Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Me, the deleted scenes

I've just started reading Margaret Sartor's Miss American Pie, which largely consists of excerpts from her diaries starting at age 13 in 1972. It's fascinating and addictive, like salted peanuts. Sartor's entries are usually brief -- just a couple of sentences. She begins, at least, writing only for herself. The diary is a terse record of whether she rode her horse that day, and whether she feels good or bad. As she develops an interest in the opposite sex, and simultaneously (not coincidentally) has a religious experience in a charismatic youth group, the entries become more self-conscious, and sometimes quite lengthy.

In her introduction, Sartor talks about rediscovering her diaries right as she was about to turn 43. Her willingness -- her compulsion, really -- to read them appeared all of a sudden, as middle age was taking her away permanently from that person she had been.

Now, I happen to be about to turn 43 myself. And I happen to have a long-unopened box of teenage diaries in my attic. They begin in 1977, when I enter eighth grade and am assigned the task of keeping a journal by my English teacher, Mrs. Goode. And they continue religiously through my high school years, then more sporadically in college. Like Sartor, I have hauled these journals from dorm to apartment to house, through every move, without ever wanting to open them up.

And Sartor's book doesn't make me want to crack the seal on that teenage me, either. Far from it. Unlike her, my entries were long, pretentious and performative from the very start. I imagined myself writing for posterity, and I massaged my middle-class life into the breathless drama I thought it ought to be. Instead of confiding my doubts and fears in the pages of those notebooks, I pretended to be more religious than I was, more romantically victimized than I was, more rebellious and worldly than I was, more saintly and philosophical than I was. These stances frequently came into conflict, but I don't think it ever occurred to me to just try to tell the truth. Posterity -- whoever they were -- wouldn't have been interested.

Frankly, those diaries terrify me. I don't want to be confronted with my teenage self-deception. I fully expect to be mortified by my naivete combined with my insufferable moralism. Just when I've gotten something of a handle on writing well -- with some honesty, the most I can muster -- why would I want to undermine it by reviewing the long history of my failure?

I think it will be a great day when I can get those books down and find the courage to open them up. Although I know there will be entries I'll be too embarrassed -- or too concerned about others' feelings -- to make public, I'd like to post some of them. Maybe I can annotate them or have a conversation with them.

Right now, though, such a public airing of my unformed teenage self seems utterly impossible; the diaries' threat to my current self-image, believe it or not, is too strong. Although perhaps by admitting that very weakness, the ridiculous notion that I could be threatened by those youthful experiments, I can exorcise its power over me.

Perhaps.

5 comments:

Eric Grubbs said...

For me, I have a very hard time reading super-vulnerable stuff that I wrote years ago. It's solid, unchangeable documentation of one's vulnerability that's very hard to make light of. The thought of reading that stuff is scary and terrifying. I think of my blog as like a public diary, and I rarely read previous entries.

Doc Thelma said...

You're ahead of me. I so disliked the idea of revisiting my eight-grade Mrs-Good journals I threw them out when I cleaned out my room to leave for graduate school.

Not that I'd mind reading yours....

Timothy said...

I have all my teenage diaries, and I'll never throw them away. Though they are painful to read sometimes, they remind me of how much I've learned, and how I've always had a melodramatic bent and a flair for the written word. Read them, but don't ever, ever get rid of them.

God bless English teachers who assign journal keeping.

abc said...

My dad burned all my growing up diaries. He thought I gave him the go ahead. I still seethe about it.

the secret knitter said...

I never kept one, although I did make a point of saving a bunch of loose leaf Top Ten (a la David Letterman) lists I wrote in high school when my parents were purging their home before moving. I'm none too eager to read them and see how painfully unfunny they are--the same goes for old blog entries--but I felt like I ought to keep them.