This past Christmas, I decided to take several boxes of books from my parents’ house back to my apartment. I was tired of looking at bare spots on my bedroom shelf. Some of the books had been in storage since the summer before my freshman year of college, including Harry Potter, my Sherlock Holmes anthologies, and the entirety of Full Metal Alchemist. Seeing them again was akin to meeting old friends after a long absence.
However, it wasn’t just the books I was interested in taking with me. In those boxes were nearly two dozen notebooks and diaries I kept during three distinct periods in my life. They ranged from school notebooks, to marble journals, to Mead Academie Sketchbooks. I decorated them with stickers, magazine clippings, and anything else I found worthy.
My sister and I spent a few hours rereading my childish handwriting, laughing over drawings of various quality, and she especially enjoyed teasing me about what I agonized over in high school.
The two marble notebooks I am most grateful I kept were the pair I wrote and drew in during first grade. My teacher, who I will refer to as Mrs. C, wanted her students to write at least a page about a daily prompt or whatever was on our minds that day. Sounds fun and simple, right?
Wrong. First, Mrs. C was an unpleasant teacher. I was terrified of her. She had a large black beehive hair-do that I still don’t know how she did everyday. Adding to her frightening appearance, Mrs. C wore garishly theatrical makeup that would’ve belonged better in a 50’s B-movie.
Second, the challenge of writing a whole page filled me with dread. I could never write the page-long amount she required. Curled over my tiny desk, I would write a sentence or two and then spend the rest of the time illustrating my brief description, afraid that Mrs. C would come over and demand I write more.
Keeping the journal gave me my greatest joys and biggest fears during the 1999-2000 school year. Mrs. C ran her classroom with standards that would have worked better for high school aged students. Everything had to be neat and organized, from the sharpness of your pencil, to your handwriting, and to the contents of your desk .Any failure was met with yelling. I was scared that she would discover that my journal fell apart, or see that I drew a very unflattering picture of her when I wrote about my dislike of math.
Accompanied by a short description, I mostly drew my family, my dream of having a dog (specifically a poodle), how much I wanted to go home from school, how I missed my mom, with the occasional cameos from beanie babies, Jesus, and the cast of The Sound of Music.
Rereading them now, I feel a protective, almost maternal love for my seven-year-old self. Those two notebooks show the honesty of childhood. I wrote and drew about my life as I saw it and as accurately as possible. While reading it, my sister recognized my mom’s old sweater in one of the drawings.
While no other teacher I had mandated keeping a journal, it wouldn’t be the last time I would pour my ideas and drawings into one.
A few years later, at twelve, I started what became a series of fourteen sketchbooks. In the days before I had a laptop, this was the only way for me to unburden my many creative ideas. Like my first grade notebooks, I wrote and drew in them. Luckily, the art and writing had improved.
At that age, I struggled to have friends. My childhood best friend had moved away before I started junior high, and I couldn’t find my footing in any social group at the new school. My being awkward and lonely gave me plenty of time to write and draw. Page after page was filled with whatever I was interested at the time, which often included warrior women and emo boys, my major obsessions with Star Wars and X- Men, and several parodies of the two.
Even though I was not the greatest artist, I probably drew hundreds of character drawings. They were characters with what I hoped were interesting backstories who came from thriving and detailed universes. I created the denizens of a multi-racial fantasy world with the intention of turning it into a novel. While I doubt I will ever do that with those characters, I think back on them with fondness.
I feel a little embarrassed by a few of my ideas, but I do look back on these journals with pride. They are my beginning as a creator. Everyone has to start somewhere, and I am impressed with how far I’ve come.
Slowly, I stopped drawing.
It wasn’t that I disliked it, but more so that I started writing more and wanted to focus on that. My parents put the spare computer in my room, so I typed out my stories instead. It was simpler and faster than writing by hand, and soon the sketchbooks sat on my shelf, untouched.
However, inspired by a New Year’s Eve 2010 watch-through of Bridget Jones’ Diary, I decided I would start keeping one as well. I wanted to be like the titular heroine, someone who wrote about her life with thoughtfulness and wit.
It was not to be. While I am attached to my earlier notebooks, I feel no such nostalgia over my high school diaries. I deeply cringe when I think about them.
The words my seventeen-year old self wrote were sappy, obnoxious, and love-obsessed. Rereading them, I think of how badly I needed to get snapped out of many unhealthy mindsets I had.
Compared to my earlier journals, I wrote more about what was happening to me than what was going on around me. I wasn’t making up stories or drawing pictures of my classmates. It was self reflection without the self improvement that usually comes with that habit.
Contrary to first grade, I wrote long winded analyses of my life. (No drawings this time.) Endless, nauseating passages about my crush, the people I despised, and problems my friends went through. It is a chilling documentation of a high school social group. Who liked who, who was a mess, what weird stuff happened at the latest hang out. If I ever needed to write a teen drama, I could just cheat and use my diary for plots instead.
I stopped writing in the diary a few weeks into my senior year. I got a boyfriend, and since most of my writing was about how I wanted one, my new relationship left me little to write about.
While I feel embarrassed by my high school diaries, they make me happy because they are proof that I have changed so much since then. I’m calmer, more sensible, and stronger now.
Since high school, I haven’t kept a diary. I still write down story ideas, but it’s more of a way for me to scribble out my thoughts more fluidly than if I were to type it out on a computer. A part of me does miss keeping one. Maybe I will keep one again in the future.
As for my old notebooks, they have a place of honor in my apartment. I’ll keep them forever. My journals are pieces of my self, or pieces of my selves.