Rip it up and start again

When I was seventeen, my German penfriend, Elke, sent me a page a day diary. It had a green leatherette cover, and she later sent me a pretty notebook, with a Chinese design on the cover, And so began the habit of keeping a journal. My recollection is of not writing in it for several days, then filling pages when I felt a bit down. I remembering recording watching the Fonz on Happy Days (appointment television in the days of three channels), or that I had seen the boy I fancied looking out of the window of his office, several floors up, as I walked to college. He had blonde, short hair, and I only ever saw him from a distance as I passed the telephone exchange opposite his building. Yet I built up a private fantasy about him, shared only with my journal. Now I think of it, he was always standing at that window when I passed. Perhaps he wrote about me in his journal.

Research or a notebook obsession?

Research or a notebook obsession?

My mother was not one for respecting privacy, so I kept my diary with me at all times, and slept with it under my pillow. No one read it but me.

My diary habit stopped when I left home, a week after my 19th birthday. I can’t remember why. Perhaps there was too much going on, little time outside of studying and socialising in my first year at Thames Poly. I didn’t start again until I was 40, a gap of over 20 years. Illness had forced me stop work, and I was adrift; I felt like I had lost my identity.

I was out with a friend when I saw a notebook I liked. It was A5 spiral bound with a picture of a parrot on the cover. ‘Let me get that for you,’ she said, and out of nowhere, I started writing poetry in that book, and keeping a diary.

It became a thing that I only wrote in notebooks  that other people had given me. As I took on a new love, a new identity as a writer, the notebooks filled and accumulated. By this summer, with only one notebook cull since I began writing (again) in 2000, I had two large boxes full of notebooks, plus a pile on my desk awaiting a second read.

Faced with moving house, and the prospect of someone having to deal with my journals when I die (yes, I do think about such things), I decided to destroy them. I don’t think anyone else has read them. When my daughters were living with me, they didn’t seem interested. Current journals were left on coffee tables and never picked up by them. When I met the man who is now my husband, I said that he was not to read them, and he has respected that.

Over the years, I have read each one again, a while after completing them, to see if there was any material to develop into poems, stories or blog pieces. They have then been stored away. I saw no reason to read them again before destroying them, and I drew in the support of a friend to help me. ‘Are you sure; are you really sure?’ she said before and during the ripping, cutting and shredding. Writer friends on Facebook asked the same question. It seemed drastic, they said. But I was and am sure, and the hours we spent in my writing shed, going through the repetitive actions of notebook destruction, left me lighter. It also made me realise what a huge task this would have been for someone after my death. I have it written into my will that I want my notebooks destroyed without being read.

The paper filled a builder’s bucket and two black sacks, which have gone to be recycled. I picked out some shreds, read some words and phrases from the remains of the journals. My eyes fell on sentences as I tore pages out, which threw me back to certain people, certain times. But I was not drawn into reading further.

I don’t know where I shall write or where we shall be when we move. I’ve had the good fortune to have my own room, in a converted shed, for the past six years, and it’s doubtful that I’ll have that luxury again. I may have space for a desk, or it may be that the kitchen table becomes my space. I may become a cafe writer, as I used to be, or someone who writes on trains and buses.

There will be new journals, new gifts of notebooks at birthdays and Christmas. These will fill and be kept again, until the next cull. All that shredded paper, that’s the past. The future is ahead of me, with new notebooks to fill.


  • By Lynne Rees, August 2, 2016 @ 9:10 am

    I’ve done the same, with notebooks going back to 1988. There’s one box in the cellar at the moment … but I don’t attach to them anymore and find it much easier to flick through and dump them every few years. What I need to keep stays with me anyway, what I don’t have doesn’t matter. As you say, what’s happening now and what’s about to happen is what makes us rich.

  • By Nigel Jarrett, August 2, 2016 @ 10:18 am

    Lovely piece, Maria. I assume the anonymous bloke you fancied wasn’t Bob. The anecdote has a Dostoievskian feel! I started keeping a journal in a special notebook I discovered (more later). Keeping a journal was therapeutic and useful. I sometimes went weeks before writing an entry but I always felt better for it, whether it were some lengthy meditative piece or an angry reaction to something I’d read in the newspapers or seen on TV.I think the computer age has done for the pen-and-paper diarist. My last notebook has only reached half way and my latest entry was about an amazing clock I discovered in the church at Castle Combe; or, rather, the mechanism of the same. It’s like a Heath Robinson structure and was once placed outside to remind the field labourers that it was lunchtime or finishing time. (Castle Combe is where they film costume dramas, lately Warhorse.) Anyway, I found myself writing more diary material (ie., blogs) on screen, either for public consumption on my website or privately on a stored document (that’s currently running to 10,000 words). I miss the notebooks and I may go back to them with intent. Years ago at a stationery shop in Pontypool owned by the people who ran the newspaper where I worked, I bought a black, ‘all-weather’, notebook called the Alwych, made by J R Reid Printers Ltd.,Blantyre, Glasgow. It’s described as A68/140 Feint, non-index. Then, years after I’d been using them, they were endorsed in an essay by, I think, Ian McEwan, in one of the Sunday papers. It was when Moleskine notebooks were being touted as the ones used by Hemingway, Bruce Chatwin and others, and McEwan thought the Alwych far superior. I felt I was in good company. You can still buy them. I couldn’t possibly destroy my journals, though they contain some things I wouldn’t want to go further than my bad self. Secrecy is part of the game. Writing’s exciting. Isn’t it? In any case, I have before me my two trusty Parker fountain-pens and a bottle of black Quink. Reminder to self: must buy new bottle of ink and never be tempted by cheap Biros.

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