On Keeping a Journal, and the Act of Forgetting
September 12, 2022 § 12 Comments
By Eunice Tiptree
“It’s important that you remember everything.”
I heard the commandment as I bee-lined for the living room. The voice came from my head, yet seemed to speak from the air. I was eight- or nine-years old.
I may have paused a second, but I did not wonder at the statement or ask myself why was so important to remember. I went on my way — the Flintstones were coming on.
The commandment only survived as a curiosity. It did not influence my course in life. Yet looking back through the tunnel of three-score years, I see I have striven to remember everything. By remember, I mean by writing in a daily journal begun the day I turned 21.
I’ve kept that journal for 47 years, a means of talking to myself through time. As if the journal wasn’t enough, I later started outlining daily events in a datebook, useful as an index to the journal and as a quick overview of my journey through the months.
I pictured my inner self as some medieval scribe in a tower ringed by windows. The scribe follows the clock of the sun from window to window for the light to write, window to window through the arc of the day and the swing of the seasons.
It’s all there, births and deaths, my career as a journalist, at first on a small-town newspaper, later developing a magazine on the space program. And it’s also there, hidden and sometimes glimpsed, submerging again and finally surfacing, decades of gender confusion that preceded my journey from male to female beginning in 2010.
After completing my transition, I thought myself a natural to write a memoir of my experience. I went over every journal entry for the two years that culminated with surgery. From the bible of my journal, I made detailed notes about each small step, lifted extended quotes, charted events to the exact day. I filled three notebooks with artifacts, an undigested digest of my transition. And began to write . . .
And write. And write.
I became trapped in what came next. Call it “Then-ism,” as in: and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened. A slow, turgid stream of “and then.”
Surprise, the entire work fell apart. I found myself lost in a swamp of 140,000 words.
I’d ignored something I learned studying at the Kenyon Review Writing Workshops with Rebecca McClanahan and Dinty W. Moore: Autobiography attempts to include most of a life; memoir attempts to exclude most of a life. And, the bigger the subject, the smaller the keyhole through which you want to enter it.
A keyhole? I’d left the barn doors wide open, the silo stuffed with more mementoes than a hoarder.
I should have known better from my own experience long ago as a beginning newspaper reporter. In those days I lugged around a bulky cassette tape recorder at the ready for interviews. One time doing a feature, the tape failed. I didn’t discover it until afterwards. Forced to write the story from memory, I discovered the important points and quotes remained lodged in my mind. I didn’t need the tape. After that, I gained the confidence to trust myself — that the important stuff sticks.
Details form a seductive trap, especially when you have them all before you, in bright colors like a jar of jellybeans. Who can stop at one or even a handful?
I still have a hard time weaning myself off the sugar high. I’ll open the journals. But only to refresh my memory. I’ll go for a walk, away from temptation. As I stride along without the crutch of my journals, the bulk of details fall away, which opens space for the truly important scenes to surface. I see new relationships, connections, and hidden meanings. I see something come alive. All the while getting some good exercise.
Remember everything? Why listen to an eight-year-old? Forget everything. That’s the only way to begin to remember. Let your memory roam the seas, not get trapped against the rocks.
I’m nearing the completion of a new memoir, less than half the length of the old one and much stronger — at least a little voice tells me so.
Eunice Tiptree’s essays have been published in Brevity, Crack the Spine, Weave, Older Queer Voices and elsewhere. Her poetry has been published in The Kenyon Review and elsewhere. She writes a blog about the space program at TLI-Tiptree.com.
And then… metamorphosis & intertwining stories. Looking forward to reading.
I really like the word metamorphosis. Very true!
Beautifully said, Eunice. I have a huge carton of diaries from age ten on. I have a love-hate relationship with them. They reveal a certain curated truth, maybe, but not “the” truth, if you know what I mean. Glad to see you here–we were in Rebecca’s KRWW class in 2011! Best of luck with your memoir (go for it)!
A “love-hate relationship with them” — I know the feeling! Glad to “see” you, too! It was a good class in 2011.
Very useful essay! Then-ism is a powerful concept.
So glad you found it useful!
I enjoyed this essay. Thank you for “then-ism”, so descriptive! I keep a Daily Log rather than a journal and I find it helpful in, literally, logging the days’ distinctions big and small. When I look back over the volumes, I see the evolution of my identity rather than a map of my life. Or maybe those are the same; regardless, a daily entry keeps me alive to what’s happening inside and outside of me.
My datebook serves as a daily log — giving “the evolution of my identity.” That’s a good way to put it!
“Autobiography attempts to include most of a life; memoir attempts to exclude most of a life.” Brilliant. Sometime I’m going to want to quote you on this, so I’m asking permission now 🙂
Feel free, but give Rebecca McClanahan credit — I heard it in one of her workshops at Kenyon College.
This was a lovely read. Thanks for sharing your writing experiences with us!