My first journal -- a bright red, cloth-covered, hardbound affair bespeckled with small, white forget-me-nots -- was given to me for my ninth birthday. I don't remember who gave it to me; it must have been my parents, unlikely as that seems, given what my father thought about the past times of reading and writing. I remember feeling excited but also a little overwhelmed by all of the blank pages, wondering how I would fill it, whether I should document my days, record the facts, or tell my deepest secrets. I also remember feeling vaguely disappointed that it didn't come with a lock and key, like the pink and purple ones I'd seen shrink wrapped at B.Dalton.
Image: WoodleyWonderworks via Flickr
At first, diligent student that I was, I wrote every day as if it were another homework assignment, mostly about minutiae that seems laughable now: how my piano lesson went, what boys I liked, what I ate for dinner (hmmm, maybe I'm still writing about the minutiae). Sometimes I would draw in it. Gradually, I became less faithful. There were too many other things to do, or maybe I just didn't feel moved to write.
And yet, I continued to journal sporadically over the years, collecting a few books, and a few volumes of poetry, most of the latter the angsty adolescent sort of work that makes real poets cringe. Those books have moved with me clear across the continent and back, never exactly displayed in a place of prominence, but never exactly hidden away, either.
Until the other day. When I was trying to remember something about my childhood, and wished that I had the same ability to do research on myself as I could on any other subject. And then realized that I had my past -- in snippets, anyway, from the perspective of an unreliable narrator -- at my fingertips. I took a deep breath, and prepared myself to go back in time.
They were all there, on the shelf where I'd placed them, not even terribly dusty. I took them to the living room and sat down on the couch, stacking them next to me, wondering what I'd find. As I opened the first book, revealing a clumsy, loopy handwriting I hardly recognized as my own, a scrap of paper fell from the inside front cover. Written in a more mature hand, it read:
I keep going on with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too ... By telling you anything at all I'm at least believing in you, I believe you're there, I believe you into being. Because I'm telling you this story, I will your existence. I tell therefore you are.
--Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
I stopped breathing for a minute, imagining that. The past-me, unknowingly believing the future-me into being. An adolescent me, imagining a future reader of the child-me diary. Not validating her own existence in the telling, but mine. I tell, therefore you are.
And of course, I thought of you.
I am a blogger. One of hundreds of thousands of bloggers, telling our stories, whatever form they take, willing our readers into existence. Conjuring communities of witness. Choosing to write here, in this now, believing you into being. You, J. And you, A. And you, R. And L. And C. And M. You know who you are. Not just the ones who comment, but also the ones who read in silence. Without all of you, the spoken and unspoken witnesses, the words are just electrons. You are the ones who make the words live, and they, in turn, create you, too. You exist in remarkable symbiosis.
I understand the work of willing, the power of naming. We speak the names of our dead children, and they live on, loved by a community: Molly. Micah. Thomas. Lillian. Blobby (and so many others). We speak the name of our cancers, so the enemy we fight has a shape and a face, and we raise our armies of support, the loved ones who rally around us as we stand at the front lines. We even set virtual tables, willing our guests to break real bread, thousands of miles, and possibly many years, away.
Maybe the stories are not always beautiful. Maybe sometimes they are difficult to hear. Maybe sometimes we can speak only in half-truths. But the telling is a powerful thing. Because it means that you, yes you, are here. You are witness. And for that, we are grateful.
Have you ever kept a journal? When was the last time you went back to read it, and what did you discover? When you write, do you imagine your readers? How does it shape your writing process?
More from living