By Amy Burroughs
I once read about a woman who burned her journals, and ever since, the prospect tempts. I still haven’t decided I won’t, one day: drop them in a barrel, light a match, watch the flames devour my excursions in solitude.
For thirty-three years and counting, I’ve kept journals. Most reside in a big, red bin, locked with a combination no one would ever guess and stowed away in our guest room closet. They’re safe there, as long as I’m alive. A fatal accident or a swift turn from sudden illness could change that in a snap. Then, I imagine, my husband or my mother would break into the bin and paw through the contents, greedy for insight.
They’d be wrong to think reading would be a full reveal. The words on the page may be true but they are, at best, incomplete. Mostly, the page is a process, a refuge, an ear I can count on to listen, amiably and with unflappable composure, to all the shit.
More precious than the details is the privacy of the page. One thought leads to the next, unbound, uncensored. Aside from its usefulness as a tool to figure things out, therein lies much of the reason for keeping a journal in the first place: the immense pleasure, akin to meditation, of communing with pen and paper, letting ideas and feelings unspool and sort. I treasured the pinball, from an unfettered account of a night with a new lover to an observance of a sparrow nipping a croissant crumb in a café courtyard.
Recently, when I completed my do-it-yourself will online, the form had a line for special requests. “Destroy my journals without reading,” I typed. But I doubt my husband would be able to resist.
Hence, the fire.
The earliest entries are in three-ring binders, pages ripped from a printer that screeched and clacked. Since then, I’ve written by hand. I can mark the passage of time: decorative covers, then artist’s sketchbooks, now composition books. My only rules: never spiral, unlined preferable, sturdy back, spine that lies flat, large enough for a comfortable scrawl.
As a memoirist—and therefore as the historian of myself—destruction by fire seems screamingly ill-advised. I know well the unreliability of memory. How could I erase conversations and settings and weather, transcribed on the day in question, given any possibility I might ever want to write about my past? So far, the mere chance is enough to stop me from gathering the notebooks, a barrel, a match.
Frankly, reading old entries is tedious and painful. When you already know the outcome of every drama and decision—the romances, jobs, cross-country moves—it’s excruciating to watch them unfurl, again, word by word. Discouraging, how often I picked at the same old scabs: The self-doubt that anchored me in a miserable relationship in my mid-twenties was still knotted around my ankles, in another miserable relationship, a decade later.
Worst of all are the missed opportunities. I know, now, I should have gutted through my sophomore winter in Chicago, visited my brother in Nicaragua, reconsidered the old-school newspaper career that soon gave way to digital media. But back then, pondering options in my notebook, other paths enticed.
Then there was the time a boyfriend-on-the-rocks stole my journals from my closet and locked them in the trunk of his car until he was good and ready to give them back. For months afterward, he threw choice snippets in my face.
Fire would not erase my trail, but it would eliminate the evidence.
I fear a jolt of nausea, watching my history dissolve into ash. I could test myself with one page, one uneventful entry. It might spark a distress so deep I would never consider the burning again. I might feel giddy, unburdened, with every flame burst. I could throw into the barrel whole notebooks at a time, with a personal send-off for each.
Goodbye, winter of 1991, and good riddance. You almost broke me, you of the rude awakening and dirty snow. Summer of 2001, we had some good times…a big black dog and an old white Volvo and miles of backroads between North Carolina and the Rocky Mountains. Little did we know our world was about to shatter. Ah, March, 2010. Gambling on Baltimore and hope and new love, the one that felt easy and kind and comfortable. That worked out after all, didn’t it? And you, 1988—you silly thing. I wish I could have told you, everything is going to be fine.
The fire consumes all the selves, like snake skin, I had to inhabit and shed on my way to here, now. I feel a mild allegiance to preserve that girl, that young woman. Yet the more time that separates us, the more she appears as a familiar stranger: recognized, but removed, someone whose company I no longer keep.
I feel no such duty and no desire to share my incarnations with anyone else. I want to keep that solitude to myself, those luxurious periods of reflection and rumination. I wrote for hours, back then, in city after city: alone in my quiet apartment, feet propped up, coffee or wine or smokes for company, long before the frenetic buzz of the internet seeped into my brain, long before I met the man who would mark the end of my single years. Now, when I write in my journal, my subject is, by definition, not only my life, but our life. Maybe that’s why, once a year or so, when I head out of town by myself on a creative retreat, the most delicious moment is the first morning alone: coffee by my side, feet propped up, absolute silence, a long dive inward.
I’ll keep the notebooks, for now. It’s dicey—sudden death and all—but I envision, one day, holing up in a cabin somewhere to read every last bit in one long stretch. Then I’ll destroy, so that I might also protect. If a black-singed scrap drifts from the barrel, buoyed on the fire’s breath, I will catch the paper in my fingers, read the words that escaped. I will hope for a fragment that harbors an omen, like fortune cookie wisdom. But odds are, the message will be inscrutable: And the thing that bothers me…and so on Monday…by then he had already said…
I’ll watch the flames calmly, hold my hands out for warmth. As each page disappears, I myself will rise and rise in the lingering smoke.
Amy Burroughs is an essayist and journalist. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart, named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, and published in Solstice, Jabberwock Review, Asheville Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She is from North Carolina and has an MFA from the University of Southern Maine. She is currently working on a series of essays about nature, technology, religion, and culture. Find out more at: amyburroughs.com