20 years, two boxes.
June 24, 2010 1:44 PM   Subscribe

What should I do with my old diaries?

I have hand-written journals going back about 20 years, about 2 cubic feet as they're currently boxed. They aren't any uniform type of book: some spiral-bound, composition books, fancy journals, bit art notebooks, tiny moleskines, etc. I've had to move them around quite a bit, and now as I'm in a purging mode with some other stuff, I'm trying to figure out what to do with them, if anything. At the moment, they're not in the way, but their existence is nagging at me. There's a lot of angst, some poetry, some fiction.

* Bonfire or recycling bin? What's the pluses of just letting it all go?
* Reread? And then what? Is it insane to think of digitizing? (I tried retyping some of the very oldest several years ago, and that just made me morose.)
* Display or shelve with my other books? Some of the books are actually pretty, but others are ugly/thrashed.
* Keep in the boxes under the bed? I feel like it's a little silly/self-indulgent at this point, on the other hand, the thought of getting rid of them makes me flinch.

(I don't have any kids at the moment but it's not totally outside of the realm of possibility. I used to think I was gonna be a famous writer, that seems pretty unlikely now.)

If you have/had a lot of paper journals, what have you done with them? How do you feel about it now?
posted by epersonae to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Keep them at least until you are sure you won't have kids. My father died, and reading his diaries was quite eye-opening for me. I am glad he kept them.
posted by procrastination at 1:49 PM on June 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

Put them in a time capsule and hide it out of sight for the next 20 - 30 years.
posted by cwarmy at 1:52 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to have a very large stack of journals that I made from when I was about 13 to 20. So not as many years as you but there was alot of them and I found them all incredibly depressing to read. I trashed them all and thinking about it now it still feels like a giant weight has been lifted off of me, even though it's been a few years since I trashed them. I just put them in a garbage bag and threw them away.

From your description of your feelings about them (angst, morose, nagging, similar to my feelings for my journals) I think you will agree with me that it feels better to know they're gone.
posted by amethysts at 1:52 PM on June 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

The best thing I've ever done with one of my old diaries (am I the only person who reacts with nausea to the word "journal"?) is reuse it. I painted the pages with white gesso first. Then I used a permanent marker to draw lines to write on. That idea was based on an experiment I saw where a guy dipped a baseball into latex paint every day for a year. He ended up with a giant ball and maybe he sawed it in half or something. I planned to just keep painting over the diary and see how thick each page would get. The binding started to crack apart after the first round, so I never repeated it.

I used to re-read them at the end of every calender year. That got boring, so now what I do is cut them up. I use the paper scraps as bookmarks, origami paper, collage material, and whatnot.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 1:57 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Well, it's hard to recommend what would be best for you, especially when it comes to the main choice between destroying the diaries and keeping them. If it's okay to reframe your questions, the following might shed more light on what you might want to do:

Why did you keep them all this time?
Why is their existence nagging you?
Do you want to expunge reminders of your past self or is this just about the physical space they're taking up?
How do you generally deal with losing things, whether out of carelessness or the need for purging?

I haven't actively destroyed my old journals, but I have discarded them, especially during times when I was reckless or saw no point in saving them. Which I'm okay with, because what's the point of wishing that I hadn't; they're gone. However, I don't discard things so easily anymore. Mostly because I now usually write things down with the express purpose of being able to recall / invoke them later, if I ever want to. Recently I went back and collated all the journals I'd written and saved over the past 6-7 years; even though I'd lost a lot it still added up to a lot, and looking at it all together made me feel much surer about the kind of person I am. Putting them all into a word file was kind of a big project, but worthwhile, for me, at this stage in my life.

So to answer your question: I don't feel much about what I've lost, but I do feel glad for what I've saved. As for digitizing, you don't have to do it now, and you definitely don't have to do it all at once. But it does help to have it all handy / easy to tuck away / save for hypothetical children.

As an aside: being a (published, professional) writer is always unlikely. Even if you're not actively working towards it, don't be so sure that you won't suddenly one day find yourself being one.
posted by mondaygreens at 2:09 PM on June 24, 2010

You should definitely keep them.
posted by Flood at 2:11 PM on June 24, 2010

I totally lost touch with my high school friend J. Fast forward 40+ years, we reconnect. Turns out J has a journal I kept at 15, the only one I ever kept, she sends it to me, I'm delighted and touched by my teenage angsty adventurous baby beatnik self.

I'd recommend not throwing them out, you never know, you might use parts of them in a book some day, you might want to show them to someone you love. So few people keep journals anymore, think of future historians who would love to read them.

