Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Lost Diaries of a Future Author

Open Book Gateway, photograph by Clyde Robinson, via Flickr

I first read Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl when I was about eleven or twelve years old. In the self-centeredness of prepubescence, what I most identified with was Anne’s difficult relationship with her mother. And I was awestruck at the audacious way she wrote about their arguments and how angry she was at her mother.

It wasn’t long before I decided to start writing a diary of my own. It served as a record of things I did and places I went so that I could remember and transcribe the most relevant news into letters to my best friend, who had moved overseas when we were ten. I made a pencil mark at the end of the last entry to have made it into the current letter, so I would know where to begin the next. In those days, it took several weeks for our mail to be delivered, so it was easily two months’ worth of diary entries that went into each letter.

And, emboldened by Anne, I also used my diary to vent my frustration, devastation, and rage over my mother’s abusive behaviour towards me. It would be twenty years before my mother was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder; all I had for support was pen and paper.

When I was nineteen I left home and escaped overseas for two years, taking the current diary with me to record my adventures and travels—but, stupidly and in the rush of packing, I forgot to lock away the six or so books I’d amassed over the years. Or maybe it was fate. My parents moved house while I was away, and my mother found and decided to read my diaries “to try and figure out why [her] daughter was so unhappy”. When I returned, she confronted me about their contents that described “family business” and abuse that I’d been told never to reveal. Although we managed to have it out with many tears on both sides, she won that round and I felt I had no choice but to allow her to burn the diaries with their damning evidence against her. I even handed over my travel diary that had nothing about her in it.

I stopped keeping a diary until about seven years later when I realised I was being left behind while everyone and their dog was happily blogging away. My first attempts to join in lead to panic; it was then that I noticed how deeply but subconsciously I’d been affected by my mother’s condemnation of my personal writing. I had developed a complete and painful mental block against writing about myself and my feelings. For an author, this was a serious problem: I couldn’t even manage a decent bio, let alone a blog. Even Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages failed for me—I ended up using them to write general articles at one point rather than stream of consciousness, because stream of subconscious said, “Don’t you dare write down what you really feel.”

It took me ten years to get to the point where I could blog without feeling sick to my stomach. But, still, I found it painful and laboured, posting probably once a month on average, if that. Every so often I try to keep a record of some sort—my children's births and early childhoods, especially—but for each short note I make, there is much more that remains locked in my head, so much that I want to go back and fill in. I've come to think that I might one day consolidate the scraps of Morning Pages, notebooks, and day-to-a-page diaries, prompted by some of the thousands of photographs sitting on various hard drives, and write it down as a family-only memoir. I think then I might find some peace.

As painful as it was for both of us, my mother reading my diaries did have a positive effect thirteen years after the fact, shortly before she died. As part of the counselling that followed her diagnosis with bipolar disorder, my mother reopened communication on her behaviour during my childhood. It didn’t go smoothly, but she gradually came to understand and accept my point of view, and had the grace to apologise. I think we both achieved some closure on the issue and reconciled before she died, and I was slowly able to write publicly about myself again.

This month at the Blood-Red Pencil we are looking at life-writing in it's various forms: memoirs, journals, diaries, autobiographies. If you missed it, do catch Maryann Miller's post on memoir writing and the release of her latest book, The Many Faces of Grief: Stories of Love, Loss, and Hope From a Hospital Chaplain.


Elle Carter Neal is the author of the middle grade fantasy The Convoluted Key (first in the Draconian Rules series), the picture book I Own All the Blue, and teen science-fantasy novel Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin. She is based in Melbourne, Australia. Find her at ElleCarterNeal.com or check out her programme for new writers at Fully Booked.

Photo by Amanda Meryle Photography

 


10 comments :

  1. There's something about teenage girls and mothers that seem universal. One is trouble getting along. I was glad I had sons because I'm sure I would have had problems. "Mother knows best" isn't always a good pattern to follow.

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    1. Ha ha. It's my son I clash with most - we're too similar. My daughter and I are besties at the moment - we'll see if it survives the teen years ;-)

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  2. Journalling is good for the soul. I didn't know that as a teen, but I started writing down my thoughts, feelings, poems at 12. After several missteps as a young adult, I decided to destroy my journals. I really wish I hadn't. We lose all those days and keep but a rare moment. But shame is a powerful persuader and children who grow up in dysfunctional homes have shame down pat.

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    1. It certainly is. I wish I still had mine for the historical narrative -- I was a history major in high school when Nelson Mandela was released and our teachers were re-learning history as they taught. It was such a fascinating time and I know I wrote about it. And also the "voice" of a teenager would be useful both for the YA books I write and also for remembering what things teens think about now that I'm about to parent teens myself. :-(

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  3. I have never been successful for more than a month or so at keeping a diary or at journalling. Memoirs often make it onto my reading list, but I can't imagine myself ever writing one.

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    1. You never know. Maybe one day you'll find a theme that resonates.

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  4. It's great you got some closure in the end.

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  5. This is quite a good post, Elle. You have articulated your feelings with grace and honesty, and I applaud your journey to the place you are today. I quit writing in a diary well before graduating from high school, turning instead to writing poetry to express feelings from a neutral (?) POV. As a novelist, I give expression to painful experiences and how-I-wish-things-had-transpired situations through my characters. This has proven amazingly effective in reducing deep emotional bruises to only slightly tender places to revisit. It will also be the topic of my article this month.

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  6. Great blog post, Elle, and I'm so glad you were able to have peace with your mother before she died. I'm so glad that I was able to have that with my mom before she died. Things not resolved tend to eat at us from the inside out.

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