What Do You Do With Your Journals?

Bookcover for the Unfinished Works of Elizabeth D. by Nichole BernierI just finished The Unfinished work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier. In the book, Elizabeth and Kate met through a playgroup and stayed friends even when Kate and her husband moved to Washington D.C. When Elizabeth is killed unexpectedly in a plane crash, Kate learns Elizabeth bequeathed her journals to Kate. “I’m leaving them to her because she’s fair and sensitive and would know what should be done with them and ask that she start at the beginning. I’ll come soon to drop of a letter for that should go with it.” The letter never gets dropped off.

I enjoyed the book immensely, but a review is not the intention of this post. Elizabeth’s journals are a key element of the story. Kate is overwhelmed with the task of determining their fate. As you would expect of a journal, the content is brutally honest and not always the most complimentary of those Elizabeth writes about including herself. While not entirely negative, they reveal a much different person, a more complete person than Kate knew.

I journal, it is an activity started as an angsty teen, but only sporadically completed. Journaling didn’t become a habit until my mid-twenties when I read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and started writing morning pages. I still have most if not all of the journals I’ve finished.  Frankly most of it is rubbish. narcissistic drivel, a daily emptying of the garbage can in my brain. There are some entries worth keeping. Underneath the to-do lists and the free writing, there is a chronicle of my life, one telling of my story you will.  Like Elizabeth, I am not always complimentary of those in my life or myself.  Sometimes those pages are just an out and out bitch fest.

The Unfinished Works of Elizabeth D., resonated with me in many ways, it posed some interesting questions about relationships and friendships, but for me it brought up the age old question of what do to with my journals.

Should I die before my husband, I really don’t think he would have any interest in reading them.  Would my kids want them? Would they gain anything by reading them? I think I’m an open book, but but reading my journals they would learn the gritty details of my relationships with them, their father, my own parents and various acquaintances and dear friends.

I’ve never gone back and read them. Should I? I’m not the type of person who says “Gee, I wish I could be twenty again. There are specific events I wouldn’t mind living again and of course there are some I’d prefer to never remember.

Hmmm, perhaps a huge bond fire is in order.

Do you journal?  What do you do with the books once you’ve filled them? I don’t have a good solution to this. I’m very interested in hearing how other’s handle their journals.

Lee Laughlin is a writer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com. Her words have appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe.

34 thoughts on “What Do You Do With Your Journals?

  1. I have always told my kids and the young kids I work with… your life is a book and everyday, you write another page… I give journals as gifts a lot with that message attached. Even if they never write in them…. it is a nice gesture I think. I actually lived my words… when I found a journal I had started before my son was born. He is 32 now. There were many entries in it talking about his baby years and my failing marriage… many prayers etc… and then my daughter was born…and I spent a few more years talking about her baby years and the cute things they would say and again… praying for my struggling marriage… and I began writing in it again… later I lost it and refound it during my divorce and then meeting my husband…Recently I found it again a few years ago and began writing in it again. It Literally was my “Life Book” everyday, every year, I wrote another page… it made me realize… our journals are amazing accounts of our life… some things I would not want my kids to read. My mother in law has instructed that her journals all be burned! I don’t think I would ever want my burned.
    Great Blog and question!!!

  2. Fantastic question. I have some of my mother’s journals. A lot of it is her adventures in Israel as a missionary, but I read one entry that really threw me off, and I’ve never dared go back to them since. Apparently, she believed I was going to die soon, the same year she ended up dying herself (1999). God told her this, according to the entry, yet she never have me any indication she felt that way. I don’t even know how to deal with that information; it made me feel substantially more distant from her. I write in my journals almost specifically for whoever I leave behind, and I remember to leave something that will add to their sense of heritage, not make them wonder if their dad was some kind of religious nutter.

    If those journals are your brain dump, I would suggest going back and gleening carefully, if your intentions are to pass them down someday and then letting fire take the rest.

  3. I love this post and I look forward to reading The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. ~ I’ve heard a lot of great things about this book. I have always kept a journal. Once filled, they go into a box and periodically I’ll pull them out to read, it usually lifts my spirts. I wish I’d been more consistent as some of my journals go months without an entry, but that has changed over the years.

  4. I love this. I can’t wait to read The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. Though I kept many journals when I was very young, my “journal” now is essentially my blog. Truthfully, I think I like it better that way since blogging creates such a supporting community, which is something I’ve needed for quite some time.

  5. This is a really interesting blog post and has definitely got me interested in the book. I have kept a journal almost consistently since I was about 10-11 years old and I’ve only destroyed one of them. I really have no idea what to do with them when I’m gone, if I keep it up then I’ll have 100s by the time I’m old! I always think it would be such a waste to destroy them but perhaps it would be nice for a grandchild to have ones from my teenage and young adult years to learn about me from a new angle. I know I would love to read my grandparent’s journal from this period of their lives, if they’d kept one.

    Love Katie x

  6. I’m a sporadic journaler (is that even a word?). I have a couple journals from my army days (17 years ago) and I’ve found they provide a good resource creating fictional characters or situations for my stories. A lot of the thoughts are obscure or random, or just so personal that I don’t think anyone would get anything out of them, but turning them into fiction is fun.

