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Up in Smoke: Could You Burn Your Words?

I read a post that affected me deeply the other day. Danielle LaPorte writes about why she burned her journals.  20 years of recorded moments, up in smoke.


Image: Thomas’s Pics via Flickr

Like LaPorte, I love clutter-free living, but while I’m happy to toss away favours from parties or donate unneeded kitchen utensils, I don’t see my old journals (or my blog) as something I could part with willingly.  All my words somehow stand outside that idea of clutter, along with my sofa and stand mixer and all the other tangible objects I can’t imagine purging either because they mean a lot to me or because I see them as well-integrated into my daily life.

Unlike LaPorte, I am nostalgic.  I love reopening old journals or scrolling back through my blog.  I’ll be looking for an old post, and I’ll read the ones before and after it, remembering moments — good or bad — which have faded from memory.  Maybe the right trigger would organically bring back those memories from my mental basement, but I get nervous over the idea of needing to wait for a trigger to access my past, by which I mean, my life.

LaPorte breaks us down into historians and burners, and I think there is a lot of truth in that we really aren’t a blend of both but more one or the other.  There are those who like to document their present and reflect on their past, and there are the ones who like the fleeting nature of the present and like to dream about their future.  And despite my dislike of clutter, I am a historian to the core.  I like to remember where I’ve been, even the unhappy times.

At the same time, I don’t really love the idea of people reading my personal journals after I’m gone.  My blog, sure; I’ve chosen to publish those thoughts and put them out there.  But my rage-y journal from my high school years: do I really want the kids to read those without me there to give those passages context?  Still, I can’t imagine burning them to prepare for the day I’m not here.

Are you a historian or a burner, and can you ever imagine burning your old journals or deleting your blog?

cross-posted with BlogHer


1 Tracie { 09.16.13 at 8:21 am }

I have thought about burning old high school journals over that same question, “do I really want the kids to read those without me there to give those passages context?” But I just can’t bring myself to do it. I think those journals are context – context for who I was, and who I became, and how I ended up my daughter’s mother. I wouldn’t share all of those stories and feelings and words with her now, while she is ten, but I think one day she could make the decision to read them if she chose (after I am gone).

Recently I was thinking about my own mother. She is still alive, but has a notoriously bad memory. How I wish she had kept journals (or blogged!) when she was a teen, a young adult, a new mom. I wish that one day I could open up a book of her words, her stories, her…HER…and get to know those pieces of her life. Things she wouldn’t share with me (and probably doesn’t even remember) now, but would provide the context of her life when the day comes for me to look back and make sense of who exactly my mother was, and how she came to be fully herself.

In my heart, I’m a historian.

2 Jen { 09.16.13 at 8:31 am }

I stopped writing my infertility blog when my second daughter was born and started a new one. But I left the old one up. I couldn’t bear to delete it. I wanted those words and emotions to be out there still.

To protect it from ever being lost online, I turned that blog into a book and had one copy printed. I sometimes read bits out to my older daughter, who’s six now. The pages where I wrote how much of a blessing she was when I was so unhappy in other ways. One day they’ll both be able to read and understand it. The thought of losing that book is like losing a part of me! I could never burn it.

The historian in me couldn’t stand the thought of losing touch with the ‘me’ I once was.

3 Tiara { 09.16.13 at 8:42 am }

Interesting that you bring this up now, as I came across the journals from the few years before having Elena. I’d always imagined my kids reading my journals, but now after re-reading these ones & how dark & sad that time was, I question if that’s be a good idea. But a part of me feels like maybe I could let her read them BEFORE I’m gone, so I could provide the context. I am definitely an historian.

4 loribeth { 09.16.13 at 9:18 am }

Nope. No can do. I have become a lot better at purging stuff, both at my current home and at my parents’ house, but there are some things that are sacred. 😉 My old journals are in a box in the closet of my former bedroom at my parents’ house. I do need to retrieve them someday, because I would be embarrassed if someone found & read them now (all that teenaged angst…), but I could not bear the thought of losing them forever. They are a part of me & who I was then, even if I am not entirely that same person today (thank goodness, lol).

We are incredibly fortunate to have copies of letters that were written by my greatx2 grandmother to her parents & sister after they moved west in the late 1870s/early 1880s, describing family events & life in the emerging west. Wonderful tidbits like watching Sitting Bull & his braves dancing in the streets of the town where I was born, and expressions of annoyance at her uncle who owed money to her father. There is even a letter from my greatx2 grandfather informing the parents about the stillbirth of a baby. 🙁 The sister obviously treasured these letters — kept them & even stitched them together into a little booklet. After she died, the story goes that they were destined for the trash heap but a cousin of my grandfather’s retrieved them. They were loaned to a local college & transcribed, and copies made for family members. The originals went back to the cousin’s family, until we enquired about them a few years ago. They have now been donated & archivally preserved at the local museum. I feel so incredibly lucky that we have them and all the knowledge they contain about our family, and that I have been able to hold the originals in my hands & see my ancestors’ handwriting.

