Keep Your Old Journals: Maybe Even Transcribe Them

May 2, 2022 § 14 Comments

By Nina Badzin

Almost 20 years ago, I gave my future writer-self a priceless gift. Pregnant with my first child and squeamish at the vision of future kids or babysitters finding my old notebooks, I spent every night after work transcribing many journals from my teen years and 20s into a password-protected Word document.

I was thinking more about privacy than searchability at the time of this carpal tunnel-inducing-project, but what I created became the research tool and inspiration behind several dozen published personal essays in my 30s and early 40s.

The notebooks began at the end of seventh grade, and that I ever worried someone might read them is laughable. Anyone interested after more than a few lines would deserve a medal. I expressed such depth of feeling. Life was only “incredible or “the worst.” Sure, the writing was honest and raw, but it was also predictable. As I typed my old feelings into the new, secret document, I winced more than I laughed. Regrettably, I was not a young, witty David Sedaris amused at the absurdity of life.

Rereading and therefore reconsidering those pages forced me confront myself as an unreliable narrator, something true of all essayists whether we like to admit or not. Before delving into the notebooks, I remembered and represented my younger self as a serious, studious person who was above the teen angst. Turns out that in middle school and high school I was boy crazy, weight obsessed, and practically auditioning for the role of “typical teen girl,” at least as recorded by my 13-to-18-year-old self. It’s hard to deny the evidence of my calorie counts and daily reports of passing “D” at his locker.

Still, I forced my late-20s self to type out every mention of “D,” “G” then “M,” every encounter with a 1990s fat-free Snackwells cookie, and every unkind comment I wrote about a friend or family member. Those facts and feelings mattered to me once and typing them out as an adult allowed me to bring different parts of my imagined and real personas together. More to the point, it gave me so many ideas for essays! And it gave me a structure to continue journaling, even if only occasionally, which provided more material later as I took my creative writing to new topics. Now my mid-40s self can read about my mid-30s self and so on.

The best part is this: I now possess a searchable document dating from 1990 to today. It’s 200,000 words of nonsense with bits of important (to me) truths woven throughout. I’ve used the search function many times for reasons large and small. When my dad passed away in December, I searched “dad” and found moments I would never have remembered otherwise, stories and thoughts not captured in photographs. Those details helped me write his eulogy and remember what he was like before several decades of Parkinson’s changed so much about how he lived. I’ve looked up petty, decades-old incidents with friends to help me with my current friendship advice column and podcast. The document is a treasure and the search tool, a technological wonder.

This unwieldy document hardly needs a password, but now with four kids, and I assume one day, some grandchildren to consider, I’m going to keep it locked. In case one of them can scroll through the pages to find the juicy parts, because no, it’s not all dreadfully boring, I’m going to save us all the embarrassment.

Three Important Tips for Transcribing Your Old Journals:

  1. No editing: I fixed egregious spelling errors because Word would scream at me with red lines if I didn’t. But I recommend not editing for content.
  2. Keep a side document with all the ideas this process inspires. While typing my old thoughts into this fresh document, my grownup mind had so much to say. I jotted those ideas into journal entires with the current dates, creating future material for years.
  3. Use the document to keep the journal going. Even if you only use it a few times a year, your future self will be grateful for your past thoughts.

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Nina Badzin is a freelance writer and a creative writing instructor at ModernWell in Minneapolis. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Brain, Child Magazine, Kveller, Modern Loss, Moment Magazine, MotherWell, On Being, The Sunlight Press, The Wisdom Daily, The Woven Tale Press, and elsewhere. Find her podcast Dear Nina: Conversations About Friendship, anywhere you listen to podcasts. She writes regularly about friendship, books, and more at ninabadzin.com and tweets @NinaBadzin.

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