I’m not a fastidious diarist, but there have been concentrated periods in my life when I’ve indulged in the satisfying egotism of keeping a journal.
As a teenager, this translated to thousands of words dedicated to discussing (often in lightning quick non-sequitur) such meaningful topics as: my hideous body, my grotesque face, how out of touch my parents were, how many times a day I just “needed” a cigarette, the excellence or awfulness of my frenemies (depending on the week); and, in the manner of dramatic teenage diarists everywhere, how I was simultaneously both the worst and most unlovable person in the world and also infinitely more compassionate, intelligent and evolved than every other person I’d ever met.
Make no mistake, these were catalogues of shame. But dammit, they were my catalogues of shame.
I say “were”, because when I was 19 or 20 I made the wretched mistake of destroying all my teenage diaries. One weekend, I gathered the multiple notebooks I had filled with the neurotic, tortured rantings of my adolescent self and tore them to pieces before ceremoniously burning them. So eager was I to outrun my not-so-distant past that I didn’t even pause to read any of them before ridding myself of them forever.
What a fool! To this day, I feel such grief over it. Not just for the loss of material possessions, but also for my misguided attempts to erase my childish self. At 19, I was still so bruised from the experience of adolescence. It made sense to me to destroy the evidence of my most private thoughts, and not just because they reminded me of so much trauma. There was also the very real fear that someone would find them one day. That thought being too humiliating to contemplate, I set about ruining them forever.
The relief I felt afterwards was palpable. My secrets were safe, and therefore so was I.
Of course, a good old fashioned book burning isn’t enough to quell the raging passions of youth so I immediately started keeping new ones. It’s to those that I turn now when I want a reminder that underneath it all, I’m just a giant, earnest dork with a seemingly endless ability to write literally hundreds of pages about my feelings. If I indulged the narcissism of adolescence in my teenage diaries, I fed the narcissism of transformation in the diaries of my early 20s.
The year I spent living in Japan when I was 21 is documented by cringe-worthy entries on how I was “just changing so much, every day”, and how “people would just have to deal with the New Me whether they liked it or not”.
Those journals are also filled with overwrought pages of pining: pining for a woman I was in love with back in Australia, but also the pining I felt for a Marine I met on the beach whose sudden disappearance after a night of making out needed to be meticulously examined and wrestled with to find some kind of explanation for why he wouldn’t be returning my phone calls.
I dealt with all of these matters of the heart in between more formal discussions about Okinawan landmarks I had visited, because if my diaries were ever to be read one day (these diaries of course being more intellectual and nuanced in my mind than the piffling thoughts of my teenage self), then I wanted people to know I was cultured.
I still feel the same sting of embarrassment that I did with my earlier diaries, but it comes from a different place. Rather than feeling shameful, it feels like joy. Yes, I recognise myself as being a sanctimonious, self indulgent prat – but that’s what teenagehood is!
It’s remarkable how quickly hate and derision can turn to deep, unqualified affection. We might begin our adult lives trying to distance ourselves from the child we were not that long ago, but many of us find that time really does heal most wounds.
When I think of my teenage self now, I want to reach back through the years and give that poor, insecure girl a hug and tell her that things don’t just turn out OK – they turn out pretty great, all things considered.
I want to tell her that she won’t always feel so awkward and inconvenient. That the hatred she directs towards herself does temper in the end, and the life she is desperate to start leading now, this very instant, immediately, does eventually become a reality.
I want to tell the girl in her 20s – the one who enjoyed the feeling of change because it meant deliverance from that awkward youth – that we are always changing whether we know it or not. I want to tell her that her love and the willingness with which she offers it is a beautiful thing, but that it’s OK for it to not be returned.
And I want to tell them both that life doesn’t start at some fixed point in the future, when we’ve sorted out all our shit and become whole human beings. We are already whole. Life is what we collect along the way. It’s in the words we write and the feelings we have, the shame and the joy, the love and the hate.
But hey – that doesn’t mean we can’t still have a good chuckle at the terrible prose of our youth.
Clementine Ford will join a line-up of women reading excerpts from their teenage diaries on Thursday night (July 27) at Northcote Social Club to raise money for the YWCA of Victoria and its housing program. More information and tickets here.