I know my mom has a diary & a box of old letters somewhere. I would never presume to look at them now, but I would like to see them — someday — and hope she doesn’t destroy them.

5 Mali { 09.16.13 at 9:21 am }

I absolutely hate the idea of people reading things I wrote for me and me alone, after I’m gone. I mean, I cringe and want to curl up in a little ball and die when I think of people reading them! (Though of course, if I am dead, well, will I care? )

When I was an exchange student, I kept a diary and also still have all the letters I wrote to my family. I’m gradually recording those, and once I have finished, I will burn all my diaries and letters. Similarly with diaries I kept through my infertility. I’m not a burner by instinct – I do like to record. But in an appropriate format!

Other writings – like my blog or others, that are out there and public – I don’t mind.

6 Rebecca { 09.16.13 at 11:57 am }

I burned all of mine the week after my Mother, z’l, died. I saved one. The journal of my trip to the Soviet Union and the death of a friend were included in that one. Everything else was burned. I don’t regret it either. Sometimes I get curious about something and think oh it would be in the journal but I had good, solid reasons for setting the words free.

7 gradualchanges { 09.16.13 at 1:13 pm }

Intresting… this is something I’ve considered in the past but am not sure which side of the fence I fall on. On one hand, I’m definitely a “keeper” of things. On the other hand, I would be forever embarrassed if anyone were to read my personal notebooks. At this point I’m leaning towards burning… or at least purging some of the most embarrassing bits.

8 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 09.16.13 at 1:17 pm }

I think I’ll keep most things. I can’t think of much I’ve written that I absolutely couldn’t stand anyone to read after I was gone.

I hate people reading my stuff in my presence, though. Is that just me? I have to leave the room.

9 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 09.16.13 at 1:17 pm }

Okay… my comments are just disappearing. Have you been getting any comments from me lately?

10 Jenny { 09.16.13 at 2:27 pm }

I’m both.

I’ve kept most of my journals and blog posts, but I’ve also had no problem in burning whole sections of my journals or deleting old blogs. It comes down to me being selective in what I want to leave behind. There were some parts of my life that were so difficult and painful that I needed to remove all physical reminders of them as part of my healing process. The act of burning those memories helped me to move on.

11 Courtney { 09.16.13 at 2:32 pm }

I’m not at a point at all where I could burn my journals! I’ve been keeping them since the 6th grade and except for one which I destroyed (another story for another day) I enjoy occasionally leafing through them and even rereading them – I’m also hopeful they’ll someday give me insight into my daughter as she grows up. That said, they aren’t things I really want my kids to read so I am hoping I can the right way to destroy them at the end of my life, or be cremated with them or some such – I’ll figure it out (or won’t, and won’t know the difference, I guess!)

12 Turia { 09.16.13 at 2:44 pm }

I am an historian. 100%. I am TERRIBLE at getting rid of paper, and there’s no way I could ever get rid of the journals I’ve kept, much as I might like to. Don’t know what I’ll want to do with them when I’m old and grey though, as the idea of someone else reading my adolescent angst is a bit worrying.

13 JustHeather { 09.16.13 at 3:37 pm }

Definitely don’t want to burn any of my journals! I know my mom at least wrote some notes in some journal-things, but I’ve not been able to read more than the few things I saw. I hope to go back to my hometown before my sisters moves out so that I can get my hands and read more of what my mom wrote. I hope it will bring me closer to her and maybe even understand her in ways I never did when she was alive. There was so much I never got to ask her and I do regret that.

14 a { 09.16.13 at 4:24 pm }

I am neither. I don’t record things in journals – I have 2-3 travel journals, and 1.5 journals for/about my daughter, but that’s it. I certainly wouldn’t burn those, though. I tend to save emails, but never look at them again. If they all disappeared, I wouldn’t notice. After reading this, I should do one more – a sort of history of me. But really, who’s going to be interested? No guarantees that my daughter would be.

15 GeekChic { 09.16.13 at 4:42 pm }

Interesting that you pose this question today since I just destroyed my journals that I kept when I was younger. Since I just received my most recent cancer diagnosis my mortality is on my mind and I decided that I didn’t want my journals read by anyone – so away they went.

