Are Journals Memoir?
March 10, 2021 § 19 Comments
By Rasma Haidri
On Twitter yesterday I saw someone ask if he can call himself a memoirist because he keeps journals. No, I wanted to say, but didn’t. I resist engaging in social media conversations with strangers (although I’m told that is the point of social media). Nothing proves Goethe’s adage, “The spoken word comes not back,” better than Twitter where every utterance is carved in cyberstone. What if I changed my mind? What if I got trolled? Anyway, he wasn’t asking me. And besides, what do I know?
I know that the word mémoire is French for memory and what we write in journals is not memory. It is the present preserved. We write in journals to explore, confess, deny, blame, examine, discuss. We write in journals so our thoughts are not—what’s the saying—lost to memory? Even when writing about something remembered, it is the present moment of remembering that we record in the journal.
“This is not a book,” wrote the painter Paul Gauguin in the first line of his journal. Rightly so. A journal is private interior writing that we do for many reasons, none of which is public consumption. A memoir, on the other hand, is a book. We write them to be read by the world at large. Even an unread, unpublished memoir is a book rather than a journal, because it is a rendering, a creation, a work. Even published diaries, like those of Anaïs Nin, or Gauguin for that matter, are works someone has annotated and edited, transformed from journal to book.
I am writing a memoir based on my mother’s private personal writings that she left unsorted in a box. That box has made me a memoirist. As memoirist I am a thief, stealing my mother’s private thoughts in order to imagine and construct her life. As memoirist I am a Dr. Frankenstein, awake at all hours frenziedly piecing dead fragments into a living whole. It is dark and bloody work. It is a scream in a frozen field where I unveil the body and behold a chimera. I think it’s my mother, but it’s me. The memoirist is not the writer of the journals. She is the one who exhumes them from a box, dissects the body, inspects the archeological find, and renders from the amalgated past a memoir.
All writing is hard work, and the memoirist’s work is among the hardest. Journaling, whether stuttered fragments or flowing spontaneous prose, is among the easiest as it doesn’t have to do anything or go anywhere or impress anyone. No one is going to read it. Journals are where we record the raw material for memoir. The journal narrates ideas, dreams and struggles in a context we are now far removed from. The journal’s narrator always predates who we think we are today.
Some years ago, my daughter told me that if the house burns, I must hurl my several dozen personal journals out the window. She wants to read them when I’m gone. I asked her what she thought she’d find there. She said, “A young woman I never knew.” I told her she can ask me anything now, no taboos. My mother allowed no personal questions, but I am determined to be the opposite. I told my daughter I will answer any question openly and honestly. She said, “I know.” She doesn’t ask. She has no questions.
I wonder if I’m wrong about my mother not allowing personal questions. In my honest moments I must ask myself: is it possible I just didn’t pose any? Perhaps a mother must die before her daughter realizes that the person she knew is only part of the woman who was her mother. Only when the mother is gone do the questions the daughter never asked begin to form. They are the beginning of memoir writing.
I haven’t decided if I will leave my journals for my daughter. Is it enough that she knows what she knows? How will all that spontaneously written rubbish in my journals distort her understanding of me? I am a writer of poems and memoir. I render the stuff of my life into literary works and offer them to my daughter to read. She hasn’t gotten around to reading much. Not yet. And she has a plan to find me in my old journals.
I might die, as my mother did, before I have decided what I want to do with my boxes of personal writing. If they do end up in my daughter’s hands, she will discover that the work of understanding her mother’s journals is the work of memoir, which ultimately requires a reconciliation between what is written there and what is already known, and what is unknowable.
The memoirist depends on journals for answers to questions that were never answered or asked. Whether it is one’s own journal or someone else’s, the journal once written serves the same purpose: to illuminate the past and inform the present. That’s what I’ll tell the man on Twitter. If I find him. Journals don’t make you a memoirist. Your journey through them exploring the past will.
Rasma Haidri writes in a pinewood room on an island off the coast of Norway. She is the author of the poetry collection As If Anything Can Happen, and is at work on her MFA thesis, a memoir about her mother’s box. Visit her at www.rasma.org.