A former professor of mine used diaries rescued by a garbage man in NYC as primary sources for some book, the name of which I don't recall.
posted by mareli at 2:15 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

i've considered scanning mine and then zipping the folder and shoving it into the corners of my computer set aside for chat logs and pictures of exes and the txt version of my geoshitties page. that way, all my teen angst, embarrassment, and shame are all in one easy to find location should it ever be of interest to someone else.
posted by nadawi at 2:18 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

From reading your question, it sounds like you aren't completely committed to getting rid of them: for example, you say "the thought of getting rid of them makes me flinch." If you've got space, keep them. Out of sight is fine; you'll know where they are if you want to re-read them.

If you do at some point decide to get rid of them, I would recommend shredding them before you do it. I tossed a box of very personal letters about 10 years ago; I don't at all regret having gotten rid of them, but I wish I had shredded them first (I still shudder when I imagine someone finding them and reading them). Shredding is good for peace of mind.

On preview: mareli's story about the professor using discarded diaries as source material makes me want to re-emphasize SHRED IF YOU TOSS! (But I guess that only applies if your views on privacy are similar to mine.)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:23 PM on June 24, 2010

Here's an unclutterer post about this topic that you might find helpful. I would suggest keeping them, as you might feel differently about them in the future, but I will say that if you decide to get rid of them, you should burn them so you won't have any concerns about them "lingering" out there in the world (however unlikely).
posted by questionsandanchors at 2:28 PM on June 24, 2010

I vote for keeping them. After all FX Toole didn't get published until he was 70 and lots of people knows of his work. (He wrote the story Million Dollar Baby).

Some of my writer friends suggested a field trip to a Mortified Live event in San Francisco where you read excerpts from the most embarrassing sections in front of a crowd. So, I suggest you turn them into performance art. Other cities also have these events.

This is on my bucket list, so I'm keeping my journals. OMG! I get frissons of embarrassment just thinking about it. It's too good/funny to keep to myself.

I haven't been to one of these events yet, but I heard they are very funny, moving, and entertaining.
posted by rw at 2:32 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

S'Tella Fabula: yes! I hate the word journal too.

Anyway, I also have a lot of diaries, and I would never dream of getting rid of them. Then again, that's me. I'm the type of person who wants to remember, who wants to understand myself, and as such, my diaries contain a ton of data in that regard. Yes, I do have a lot of angsty, angry writing, but now I just laugh at it. It really is funny! It's great to read them and see how I've evolved, and to see that hey - those parts of me still exist in some way, and that's all right. :)
posted by foxjacket at 2:33 PM on June 24, 2010

Maybe covering the thrashed ones with pretty/cool paper and shelving them would work.
posted by Swisstine at 2:35 PM on June 24, 2010

When I was younger (say 11), I destroyed all the diaries I had written from the time I was 8 because I was ashamed of them. And felt immediate and lasting regret that I had done so.

So I've kind of neurotically held onto all my writings since. Not sure what I plan to do with them exactly, but I guess I've always assumed I would set them into some convenient form (like a large book, or several volumes) and hand them down.

Not because I think I'm so super-neato that my descendants will be dying to read about me, but because I know that I would absolutely JUMP at the chance of reading some of my ancestors' diaries, had they survived.
posted by Ouisch at 2:36 PM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

(Had the diaries survived, that is. Not the ancestors.)
posted by Ouisch at 2:36 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you decide to "try out" for Mortified Live!, here's the Casting FAQ page where the process of how they screen writers/performers.

That first link I posted went to a page with rather sparse descriptions.

In reading it, I want to rush home from work and go through my shelves of journals. (I finally opted to put my journals and early fiction drafts on shelves in my bedroom.)
posted by rw at 2:40 PM on June 24, 2010

When someone asked me what my most prized possession was, I recently concluded that my old journals - and old photos - are the only things I have that are irreplaceable. I don't even keep a journal anymore, but my diaries from the 80s and early 90s are so precious to me that when one was mostly destroyed in a fire, I laboriously copied out as much of it as I could still read.

I never look at them these days, but I can't imagine getting rid of them. I mean, I can't even *imagine* it.
posted by CunningLinguist at 2:50 PM on June 24, 2010

I've thought about this issue too. What I plan to do someday is get a large, attractive trunk and keep them all in there, out of sight but not gone. Or else get some nice, old, vintage suitcases instead of the trunk. Either way, the idea is to put them inside something that looks nice and can be used as a coffee table or something else decorative/functional.

