I was thinking back over my last essay here and got to pondering the deeper significance of keeping a journal, especially one that others can read, and which is written as much for those other readers as for myself. The aims are not mutually exclusive.
It occurs to me that there are certain themes that I come back to again and again, with minor, but significant variations. I am going to try to articulate them here, but it will be somewhat difficult because in my mind I am going to be going back through almost 25 years of online journal writing.
It has been a transformative journey, these past 2 1/2 decades of writing online. What I have written is an outpouring of some of my innermost feelings, incomplete in their expression and depth, but working toward some fuller embodiment,through writing, of who I am, or at least what I am willing to let others know.
The caveat is that much is left out, but I’m okay with that because I deeply value my privacy. In fact, I am known to be a very private person, but writing and posting so many of what I term, “personal essays,” has allowed me to share my thoughts on numerous topics and compose “memory pieces,” which, when written down, become part of my semi-permanent legacy to readers now and possibly in the future.
This is exactly what I set out to do. Because of this, I’ve never felt the need or desire to write memoirs and other books for print publication. Paradoxically, I who love books and buy and collect them, never felt a need to write one. Before the mass introduction of the Internet and World Wide Web via personal computers and later a multiplicity of devices including tablets and smart phones, traditional publication apart from my newspaper stories, would not have been seriously pursued. I didn’t have the inclination to do that.
So what did I set out to do back in 1998 with my first home page on GeoCities? Inform, entertain, illuminate and share some of the peaks and valleys of my uniquely individual paths and journey through life? Now at 72, I look back to the past perhaps more then ever, acknowledging the risks of preoccupation with the past, but trying not to become mired in reliving years which in so many ways we’re more active, productive and enjoyable then now. An online journal or diary enables what hopefully will be a permanent record of selected thoughts and memories, organized into personal essays. This is very different from diaries or journals that we keep on paper, locked away and kept at a distance from anyone who might conceivably find it or read it.
And yet, as I was telling someone the other day, what I write here is, for the most part, what I would probably have written in some notebook in my handwriting. There will always be gaps in any life stories written in segments online, just as in paper diaries, unless one is a meticulous and avid chronicler of one’s daily life. I understand the immense value of that type oI diary, but am unwilling to reveal but so much. I am not sure how much more personal and revealing I can make my online writing without compromising my privacy. But I have made the effort to write, and, tellingly, the recurring themes I reveal here would likely have appeared in any form of journal writing I chose. Or, they might have been similar to subjects and topics I in weekly small-town newspaper columns I wrote for years, as both a staff writer and editor.
Several of my more introspective essays over the years reveal that I zealously guard and preserve documents, papers, photos, mememtoes, and writing from my past, and that includes far back in the past, to high school and even grade school. Or from early in my brief but mind-altering, teaching career. Tonight, for instance, I was marveling over some of the essays my English students wrote in class more than 40 years ago. I was reading some of them again for the first time since they were written, and they reveal a lot about me as well as what was transpiring in those young minds back in the early 1980s. What insights they had at such an early age! I could not bear to part with those papers, so they remain in file folders stored in boxes, waiting to yield more insights about a major formative period in my young adulthood.
There are other things I’ve saved like that from other jobs, including another teaching job a few years later at a college. I have many boxes of documents and keepsakes, and these provide seemingly endless subject matter for my personal essays, now, and in the past and future.
Some people will say they are too busy living in the present to hold onto things from the past, but I have always contended that it is those writings, memorabilia, objects and mementoes, documents, photos, letters and myriad other “artifacts,” valued and saved from my past that reveal what I value most, and what I realize have been essential to my personal growth and development. They comprise, in sum, my own personal history, a comprehensive memoir consisting of memorabilia that could be written, but won’t because it already has, posted online incrementally for 25 years.
I quite like the term “personal history” because it can hopefully imbue our lives with stature and standing in the world, as unique individuals who have accomplished much over lifetimes, and who wish to share the lessons they have learned with others. Thus, a major recurring them in my essays is exploring, re-examining, and writing about my past, drawing from memories, but, more than this alone, from all the prompts to memory that are contained within my keepsakes, documents and memorabilia.
Secondly, I write often about the power of “place” in my life, both the special place I now call home, as well as New Orleans, where I grew up, and the other places lived, even if just briefly, and also the many places that I have encountered on trips around the country by car so long ago now.
For years, I was searching for home, some spot on the map where my imagined happiness could be found. In constantly searching, I did not find it, but in at last ceasing my endless wandering, I found it. I discovered that the home I was seeking was, in actuality, always there waiting for me. I just didn’t realize it until circumstance and necessity, as well as desire, led me to Charleston. Living here in this old city, home to some of my ancestors, I am able to write often in my diary about the city and nearby Folly Beach because I hope that I am not leaving any time soon or departing this earth yet, and both places have become inextricably a part of my life over many decades now.
Thirdly, I write about the great joy of my life which is my connection to Nature, to the natural world. I write about the special parks and preserves where I find a deep sense of peace and belonging. I take special pleasure in describing my visits to the ocean, my observations of the salt marshes and sections of beach where I read and think, and my countless observations and appreciation for all the manifestations of Nature, and the environment where I live in the coastal plain of South Carolina. I look at the clouds on the horizon so many afternoons and evenings. I am constantly aware of the changing cycles of life through the passing of each season. I have my favorite times of the year, but I am equally at home in all the seasons.
Finally, I write about all that interests me and which I wish to share with others. My mind sweeps across many disciplines of knowledge and I have a curiosity about so many branches of learning. That is why I am glad I studied the liberal arts in college and chose for my first career, journalism. It enabled me to explore writing and photography on a daily basis and do it for a living. It satisfied my curiosity to interview and get to know about the accomplishments of people across all walks of life. I did that for years. Now, in my online journals, I can continue writing about things that interest me just as I did years ago in my newspaper columns.
Life is a great adventure, and the older I get, the more mysterious and beautiful it seems. And this is also because so much of it begins to make sense. Trying to convey in writing what I have learned and experienced is what I am privileged to be able to do online, and why I cannot imagine not doing so.