I'VE BEGUN A DEJA-VU BLOG AT WWW.AIMEELIU.NET TO EXCAVATE AND EXTRACT ENTRIES ABOUT WRITING FROM PAST JOURNALS, TO SHAKE THEM OUT IN THE LIGHT OF TODAY AND SEE IF MY THOUGHTS BACK THEN (WHENEVER THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN) STILL HOLD UP TODAY. HERE AT REDROOM, I'LL SHARE SOME OF THESE ENTRIES WITH YOU. FOR THE REST, PLEASE VISIT http://www.aimeeliu.net/blog.htm
For the past thirty years I've made a habit of writing a great many words that I will never read again. I’m not talking about transient notes -- grocery lists that get misplaced or reminders for a next great novel that sink, deservedly, between the sofa cushions. And plenty of words pass through the temporary gibberish of first, second, and sometimes twelfth story drafts before finding home in the waste basket. But the passages, the chapters, the volumes that I have no intention of re-reading belong to my journals.
They are proliferating as I get older. I now have in-progress handwritten journals, kept in a bedside drawer, plus crates of “completed” volumes filling several closets. I have notebooks with plans for the current novel, date books to remind me of memorable phone calls, a planner with sketches of new story lines and emerging characters. And this computer journal. All versions of Daily Themes.
Daily Themes was a college course I never took. I was studying art then, going to be a "New York painter," and gun-shy about any class that required as much discipline as I was pouring onto my canvasses. Discipline notwithstanding, a crisis of funding and inspiration ended my painting career within months after graduation and re-set my course as a writer. By then it was too late. Classmates who had taken Daily Themes were already on their way to becoming world-class screenwriters, novelists, and journalists. I knew I had missed a good thing.
But wait! Hadn’t I been keeping a journal since fifth grade? In Daily Themes, students were required to produce exactly that, a theme a day. Presumably they got weekends off for good behavior. Presumably these themes did get a reading or two in the course of class. But the central idea was to create the habit of writing, to develop the elusive "voice," and exercise the basics of beginning-middle-end structure. The topic hardly mattered, or the tone. An encounter at a bookstore or a dream about a cloned elephant worked equally well as fodder. The point was to learn to write right and write often, and to use the act of writing to discover what one had to say. Still, I consoled myself, the class was the equivalent of a personal trainer for someone who hated to exercise; I preferred to exercise alone.
I plunged back into journal writing with renewed vigor, and today it is still my personal writing workout. Composing a daily theme helps combat fear-of-white-paper syndrome, encourages a personal syntax, and forces me to think onto the page. It gives me practice, and practice, to rephrase the truism, is vital for anything even approaching perfection.
But if journals require discipline in writing, they make no outright demands on reading. How many times have I sat for an hour laboring over a description of my four-year-old son’s night terrors, or my father’s ninetieth birthday party, or my sense of abject helplessness in the face of my best friend’s cancer – only to close the journal and never look at these pages again. Perhaps that shows a certain laziness on my part, but I prefer to think of it as freedom. It means that the journal page is never frightening or daunting or critical. It turns the journal into a confidante who really never will tell.
Unless we want her to. Or unless she falls into the wrong hands. Or unless she's still around after we're gone. Because, inevitably, that is another part of the journal’s allure. Someone else just might read what we ourselves won’t. By then we might be famous -- or infamous. Or history may have heightened our casual themes’ importance. Perhaps, for example, it will matter that I am writing these words as America braces for war on Iraq. Today’s journals are tomorrow’s evidence and artifacts. In this respect, my daily themes comprise my testament.
But in another respect they are entirely of this moment. I write in my journal as I speak words I will never hear again, as I tour places I will never visit again, or view art that I will see only once in my lifetime. For the experience. For the memory. For the element of life that they give back to me, not in the reflection but in the doing. And, should I ever revisit them, it is the doing that will mean the most. It will flood back over and amaze me. How young I was, with nearly no gray in my hair, with my boy just eleven and in a new school, and my husband approaching the height of his career. Through this code of words I will see myself as I can't right now putting the very words down. I will see myself in my torn robe and nightshirt, indulging in the quiet of my morning house before the phone calls begin, the drone of traffic pouring down Westwood Boulevard, the sparrows bickering on the telephone wires high above my yard.
I know that if I ever read this again, I will appear to myself so young, even at forty-plus. I will smile nostalgically and shake my head. I know because, as I say, I have journals going back thirty years. And whatever I’ve told you up to this point, every now and then I do take a peek. Not to read, but to remember. However truncated, however lazy, however petulant, coded, or flawed, it's my life on these pages. This reflection, at least, has not leaked away with age.
Causes Aimee Liu Supports
PEN USA, Academy for Eating Disorders, Women for Women, UNICEF, Amnesty International