What I Write in My Journal is Just for Me (It is Not My Memoir)
Jeanna Kadlec on Writing, Memory, and Trusting Yourself
I wrote in my journal this morning. I am not going to disclose its contents to you here, on this page, on Beyoncé’s internet. What I write in my journal, its unfiltered stream of consciousness, is just for me.
A memoir is not a journal.
Also this morning: I wrote up to the very last line of the very last page. I panicked, because I did not have any more space, because I had not yet bought another book to fill.
When I hit the last page of my own books, I do not panic.
A memoir is not a journal.
I first sparked to journaling when I was six—at least, that is how old I was when I decided to keep my first diary detailing a weekend trip my family took to Milwaukee, accompanying my father on a work trip. There are a handful of pages my mother saved documenting our days at a motel, eating pizza and going to see the tiger at the zoo. Probably, I was imitating my mom, who regularly kept her own diaries on and off for years, but I was also imitating the books I read.
I don’t think it’s unique to have been a Millennial child who liked the idea of a diary in the years when epistolary- and diary-formatted Middle Grade and YA novels like Catherine, Called Birdy and the Dear America series were at the height of popularity. I do think it’s unusual that, toward the end of elementary school, I managed to stick with it, keeping near-daily entries in spiral-bound notebooks that I still have to this day, tracking what I was reading, what I was studying in school and church, what I was talking to my friends about. The oldest one I still have in my possession begins on August 27, 1997, with the line “School is great!” I wasn’t quite 10 years old.Because while a memoir is not a journal, a journal can be a safety net for a memoirist.
Today, I’m a few months away from 35 and the publication of my debut memoir. I have been regularly journaling for the past 25 years. These days, it’s probably the closest thing I have to religion.
You could say that I have strong opinions about the distinction between the devotional practice of journaling and the process of writing memoir.
Perhaps, with all that writing about my own life, it was inevitable I’d end up as a memoirist. But correlation is not causation. So many people who keep journals don’t write memoir. So many people who write memoir do not, as readers might expect, keep journals.
Recently, my partner and I attended iconic memoirist Michelle Tea’s Brooklyn launch for her latest book, Knocking Myself Up. She noted that this was the first time she had written from source material. In the Q&A, I posed a question following up on that statement that essentially amounted to: have you been raw-dogging memoir this whole time? Just coming to the page and winging it from memory? Sure have! she said.
I am in awe of writers like Tea, who trust themselves and their memories and their ethics to guide them through the inevitable midnights they do not remember.
I don’t know that I’m there yet.
Have I mentioned that I journal?
Journaling kept me sane through the years that are chronicled in my forthcoming memoir, Heretic: through the crisis that was coming out and leaving the church, through the catastrophe of the cocoon. The process of journaling allowed me to write my way into a new consciousness after I had stripped myself down to the studs, outside of the confines of evangelical Christianity. In so many ways, having a built-in practice through which to process what was happening to me and through me was a kind of salvation, and one that I relied on heavily, because I was surrounded by people who did not think that I knew—or could know—the truth of myself.
I have more journals for the crisis years that Heretic covers—my divorce, coming out, and leaving the church—than for any other period of time in my adolescence or my adult life. I was swimming in source material, an Olympic pool of it, honestly—so much that I ended up not really using it, save to check timelines, and to occasionally flag a passage or two that freakishly correlated with what I was reflecting on nearly a decade later.
Because while a memoir is not a journal, a journal can be a safety net for a memoirist.
I tell myself that I have left the church and its heteropatriarchal values, that I am committed to unlearning white supremacy, that I have divested of my commitments to men and patriarchy, that my life is as queer as it’s ever been. But then, I am confronted with this simple question in my craft: don’t I have to be able to prove that these things happened to me? A question about evidence and objectivity and who gets to be believed that is central to all those knots I’m purportedly untangling.
How much have I unlearned, really.
Perhaps it’s because there are people from my past who, I assume, would have a markedly different take on my version of events, and not just in the we all experience things differently way. Perhaps it’s the lingering remnants of being a woman in evangelicalism: that our testimony of our own experience cannot be believed, is never enough.
Here, let me show you my journals. Here are my emails to my ex-husband, my mother, my college friends. Here are their responses, or lack thereof. Here, see, this is the date of this in my 2013 planner. This was that doctor’s appointment. Witness the proof of my truth. The incontrovertible evidence. I could bury myself under it.
If all I could write was the evidence, rather than the truth of my experience, I would never have written the book at all.
The thing is, I have only to look at the memoirs I have read over the years: the ones that changed how I write, the ones that showed me that more was possible, the ones that changed my life. Written by women and queer people, the truth of whose experience I believed—I believe—unequivocally. When I read their stories, I feel their pain. I see their truth. I understand better how they experience the world. And as a result, my own world grows.
I don’t need to see their journals; I wouldn’t even think to ask. Their words alone are enough, have always been enough.
(A memoir is not a journal.)
My relationship to journaling has changed in the years since the events of my book because I simply trust myself now. I have grown into a fuller, more realized version of myself. I don’t live in constant doubt or fear anymore; I’m not writing down entire conversations that just happened lest the person come back to me the next day and tell me that no, they hadn’t actually spoken to me at all, what was I on?
I trust myself. And that’s a hell of a thing, when it comes to shifting how you record the events of your life. I still write almost every day, but I don’t fill two or three Moleskines a month anymore.
It’s growth. It also means that I don’t have the amount of source material for future projects that I had for Heretic, that—even if unused—felt like a weighted blanket. Which is a little frightening, honestly. To imagine that I might be, as I anonymously put it to Michelle Tea, raw-dogging a future memoir, trusting my own memory as a guide.
But then I think: what a beautiful thing, to be writing about a period of life where I knew who I was. Where I trusted myself enough to allow a journal to be a journal, and a memoir to be a memoir.
Heretic: A Memoir by Jeanna Kadlec is available via Harper Books.