Letting Go: Destroying Diaries?

This morning, I had the unfortunate and amusing privilege of hearing some of the drivel I put into my 9-year-old diary. I have few memories of actually writing the clearly fictional stories (such as petting a white seal on a beach) and banal accounts of my 9-year-old reality (being annoyed by a classmate). But I’d written them, and somehow that diary ended up in my mom’s hope chest for she and my sister to have a good laugh over.

I have been an inconsistent diary-keeper for probably as long as I could write. I have stacks and boxes of half-completed, pretty notebooks, many of which are painfully embarrassing to read (especially the boy-crazy teenage years). I certainly wouldn’t want them scrutinized if something happened to me. If only there was a special mechanism for spontaneous combustion of diaries upon sudden death or disappearance of their writer. I’m not alone in this.

After sharing the news of my diary discovery, one family member remarked that she was fortunate to have had a flood destroy her diaries. A flood as good luck? That’s some strong feeling about diary destruction! But I could see how it would literally take a flood or some other act of God to give up something that, however embarrassing or shameful, is nevertheless intimate and even sacred to us.

Why this attachment to diaries?

  • It’s good to see where we’ve come from. Just like how helpful praise can be, it is also a bit of a boost to realize, at least for me as a writer, that I really am capable of much more now than I was at 9, or 13, or even 20. Sometimes I fear I peaked in high school.
  • Learning from our past. You know, never wanting history to repeat itself and all that.
  • We may need the diaries. I wish I had a pensieve. Even at 28, I don’t remember everything and I am startled when a friend mentions a person or event that I am apparently supposed to know. Although I still occasionally read back on something with no recollection of it, a diary does help store memories.
  • Voluntary destruction seems violent. It’s not just paper. It’s you–experiences, memories, thoughts, feelings. What does it imply to destroy all that?

But, diary destroying is lauded by some. For many people, and in some spiritual practice (both new-age and time-tested), burning a diary is seen as a way of letting go of past hang-ups, purging bad feelings, memories and experiences. For some it’s a cathartic method of coming to terms with past events and even past versions of yourself. Somewhat logical, but is it really that simple?

For others, it’s just a safety measure when the diaries’ secrets are a bit more serious than excitement over Mom paying me $10 to wash the dog (which my mom assures me she never would have done. How did 9-year-old me think that would make an interesting story?).

Probably the most compelling reason for me to get rid of old diaries, as I get ready to move, is just letting go of physical stuff. The emotional stuff–well, whatever. But I hate STUFF. The less I have to pack away, the better. But will I do this, either through burning, drowning, shredding or recycling? Likely not. Because as much as I’d maybe want to purge or forget or just shrug off as whatever, the emotional stuff has still got me…

But maybe, just maybe, I should save the diaries and take them on the road with Mortified.

Do you hold onto old diaries? Have you ever purged them (or been purged of them involuntarily)? Why would or wouldn’t you?


14 responses to “Letting Go: Destroying Diaries?

  1. Every so often I go back and re-read and if I find something too cringe-worthy I tear out the individual pages to burn or shred or just redact profusely by blanking out some things with a huge black sharpie. The overall story of personal growth is then preserved but the awful things I wouldn’t want anyone to read if they discover the diary after my death, and being dead I cannot defend or explain my motivations, are safely eradicated.

    • I’d just like to add this is especially the case since over the 12 years I’ve been writing them the journals/diaries (I still don’t know what to call them) have changed from being a tool for mopping up emotional over flow in my teens and early twenties to a more part academic part opinion piece collection of observations about life and where I fit into it as I enter my thirties.

  2. I still have all my old diaries stored away in a box, and the thing that worries me the most when I read them is – I thought I was really cool back when I was writing that stuff, but obviously I was a huge loser, so as I go around thinking I’m cool now, am I still actually that lame?? Haha. I hope not. But, just in case, I won’t write any more diaries that I can find in 10 years to help me decide. 🙂

  3. I still have some old diaries at my mom’s house (one might even have a lock and key! haha) I know one I wrote in all through high school and it was as dramatic as ever. There were a lot of crushes, lots of heartbreak, but also a lot of introspective thinking that I still do today. High school was my first time of thinking critically and more existentially about life, so I’m sorta of thankful for all that teenage angst.

    • My high school diaries are quite shallow. I think I had kind of a movie or young adult novel concept of what a diary was supposed to contain. I have other writing from that time that is much more interesting. I enjoy looking back on all of it though-even the stuff that makes me cringe!

  4. I keep a diary now, a home made one, that I write down my conflicting emotions in. It helps me think, to process what is going on around me. It’s a little therapeutic. I also write about all the nice things that have happened to me as time goes on. It makes me smile when I do. So I’m a bit on the fence about getting rid of diaries. It’s a record of the good I want to remember, but it also has some of my most embarrassing and least flattering moments in my scrawled handwriting. I guess once I fill it out, I’ll decide what to do with it. ^^’

    • Diaries are great therapy! I think I end up shedding a lot of thoughts and feelings that are too stupid or childish to warrant further energy or consideration. That’s why they end up being so embarrassing but it’s a great tool!

  5. Oh, wow, I am so glad you didn’t endorse burning diaries in your post…what a relief. I have old suitcases I collected from thrift stores and they are full of journals from high school on. However, I never look back on them and probably at least 100 or more of them, not to mention all the letters I’ve writing and other fictional writing. I’m 46yo and I’m just now starting to think I might want to take a peak at a few of them. To me, they are priceless.

    • Every once in a while I go through old diaries, papers, poems, etc. I get so sucked in! It sounds like you might need to devote a weekend to going through your old stuff! I agree–ultimately, I think it’s treasure, not to be destroyed!

  6. I’ve kept a diary since I was really young and consistently since my teenage years. While some of them are really angsty teenage stuff, a lot of it is filled with happy memories and stuff I loved so I really enjoy reading them back. Even the angsty teenage entries remind me that I’ve become a woman I never dreamed I could be. I’m a bit sentimental like that….

    Katie x

    • I was in a good, regular diary writing routine when I met my husband. I LOVE looking back on that one and I am so grateful I wrote so much at that time! That’s great that you can read your angsty stuff with appreciation for your journey–I tend to spend much of the time cringing still wen I look back on those!

      Thanks for commenting!

  7. We moved from our starter home to the one we’ve been in for over 25 years. I left a box of letters and old diaries in the attic of the old house. When my husband went by our old house to inquire about them, the new owner said she had already tossed them out. Ohhh…she moved fast!

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