I also routinely destroy old hard drives and other discs from old computers. And I don’t blog.

Why destroy them? My thoughts are mine and written for no one else (even my husband hasn’t seen them).

16 Karen (formerly Serenity) { 09.16.13 at 5:16 pm }

I am a burner. I think about deleting my old blog on a regular basis. What stops me is that that old blog might help someone who is struggling with her infertility. Maybe she’ll find it on a night where she feels alone because her sister in law or best friend or whomever just announced her pregnancy.

I can’t bear to take away a potential lifeline for someone who is suffering. So my old blog still exists.

My old journals… I would burn them in a heartbeat. I SHOULD burn them. When I read them I just get sad for the girl I was. I know at some level that the person I am today is BECAUSE of that girl, but man, it’s tough to see. And the thing with the past – you can’t go back and change it. You can only change the present.

I haven’t actually gotten rid of them yet because I have very few childhood posessions (my parents are burners too), and those journals somehow made it through lots of years of parental burnings, you know? I might be holding onto them just because it was one of the few things my parents didn’t get rid of.


17 Catwoman73 { 09.16.13 at 5:24 pm }

I am a burner. Absolutely. Perhaps it comes from the military upbringing- we were perpetually downsizing, and reducing clutter. I have destroyed every journal that I ever started, and there only a scant few items remaining that are reminiscent of my childhood (though I do really enjoy looking at the items that remain). I feel somewhat protective of my blog, but who knows how I’ll look at it 10 or 15 years down the road? My thoughts in the moment- even during very significant moments- always seem far less relevant when I look at them decades later- that’s why I destroyed my journals with such ease. I have even been terrible at recording my all of my daughter’s firsts… which I do feel somewhat guilty about. I have thousands of pictures of her, but I haven’t kept a baby book or anything. It’s just my way, I suppose…

18 persnickety { 09.16.13 at 6:51 pm }

Absolutely a historian. I wanted to be an archivist when I was younger, and it is those burnt journals which are so valued. I am fascinated by the debris of other lives, of the things people valued, and those they did not. That said, i understand the need to declutter.
But I have thrown things out that I later regretted, so it is a slow process for me.
I still have letters from my teens (letters!) but I was never a good journal keeper, so I don’t have that.
If you are torn, or cannot find the space, talk to a local archive/state library/university library. I know that my college had an extensive archive focusing on women’s history (that either includes or will include several boxes of Helen Gurley Brown’s papers, as well as a lot of Sylvia Plath stuff).
I love reading/hearing about other people’s lives, particularly when they are telling it- simply to see what the story of their life is.
My mother, and her mother before her are both burners. But my mother is still upset about losing some stuff she valued, so has made an effort to keep some things- careful curation of significant/representative items from our childhood and her life.

19 Cindy { 09.16.13 at 8:20 pm }

I am definitely a burner. In fact, mine are already gone. In Jan. 2010, 8 days after my 54 birthday, I was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. In February I was scheduled to have my aneurysm coiled. Although it didn’t require open brain surgery, there were still risks involved. Because of that, I chose to burn my journals in the grill outside. There was nothing in them that I cared to have anyone ever read. It was my private thoughts not to be shared. I don’t regret it.

20 Amel { 09.17.13 at 9:43 am }

I’m definitely a historian. Still have my old journals from when I was in Junior High. Actually I gave my old journals to hubby and he also let me read his old ones. I guess we’re both historians in a way ha ha…

I LOVE LOVE LOVE rereading old journals/blog posts every now and then to see how I’ve changed/improved and how certain things have affected me over the years, because in this fast-paced world more often than not we forget the little details and it’s just nice to be reminded of those details. As you can see, I LOVE details he he…

Actually after deciding to life without kids, I even begin to consider my blogs as a sort of legacy for the world. 🙂

21 Lori Lavender Luz { 09.17.13 at 3:45 pm }

I’m in the boat with you. I journal because I want to document. I want to be able to go back to any day in my life (well, back to my teens) and know what I was going through on that day. I could never never burn them.

But I also don’t know what will happen to them later on. Like you, I don’t want my kids (or anyone else) reading without the context I could provide. My sister who also journals has instructions to make decisions about the journals should something happen to me.

22 St. Elsewhere { 09.18.13 at 1:50 am }

I am both.

I can be very passionate about chronicling. And then someday, if it no longer serves me right, I would want to just remove the whole thing.

My old diaries. I was an on and off diarist, but now I do not want anyone else to read what I wrote. I have been thinking about parting with them somehow, though I might just tear them.

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