the entire page with my scrawl: about the doctors, the counselors, how I thought I had gotten into this situation, and how I was going to get out of it. My journals were going to become the next Wasted by Marya Hornbacher or Go Ask Alice (with a happy ending, though, of course).
Though I never did manifest those dreams about publication, I did get out of the hospital and my recovery story was featured on a reality TV show. I’ve looked for it but the episode is nearly impossible to find now, since it was for a Canadian station and only half of a longer episode. My journals were part of the story. A camera focused up tight on my hypergraphia, blurring out the swear words I had used. In the show, I claimed that my journals, along with writing as a whole, helped me to get better. And it was true, in a way. In that moment, I became the success story my mother wanted. Every year since then, I filled another coil-bound notebook and added it to a box in my closet. In over a decade of writing, I amassed quite a few.
So why, some people have asked me, did I throw out a chunk of these journals earlier this year?
The answer is quite simple: I wanted to let go.
My mother’s advice was based on her own feelings of regret. She regretted throwing out her writing—but beyond that, she regretted ceasing to write in the first place. She had stopped journaling because my father had read what she’d written; before that, her mother had also read her private thoughts. Her trust had been violated. She regretted throwing out her journals because she felt shame at being taken advantage of and she regretted her response to these violations, to an abuse pattern that hadn’t quite healed.
In other words, it was never about the journals at all.
I’ve seen many similar stories in which the same type of shame is expressed. People regret throwing out their journals because it was not their decision. Like my mother, a trusted person violated their privacy, or someone they cared about told them to stop writing or told them their thoughts were pointless. Even the more quotidian explanations—a flood destroyed the journals, they were lost in a move, or thrown out accidentally—can still result in a feeling of betrayal. We want to keep our journals because they become the symbol of us, of our voices and our life experiences.
When I watched the tape of my journals shown on TV, I felt that same regret. I had been institutionalized. I had been treated by doctors—and oftentimes mistreated by them. Eating disorders are strange illnesses: they affect your thoughts—and thus the words you put on the page—and also how people treat you because they perceive you as sick in both body and in mind. When I looked at my journals again, decades later, I was reminded of these two things over and over. My strained prose was evidence of the intrusive thoughts I’d once had, and the description of how my appointments went reminded me how poorly some people treated me. I didn’t regret writing it down because it allowed me to process those feelings of violation, pain, and despair as they occurred—but reading them over and over again only seemed to amplify those negative emotions.
The moment I decided to throw out my journals, a sense of relief washed over me. I could let go. It didn’t erase what had happened, but it gave me distance from it. I was able to take these objects detailing my disorder, and throw them out. By doing so, I gave myself the space—and permission—to try and heal.
By getting rid of them, I also defied what I had once considered solid writing advice. I’ve occasionally experienced pangs of regret, especially when I’ve wanted to verify something that happened by using a journal entry. But these moments pass. I stop and remember that those journals were merely one facet of my voice, not my actual voice. I still have a voice now, even without that link to the past, and I can still speak about my experiences without dragging decades and decades of journals behind me because they will inevitably slow me down.
Letting go does not mean forgetting. I think so many of us hang onto journals, notes, or other random scraps of paper because we think we will forget who we are without them.
But we won’t. I trust that. In the end, our voices are far stronger than the paper and pen we once used to find them in the first place. For creative nonfiction writers especially, I believe our writing will only improve with space for healing.
Note: The opinions expressed by guest bloggers at the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable.
Evelyn Deshane’s creative and nonfiction work has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, and Bitch Magazine, among other publications. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Waterloo. Evelyn’s most recent project #Trans is an edited collection about transgender and nonbinary identity online. Visit evedeshane.