I used to have a book with 365 bedtime stories in it. One for every day of the year, in case you couldn’t figure that out for yourself. I can only remember a few of them now; the story for my birthday, my sister’s birthday and the story for January the First. It was only short, and the plot centred around a bear family, who all got new diaries for Christmas and swore to write in them every day of the year. I also had a diary bought for me that year, and decided to take a leaf out of the bears’ book. Needless to say I was unsuccessful and my diary was soon lost in the back of a junk drawer somewhere.
But as I got older diary writing became more important to me. The diaries themselves were always tiny little things with three or four days on each page and what I wrote was so inane. Today I asked mum if we can move to Italy. She said no. P.S. I really need to pluck my eyebrows. And when I was feeling particularly verbose of a weekend I once wrote, ‘I just had my hair trimmed. I went shopping and I bought some leggings, jeans and a bra. 34B!!’ Like I said, it was thrilling stuff.
And then just before I turned thirteen, things got way more intense. Teenage angst had really set in. My entries got longer and longer and longer. It stopped being writing for writing’s sake, and became something much more important. It was a form of therapy, as cheesy as that may sound. I didn’t limit myself, or set targets and rules. I just let myself write when I felt like it, and not write when I didn’t.
At my lowest points I carried my journal everywhere. I’ve wrote entries on the bus, in lessons, lectures, in cafe corners and in the toilets at work. When I was at college I used to ‘wag’ lessons and catch the bus back to my suburb and instead of going straight home I’d sit on a park bench and scribble away for an hour or two. It felt good to have space and fresh air for the first time.
There were times when I’d wake up in the middle of the night, tight chested and alight with panic. Unable to sleep, unable to breathe, unable even to cry. I’d haul my duvet off my bed, cocoon it around myself and sit like that for hours, writing, until I felt calm again. My handwriting huge and looped because I was too tired for anything else. Too distant and distracted. Not fully in this world but not fully out of it either. It was at those low points when I’d do the worst drawings too, of nothing in particular with lazy lines, just because I wanted to be doing something other than sat in the dark thinking.
You don’t have to be a good writer. It’s not about producing great work. I’m never going to be an Anne Frank, Bridget Jones or Cassandra Mortmain. It’s not even about preserving the self you once were. It’s purely to do with distracting yourself, clearing your mind and getting your shit together, which is often much more difficult than we can ever imagine. Starting a diary is always the first thing I advise my friends to do if they’re having a hard time. It’s what we advised our kids to do at the last place I worked.
For the last couple of years I stopped. I didn’t even open my diary; I didn’t need to. I started a ridiculously thick A4 scrapbook that would weigh me down if I ever tried to take it out of the house. Cutting out articles about gender, sexuality, and images of happy, confident, smiling women. I am now happy, confident and smiling too. But whenever that feeling creeps up on me again, and I feel like shrinking back, away from the rest of the world, the best thing I can do is to pick up a pen and write.
Photo taken by myself of one of my many, many journals.