Spring is in the air and I’m a clutter-busting goddess, brilliant at cleaning out my closet and dresser drawers. When I add something new to my wardrobe, I get rid of something old. Marie Kondo would marvel at my ability to clear space, not only in the bedroom, but in the kitchen and living areas as well. Simplicity, clarity, serenity—and inspiration—I want them all!
I am much more reticent, however, when it comes to throwing away paper, especially old calendars, diaries, journals, letters, cards, memorabilia, photographs, and newspaper clippings.
I’m in charge of our family archives, which I keep in cabinets in my garage. These files are brimming with stories, mine as well as my ancestors’, going back a hundred years. I’ve got my share of yellowed papers and crumbling newspaper articles. I’ve got eighty-four love letters written between my maternal grandparents, photos of my mom crowned Mrs. Long Island 1965, at New York’s World Fair, wedding and death certificates, expired passports, daguerreotype photographs, and much, much more. My collection might smell musty and appear to others to be junk, but I wouldn’t—and can’t—part with any of it.
A critical part of my archives consists of my own calendars and journals. I’ve been keeping calendars since1973. I was thirteen that year, and intent on keeping track of my world. I started with a small, hallmark monthly pocket calendar I carried in my purse. I wrote things like, “choir rehearsal,” “dance concert,” “sleepover Jenny’s,” “Shop with Grandma Mimi,” and “break up with Eddie,” which I wrote one evening after I’d done it. I wrote in pencil so that when plans changed, I could easily erase my entry, and so that each small box that represented my day contained an accurate record of what I’d done. As I grew older, my calendars changed. They expanded into weekly calendars, and then shrank down to wall calendars, displaying dancers from Alvin Alley and Pilobolus, as well as prints by Ansel Adams, Vincent Van Gogh, and Georgia O’Keefe. They expanded again into weekly calendars with inspirational quotes, and eventually made their way onto my computer. The size or form of the calendar didn’t matter. One thing stayed the same: my calendars were mini, at-a-glance journals of my life.
I began journal writing in 1979, on the brink of adulthood. My early journals are filled with flowery language, way too many adjectives and adverbs, and the voice of an insecure though earnest young woman trying to impress. I cringe when I read those diaries today. Even so, my heart is filled with love for that girl, and profound gratitude for the gift she left me in the form of her writing. She left me my life—as it was—as I could never have remembered it. My old writing teacher, Jack Grapes, used to say, “God is in the details,” and these old relics are holy, insomuch as they capture the details of seminal times and places in my life.
My calendars and journals have been invaluable tools to me in the writing of my memoir. They’ve helped me keep track of time; my calendars tell me when important incidents occurred and my journals provide details about what went on, who said what, and how I felt.
I’ve had this urge to scribble for as long as I can remember. My grandmother carried a bulging, rubber-banded notebook in her purse. She referred to it as her brains. “Wait,” she’d say digging into her huge pocketbook, “I need to consult my brains.” I may have written in my journal in order to prove something—getting something “in writing” meant it was official or legitimate. It meant you had proof. For years, I needed validation of all kinds. I also needed a way to figure things out. A place where I could hear myself think, where I could listen, where my thoughts mattered. I needed to meet, discover, and know myself. This is how and why journal writing took root in my life. It became an intellectual and spiritual practice—and has kept me honest as a writer.
There have been many difficult weeks when I couldn’t work on my memoir, when I’d scribble in my journal instead, only to discover months later that what I’d written in my journal belonged in my memoir, though I couldn’t see it at the time. I never understood when I was writing in my journal and judging it as crap how important those entries would become later on. I wrote because I had to. Writing was, and still is, my way of processing life, my way of understanding who I am and why I’m here.
If you’re reading this and thinking it’s a shame you haven’t been keeping your calendars and journals, fret not. It’s never too late to begin these practices, both of which support creative writing.
It’s also not too late to cultivate your own archives. Organize primary source materials. Create a filing system that works. Know what you’ve got in your collection, and know how to easily find it.
And if you have been doing this for decades, like me, or whether you’re interested in getting started, tell me about it. Do you have archives? How are they organized? How do you use primary source materials with your writing? Please share your practices and wisdom!