  7. I’ve been journaling non-stop since I was 12, and I still have all of (completed) journals. Most are in a box in my closet, while some are on my bookshelf (I live alone). I haven’t felt the need to read them, mainly because there are some really dark entries I’ve made over the years. But even though I won’t read them, I’m not ready to throw them away. I think what I’ll do is write in my will that when I die, I’ll ask whoever I trust most to burn my journals. Or, maybe I’ll start removing those specific entries, put them in a box and have them burned when I die. This way, the good moments in my life will be remembered once I’m gone, not the unhappy ones.

  8. I have never managed to continue a diary beyond a couple of months, which is why I’ve always been so shy of getting involved in blogging – it’s like a commitment. I’m just as fascinated by single letters that are found by people in odd places as I am by someone’s diary – Both are very provocative.

  9. In a class I took at uni our tutor told us to write down everything, because one day it could be useful information for a book – keep price stubs for bus journeys and cinema tickets, as in 40 years time you will not remember how much it cost etc.
    Personally I dont do that. I have one journal I began when i was pregnant and in which I update, very occasionally, feelings and important information about the family or the kids – more when they were babies so they know how small they were, how much they weighed, when they first walked etc. I began it, rather depressingly, as I was overtaken by new mother panic and wanted them to have some words of mine in case anything happened to me.
    I have no idea what I will do with it – maybe give it to my daughter when she is pregnant, or when she first tells me how much she hates me, so she can see how much I love her anyway 🙂

  10. My friend and I have discussed this before and both decided that we would leave them to each other. Our husbands [and her kids] wouldn’t understand that things written in there were simply how we felt at that specific moment, and didn’t define how we felt about our lives and relationships as a whole. The instructions are: she [or I] may read every single word if we choose. But once we are finished, we are to burn them, every single inch of them. So that no one else can read them. 🙂

  11. Lee, thank you for your kind words about my novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, but more importantly for your thoughtful words about keeping a journal. I I’ve kept a journal most of my life, and my method of accessing my main character was to write out a life in hers — literally, hundreds of pages spanning decades. Then to write the novel and the plot that would be its backbone, I threw away the vast majority of those journal pages.

    For exactly the reason you mention: Much of daily writing is simple catharsis, the minutiae of irritations and hopes and what we chose to wear. The reader didn’t know all that, in the same way I don’t think those we leave behind need or want to see all that. But I needed to know it in order to write her convincingly, and to show — rather than explain — why she might have evolved into the mysterious person she became.

    Thanks again for the lovely post!

  12. I have a box of journals from when I was a kid. I’m leaning toward the bonfire … maybe, after going through them one more time. I just don’t know what anyone else would want with them. AND, I think I might like to keep some of those details to myself now. Nothing too interesting in there, just what I was thinking when I was 12. Silly?

  13. Well, I’m just 17 but I’ve been keeping a journal since I was 13 years old. Although the things I wrote back then are childish and silly, I keep them because when I write and hopefully publish my first book, I’m sure the material from my journals will give me some great ideas!

  14. I was just wondering this same thing myself yesterday. What happens to all of my writing when I die? We learn a lot about the true lives of famous dead people from their journals…. I think I will just leave them on my shelf and if someone takes it upon themselves to read them, then cool, if not, then cool :-). What a neat autobiography though, right? There is no fluffing or changing events when you journal.

  15. Thought-provoking question…and one I’ve asked myself a couple times. I, too, have been doing daily pages since being introduced to Julia Cameron. Have accumulated a couple boxes of notebooks now – just can’t destroy them. Keep telling myself some day I’ll find the time to go back and glean story ideas like Nat Goldberg suggests…well, maybe. I think I’ll leave a note that they be given to my eldest granddaughter who also is a writer.

  16. I don’t keep personal journals, but I do have a journal for each of my children in which I sporadically jot down thoughts for them. Some entries are advice I’d like to share with them when they are older, others are a few lines regarding something memorable they’ve done.

    As a newbie blogger, I have definitely considered my blog to be somewhat of a cyber journal of sorts. Some of my entries may be a glimpse into my sense of humor while most are personal stories. I hope my loved ones go back and read and re-read my blog after I’m gone if they ever need to feel a tiny bit closer to me.

    Great post. Thank you for sharing.

  17. Someone I barely know brought me a deceased pilot’s logbook, thinking i would know what to do with it. For the pilot, this was a record of his life, of high adventure with the stick and throttle in his hands. For everyone else, it’s gibberish. Burn ’em. Leave behind a record of acts of love and kindness in the lives of others.

  18. Seeing as how a lot of writing is going into cyberspace these days, real journals will probably become both rarer and more valuable. I think that it’s amazing to be able to get to know someone on that personal, visceral level, especially a family member that maybe you never knew (well) to begin with.

    I know damn well that probably noone would want to wade through my own ‘narcissistic drivel’ (I love that description!) but I also know that there are parts worth keeping. It is a nice idea to keep one or two or compile a scrapbook of some sort keeping the good stuff.