I dislike "diary" more than "journal." To each her own.
posted by tacoma1 at 2:52 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding all those who said "keep"--Keep.
posted by emhutchinson at 2:55 PM on June 24, 2010

I vote to keep them.

I have been journaling since high school - up to volume 25 now even though some of them are missing.

For me it isn't all about minutiae and conceit - it is a way for me to convey to others in the future that there is something of a commonality in our humanity. I wish that I had an honest record of the lives of the adults in my life to see not just what they wanted to convey, but their actual life experiences. I think this is huge and that more of us should share it. It strips away all of the facades we build. My brothers aren't thrilled that I plan on opening them up with their kids, but hey.

I do not, however, re-read them. The high school ones are painful and the college ones are just a mess.

When my grandma died, I found what amounted to her diaries: sheets and scraps of paper that she had drawn, sketched, and quoted all over. Here were the remnants of her thoughts that she never shared with anyone - so the plain, soft-spoken woman I knew to be perpetually sad, quietly religious, and full of family duty/guilt has become this sword-wielding feminist who seems to have spent the better part of the 1930s drawing images of obscure feminists and important women. The best one was an image of the world supported by maybe 25 women holding up the earth - Jane Addams, Hypatia, Pandita Ramabai, etc... I keep it framed on my office wall as a reminder that everyone I come into contact with has stories and experiences that outweigh what they feel they can present. I would never have had this insight into her personality if she had thrown out the random boxes she kept them in.
posted by Tchad at 2:58 PM on June 24, 2010 [7 favorites]

As a teenager, I destroyed most of my diaries, except for one large one I kept between the ages of 11 and 13. Recently (over 25 years later), I took this diary out of storage and reread it with my husband. There were a lot of tiny details, from what I had for lunch to what I wore to school. Many of the entries were hard to read because they described incidents of verbal and emotional abuse from my parents. Sometimes I feel like I must have dreamed or exaggerated my childhood. Reading this diary was like hearing my pre-teen self testify and an overall validating experience. Having this diary around, even in storage, reminds me to be gentle to my inner 11 year old self. Also, being able to introduce my partner to myself at that age helped him finally understand aspects of my childhood, family and history.
posted by pluckysparrow at 3:00 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Reading old diaries is as close to time travel as we are probably going to get.
When I reread the joys and complaints and minutia of a 15 year old me, it felt like being transported back.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:38 PM on June 24, 2010

a few years ago i was de-cluttering and found some old journals i didn't want anymore. i tore the pages into pieces and used those pieces to decoupage some shoeboxes. i had enough paper to apply a few layers, so it wasn't like you could actually read about what i thought of myself in the third grade.

i gave them away as gifts, so i don't have pictures, but i promise they looked nice and not weird at all.
posted by janepanic at 5:09 PM on June 24, 2010

I just chucked mine (about a week ago). They inspired the same sort of morass of shame and worry and angst that some people have described. It is an enormous weight off my shoulders. What I worked through in those journals has been worked through. It's not something I need, nor want, to go over and it's certainly not something I would share. Not the process anyway.

That said, they're not diaries. There's no "I did this blah blah blah" to it. They were far more of a counselling tool to process some things I went through. So I do think that makes a difference.

But yeah, trashed. No way in hell do I want my daughter reading the intricate details of how I recovered from rape and PTSD.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:11 PM on June 24, 2010

Keep them. I kept a diary sporadically throughout junior high and high school, and I like to reread them every so often. It's fun to see what I was reading, doing, and thinking all those years ago, and how I've changed.

I wrote one diary entry in eighth grade lamenting the fact that I couldn't go back in time to my sixth grade class picnic, because it was the best day of my life. When I reread that entry as an adult, I realized that I'd forgotten we'd even had a sixth grade class picnic, much less that I'd thought it was the best day of my life.
posted by SisterHavana at 5:15 PM on June 24, 2010

I threw mine out, and am so happy I did. No need to relive all that silly angst.

But, I did browse through and tear out some of the writings that I thought were particularly good or important to me. Probably five pages out of each diary. (Kind of like you don't need to keep every doodle your child does, just a random one here and there.)

