Monday, October 3, 2011

Reaction to Burning the Diaries

I had planned to write about something else today, but I think this article is poignant and thought provoking. I hope that you will take the time to leave a comment to let me know your own response to it.

Read: "Burning Diaries" New York Times September 30, 2011

My reaction:

I have not saved all of my own diaries. I threw one away, but it took me years to decide to do it. It was weeded carefully.

I once returned to my alma mater and had a conversation with my advisor about this very subject. She is a well-respected art historian who specializes in women's studies. I knew that she was an avid journaler. It was early in my archives career and I was telling her about the work I do. Somehow, we got to talking about diaries and I brought the conversation to a personal level. I asked her if she ever considered who might read her diary. She told me that she didn't want anyone to read her diary. She thought it was too personal.

That conversation puzzled me and has stuck with me for a long time...

I assume that one day, someone is going to read my diaries. I have read too many stories about little sisters finding hidden diaries under the mattress. (I think that I even saw an episode about this on the "Brady Bunch.") As a young teen, I read passages professing my feelings toward a young member of the opposite sex. I was too shy to just tell him that I thought he was the coolest, so I read it to him.

As an archivist, I very much value diaries. Some of the best information about life is found in a diary. I like to think that my diaries tell a lot about me and about life during my times. I have written about wars. I have recorded my feelings about people, which sometimes very markedly changes over time. I have written about my battles with depression, infertility and cancer. I have also written about the birth of my child, falling in love with my husband and buying my first home. Like anyone's life, mine is filled with ups and downs. I want my descendants to see me as human, to understand what made me happy and sad, to be a part of the most momentous moments of my life. I hope that maybe someone will learn something from my mistakes. I hope that they will understand that my diaries do not always reveal the best parts of me.

I want my daughter to have the writings that I have been keeping since I was eleven years old. I want her to see her mother as a woman. I want her to be able to evaluate my life in context -- even in a different context from what she is accustomed to.

I am not leaving everything. The part I removed is reserved just for me. After careful thought, I came to the conclusion that it is not a vital piece of the whole story and I did not wish to share. Much like any collection, mine has been carefully considered and appraised. I couldn't conceive of consciously burning a lifetime of memories the way that the author of the New York Times article did. I feel sorry that people might think that others cannot appreciate the greater parts of an individual story without judging all of the particulars. I couldn't imagine the archives of the world without these gems of humanity.


  1. Wow, a couple thoughts come to mind. I've thought about this topic quite a bit, especially recently.

    First, many people start writing diaries as children with no ulterior motive other than it seemed like the thing to do or because someone else in their family already one. That was the case with me. I have some diaries from junior high which are now humorous to say the least.

    Second, we mature as we age both emotionally and intellectually. Suddenly the ramifications of writing diaries takes on a whole knew meaning. I think at this stage, more thoughtful consideration is given to the intention of writing rather than the method.

    Third, diaries start out as a voice for ourselves that isn't intended to be shared except for perhaps the snooping of siblings. It's the maturing process that makes us realize otherwise. At this point a person might choose to stop writing or perhaps to destroy the diaries as the writer did.

    Lastly, I went through a conscious discussion with myself about the purpose of writing and keeping a diary. Who is it for and what is it's purpose? I decided that I could write more of a memoir-style diary, the diary of a family historian, who wants the future generations to know us but doesn't need to become overly complex by forcing our ancestors to analyze the subtle nuances of our lives, emotions, passions and dreams.

    I agree with the writer completely when she says

    "I write memoirs. And I write about my life in a blog. But as I’m constantly saying to people who wonder how I can reveal so much about myself (especially as, at heart, I am a shy person), I’m not publishing my diaries. I’m not revealing so very much, when I write, that isn’t in all of us. It is kind of like the old saw about having it all. Readers never get it all. They get some of all of it. Everything I write is true. But I don’t write about everything true. I shape, I cut, I feint and dodge; I want to get to something that is uniquely mine, and at the same time ours, too."

    I completely understand where she is coming from. The ability to write and sound personal and to share but not to share all that which she was willing to burn.

    I've chosen to leave the pain and emotional truth unwritten and to leave behind an intentional document, whether a diary or a blog, that is the truth, just not too much of it.

  2. We have an interesting discussion going on about this on the "Life in Context" Facebook page. if anyone is interested browse to and see October 3rd posts

  3. I never kept a diary. I have tried, but never seemed to be consistent. I wrote short memoir-type stories, but then realized I didn't want to "publish" them because of the pain they would cause certain members of my family, so I put them away. I still have them and I honestly don't know what I will do with them, or have the kids do with them when I'm gone, because I think they are too good to destroy. And so I started a blog instead.

    Yes, Marian, the pain may be best left unwritten, but it is soothing for one's soul to put those words down on paper. And I would like for my children to know what I went through as a child. But I would rather they not share that pain with children of the offender. So maybe it's best if I leave well enough alone.

    And as far our ancestors, I would give anything to have more letters or a diary or two from a father or great-great-grandmother, wouldn't you?