  19. My work with a client gave me perspective on this question, perspective I’ve shared with others since then. I’m guessing her age at mid 60’s-70. She’d written journals her whole life with much self exploration, therapy, etc. She would use different books for two different purposes. There were journals she decided to burn so that nobody would ever read them – more about inner, very private turmoil as she worked through her issues over the years. They’d served their purpose. Another set of journals were still emotional but as she said, she’d be okay if her children felt like reading them. She planned to select a few of the more interesting ones to share as well.

  20. Thank you for your thoughtful and instigating question. After an artist friend discussed our unsorted work in boxes–their likely, someday, curbside fate, I gathered a heap of handwritten journals and began editing–checking off selections as I typed and organized them into related parts, then integrating them with other writings already in my computer or (as good as lost in a box) on external drives. It was quite a salvaging operation. It’s now an edited collection of sections related by theme, and approachable, though still unpolished, on SD card.

    My next project was to recover poetry and related prose, some from typewriter days that had never been transcribed into my word processor, and some from handwritten explorations in assorted notebooks, which themselves led to a burst of new writing and to a polished collection.

  21. I recently posted on this same topic. I too, am debating a reading of my past journals and have wondered what my family would do with them. Burning sounds very tempting. I’m leaning toward reading and selectively burning. Good luck with your decision.

  22. Thank you so much for this post! As a young writer I have journals upon journals upon journals absolutely filled to the brim with bits and pieces of anything and everything. There are the occasional times when I go through them, (namely when I’m in a cleaning mood and I happen across them), and even though most of what is inside is garbage, I can never bring myself to get rid of them. It would feel like throwing a piece of myself, of my life, away, and that thought truly breaks my heart. Unfortunately, my kids are still toddlers, so I’m not entirely sure if they would be interested in something like that, even when they are grown, and my husband can never seem to read my handwriting, so, what am I to do? I guess it’s time to start thinking about it. 😉 Thank you again for this thought provoking post Lee.

  23. Mmm. This is a very interesting post. i do journal and I would hate anyone else to read them so I keep them in a big box in my bedroom. One day I will shred or burn them all. I once wrote my life story ~ it has been more traumatic than most! When I had to downsize to a small bungalow I decided to shred the whole project. I found it so liberating as i moved to my new home minus the baggage of my past. Shredding the paper seemed to release me from the memories.

  24. I enjoyed this post, it reminds me of why I enjoy writing in the first place. I have kept a journal since I was a child and I have most of them in boxes (some in my closet)… I have always told myself that one day, I would write a book about my life, not necessarily to be published but just a compilation of all my years. Something to reflect on in my later years. After the book is written I would just assume get ride of them, unless I have a daughter, because I am assuming my son wouldn’t really care to read them.

  25. Reblogged this on Jennifer K Blog and commented:
    An interesting blog about journaling.
    I started journaling consistently from about the age of 12. So much of it is “narcissistic drivel” and much of it is downright embarrassing. I’m not sure some entries are the way I would want to be remembered after I’m gone. But at times, my journal was my lifeline. It helped me work through a lot of dark moments.

    I love what Kristen Fairgrieve said in her comment on this blog: “Our husbands [and her kids] wouldn’t understand that things written in there were simply how we felt at that specific moment, and didn’t define how we felt about our lives and relationships as a whole.” I think this is important to keep in mind and yet I wouldn’t burn the entries of those dark moments because that would leave an incomplete portrait of who I am (or, was.)

    As another commenter said, I would have loved to read journals from my grandparents to learn more about their lives. As unflattering as some of my journals may be, I think I will keep them for my children or grandchildren to read someday if they choose to.

    What will you do with your journals?

  26. I’ve been journaling since I was 12, and I keep every one, and occasionally look back and read them. They are my memory, pieces of me. I wish I’d written more in college, because I truly don’t remember much of that time. How did I feel when I got engaged? Why did I say yes? I have no idea. My will specifically states that they are to be burned when I die, and their ashes scattered with mine. I don’t want *anyone* to read them, not even my nearest and dearest. Anyway, great post.

  27. I journal. I think it’s vital for sanity to be honest. And I think it’s good that the book touched on how honest the journals were and not always easy to read. There are the it ink and feel that I wouldn’t tell my best friend or fiancé or family. I’d feel exposed. journaling for me, as a person and as a writer, helps me keep my head straight. I just leave them on my bookshelf. I don’t feel the need to revisit the the thoughts I wanted to get out of me anyway. The book sounds good though. Will probably give it a read.

  28. I have kept my journals from Age 5 to 19. but I have shredded all others. Too afraid my daughter would read them when I die and all I write as adult is when Im depressed or upset. Dont want her having that kind of memory of me.

  29. For the most part I have kept all of mine going back to 1995. I did shred 2-3 notebooks I kept during a really dark time a few years ago but now I regret that and wouldn’t do it again. I wish I had those because I think keeping them would have given me perspective on some things I’m going through now. I told my husband I want him to burn them all when I’m gone though. He doesn’t need to read every thought I’ve ever had from day to day.

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