It was the best of both worlds for me, guiltless freedom.
posted by Vaike at 6:29 PM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Put in secure box. Store. Open in X years,
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:00 PM on June 24, 2010

Best answer: If you can't decide, then keep them. If you can decide, then bully for you.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 8:43 PM on June 24, 2010

I kept a journal off and on through jr high and high school. The jr high one got lost somewhere a long the way but I know where the one is that I wrote in during my senior year. I read through it the other day. Instead of feeling any sort of angst I'm surprised by how much I've grown as a person since I was that 18 year old girl scribbling in her journal. I still keep a journal today. And I must say, after my father died recently it has given me much comfort. For some reason I'm so afraid I'm going to forget him and the things we did. Now I know I can just read back on the everday life things we did together. I hope you don't throw them away.
posted by GlowWyrm at 8:49 PM on June 24, 2010

I spent the past couple of evenings going through about ten years' worth of journals and sketchbooks. I haven't looked at the older ones in a long time, and had sort of forgotten how many there were, a stack of about twenty heavy notebooks. I've moved frequently over the past few years, and they are fragile and bulky, but I've never considered getting rid of them. They don't feel like "weight" to me because most of the time they are out of sight in boxes and I don't think about them. I wouldn't want them on display, it would be awkward, like having photos of myself on the walls.

They are very dear to me, though, and occasionally useful - skimming them a little last night has given me a sense of continuity that I haven't felt for a while, a renewed sense of why I am where I am now, and I am feeling a little more grounded and purposeful today. Journals are irreplaceable, I would hold onto them.
posted by oulipian at 9:22 PM on June 24, 2010

I will give you a different perspective . . .
when my roommate (and best friend of 10+yrs) died suddenly at aged 29, I ended up with the custody of her 10+ years of diaries/journals.
Although she had a disclaimer on the first page of each book (30+ spiral notebooks) that she didn't care who read them and she never made any effort to hide them, I knew giving them to her mother was the last thing my friend wanted - she'd said so many times.

So I kept them for a couple of years & through 2 moves. I tried to contact her younger brother to ask him if he wanted them but this was early internet days & had no luck tracking him down. 5 years after her death & before the next move, I escorted the box to the dump and after ripping out the metal spirals, put them in the recycling bin.

I still have mixed feelings about it . .
posted by jaimystery at 4:16 AM on June 25, 2010

I've kept all my paper journals. Sometimes their existence makes me uncomfortable, but I'm glad I've hung on to them. Ten years ago in college, I also had an online journal at Open Diary, which I never bothered to back up -- and I do truly regret that, especially as I get older and can recall fewer and fewer of those memories on my own.
posted by spinto at 7:27 AM on June 25, 2010

I go through mine periodically and rip out stupid angsty stuff and keep the insightfull stuff. I store mine in stacked milk crates. Most of what I keep is sketches or round-about writing where i know what its about but noone else would.
posted by WeekendJen at 7:43 AM on June 25, 2010

I say keep them - if seeing the box they're in is what's really bothersome, maybe you can find some closet space for it? Even though their existence right now is nagging at you, in another 10-20 years you may be delighted to go back and re-read them.

I started keeping a written journal about 3 years ago, and when I page through some of those first entries I'm *amazed* at how much I've forgotten about events and my general state of mind/outlook on the world in the short space of three years, and I'm really glad to have that window into my former self's mind. I wish I'd started much sooner.
posted by usonian at 8:16 AM on June 25, 2010

I had a cathartic bonfire with friends. They burned stuff that was dragging them down, like piles of chicken-themed gifts they'd been given by one's mother. I contributed items that had been weighing me down- mostly old love letters, a couple of ooold outdated textbooks, and several of my diar-journals.

It felt REALLY good to celebrate the letting go process with friends who were doing the same.
posted by mcbeth at 10:58 AM on June 25, 2010

Response by poster: This is all very helpful! (I still haven't made up my mind what to do.)

The time capsule approach is intriguing -- I actually opened a time capsule two years ago from 1989, and it was fun, if baffling. (Why did my 12-year-old self save all the 5s from a deck of cards?!)

mondaygreens, thank you for the reframing questions. That helped me to think about what the diaries/journals represent in my head, as well as in the physical world (we've been remodeling!), and my feelings about some pack-rat aspects of my personality.

I'm at least going to open up the boxes when I have some free time and take a look at them.
posted by epersonae at 4:49 PM on June 25, 2010

Here's what I did: I borrowed a scanner and scanned every single one of my journals (going back to high school) to PDF. Then I put all the PDF files into one folder and put that folder on a piece of my hard drive that I encrypted using TrueCrypt. The next step is to destroy the physical journals, but I haven't quite done it yet.
posted by prefpara at 12:59 PM on June 26, 2010

Journal Burning Party - David Dondero
posted by pianomover at 1:44 AM on June 27, 2010

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