In favor of diaries -- or am I?

MY diaries often get me down. An enormous weight of them sits on the shelf, and I'm only 33. They beckon to me, saying, ``Read me.'' But I know if I succumb, I'll be disappointed. I want to repossess the moments they record. Or I want them to tell me I should have no regrets, and that there were no wasted minutes or bad decisions. Impossibilities. Rereading them is often unpleasant, not only because of the content, but because the language itself is loose, the thoughts sometimes sloppy and usually unfinished. Some diaries, unlike life -- even unlike the lives they record -- are genuinely artful. But these, the published ones, have been edited. Mine are not.

And yet I can't stop writing. This is a red-shoe-like pen.

I don't remember if I was given my first diary outright, or if I asked for it. But I do recall that it came on a Christmas morning when I was 8. This past Christmas, I watched a nine-year-old open her gift of a diary, one she had requested. Immediately she sat down to write in a big comfortable chair. Later I asked her to go for a walk in the snow. No. She was too busy writing.

The little girl's diary did not lock. I remember my first one did. I was intrigued by that, and by the permanence of the sewn-in pages. There was to be no tearing out of these lockable words.

I think that the sewn-in pages are a good idea, for I've done some volumes in loose-leaf, and I've found that it's too easy to toss pages away if in later years your thoughts look tawdry or weak. Or contradict what you're saying today. Or if you see that the lofty promises you made to yourself were speedily broken.

But I sound as if I'm in favor of diary-writing and -keeping. Am I?

Delacroix says a day unrecorded is like a day not really lived. Even Dale Carnegie recommends writing down your worries. But I think I shouldn't write another word in a journal. The somber shelf of gray and black over there frightens me a little. It's somewhat like a voluminous obituary notice, ready and waiting. I know they will outlast me.

There are other pitfalls, too. There was my mother's stealthy, regular reading ofthem, when I was a young girl living at home -- or so I imagined she read them. My older sister was a regular reader for sure. Facetiously she corrected my spelling.

What is more, memory is often affected by diary-keeping. Things a memory might wisely choose to forget are documented in black and white. I'm not free to fictionalize my past, especially past mistakes. There are these books to remind me, to hold a mirror up and show me my true self.

Journal-writing also made me secretive. What I couldn't find the speech for, in my shyness, I wrote down. Ironically words and my recognition of their power made me ``uncommunicative,'' as they used to say at family dinner tables everywhere (and still do).

I can think of a benefit. I used my earliest diaries as a kind of self-improvement goad. The girlhood journals are filled with the kind of admonitions the fictional Jay Gatsby wrote into the back of a book his father discovered after the Great Gatsby's death. The son had written them into the book when he was Jimmy Gatz: ``General Resolves: . . . Read one improving book or magazine per week . . . Be better to parents.''

In South African playwright Athol Fugard's ``A Lesson from Aloes,'' his character Gladys Bezuidenhout likewise uses her diary-writing for personal edification.

``They weren't just laundry lists, you know,'' she tells her husband. ``There were very intimate and personal things in those diaries, things a woman only talks about to herself. Even then it took me a lot of trust and courage to do that. I know I never had much of either, but I was trying.''

Gladys is speaking about her diaries in the past tense, because the police had taken them away in a raid on her and her husband's home. They were looking for political materials and found her diaries instead.

Here is another, subtler kind of violation. Two summers ago, I was told of the unfortunate act of another diary-keeper, and I've been mulling it over ever since. This woman, approaching 60, asked her children, one by one, if they would like to have her journals of 10 or 15 years. None of them did. Dejected, she destroyed them.

If I don't value journal-writing in all its chaotic codedness, so unsuitable for framing, why do this woman's act and her children's -- so lacking in sensitivity or even simple curiosity -- bother me so?

Finally I must admit that journals, for all their clumsiness, their artlessness, are only letters to yourself, yes, but they are also something much more. I would call them, for better or worse, the shorthand of the soul.

Recently, in a Newburyport, Mass., antique shop, I found a little boy's diary. I bought it for $2.50. He only kept it for three weeks, and there was only room each day for him to pen a brief note. ``Sat., Jan. 10, 1925: Music lesson. Roller skated until Mother and Ev came home from town. Skated on El Pond in P.M. Walked down town & met Dad at night.''

I wish he'd kept it up.

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