Maybe you’re the type who never wants your private writings read after you’ve died. Or maybe you’re fine with the idea and even like the concept of living on, in a way, through your words. But you’d be a rare bird to take in stride the discovery that someone else has read your private writings while you’re still very much alive. To learn that eyes other than your own have traveled your secret and most sacred sentences, without your permission.
When I was twenty, I developed romantic feelings for a boy I’d met in my friend Nathanael’s dorm room a couple years prior. At first I had disliked him. A lot. He was absurdly arrogant, intentionally intimidating (or so he hoped), and he liked Dragon Ball Z. But he fell into my small college circle, and eventually I came to see the nice guy beneath all the armor. We bonded over music and stand-up comedy, marijuana and Pictionary, and what began as disdain became desire. He was tall and broad and had thick, dark hair that he ran his hands through all the time, and long dimples in both cheeks. Thoughts of him consumed my mind. And so of course, I wrote those thoughts in my journal.
Then one night while I was at work, my boyfriend read those thoughts. Jesse and I had started dating in our senior year of high school. Now we were juniors in college, I at Appalachian State University, and he at a private arts school about a hundred miles east. We visited each other every couple of weeks, talked on the phone almost daily. When I got home from waiting tables one snowy January night, Jesse was thoroughly drunk, playing foosball with my roommate and lifelong family friend, Dylan. He was obviously upset about something, and after vomiting in the toilet and brushing his teeth, he went into my bedroom and lay down.
I noticed his baseball cap was on the bottom shelf of my bedside table, on top of my journal, a cheap spiral notebook that I always left open to the last page I’d written. Suddenly I knew he’d read it. All my thoughts about that other guy. The poems. The dreams. The fantasies.
What ensued was a long, torturous night of interrogation. “What have you done? Did you kiss him? Not even on New Year’s? What about anyone else? Are you sure? Really sure? Are you lying?” And the whole time my heart was racing because I didn’t know exactly what Jesse knew. He’d read the journal in question mere hours earlier, whereas I hadn’t read some of the entries for weeks, since I’d written them. And I was thinking of all the other journals before it, filled with recollections that would shatter him. Because I had lied; there had been someone else. Nathanael. This Tyler thing was a tealight compared to that torch.
But: it was in the past.
“What if you had kissed him, and then brought me over to his house? What if you had died in some car accident, and your writings were all I had to remember you by?” I’d actually been thinking about that very thing the previous Saturday and had decided that I should will my journals to my sister Emily, the only person who wouldn’t be hurt or disappointed by any of their contents.
“What am I supposed to do? How can I trust you? Why aren’t I good enough?”
Again and again I tried to soothe him, convince him. I apologized countless times. I sobbed and moaned and begged for him to forgive me. Not once did I express any anger or resentment about his betraying my trust by reading my private writing — because I felt neither anger nor resentment. I’d been a fool to leave it out in plain sight like that. Had the tables been turned and had I been alone for hours in Jesse’s house, with his open journal right there (though he didn’t keep one), I probably would have done the same thing. Maybe.
Jesse said that he saw the notebook on the shelf and thought, “This is Sarah. These are her feelings, what she thinks about at the end of every day, all the things she won’t tell me or anyone. And it was wonderful.” Until, of course, it wasn’t. He wished he’d never started reading, but then he couldn’t stop. His crime contained his punishment. I felt no need to chastise him.
If I could live it again, however, I would have at least defended myself against Jesse’s interrogations. He was holding my own thoughts and feelings against me. There is a reason we cannot read each other’s minds, which Jesse had literally done. A violation of the most grievous order. A kind of psychological rape. My shame was indescribable.
I should have told him to go fuck himself. “I can think what I want and feel what I want, and you’re an asshole to judge me for any of it.” But instead I cursed myself, my stupid habit of writing down every thought in my silly head, and I vowed to never jot another word unless it really, truly mattered. It seemed all wrong, Jesse’s appraisal of my journal being synonymous with me. Those pages weren’t me at all. They were my boredom getting the best of me. Or that’s what I suddenly came to believe when they were thrust into the spotlight of someone else’s scrutiny. There’s nothing quite like another’s judgment to make you question who you really are, who you want to be.
Jesse and I stayed together for another year and a half. Then I broke up with him because I still had feelings for the guy I’d written about it my journal.
His name was Tyler. We dated for three years despite my having doubts about him from the beginning. The night we first kissed — after I’d decided to be the brave one and tell Tyler how I felt about him — I’d been under the impression that he was leaving town soon. A couple months prior, he’d returned from working for a summer as a deep sea fisherman in Alaska. The experience had inspired him to see more of America, and he’d resolved to stay in Boone just long enough to earn some traveling money.
But after we kissed (etc.), Tyler almost instantly abandoned those plans, and suddenly I was in a serious relationship. Within about six months we were living together, and after another year and a half we were headed for Wyoming in my Nissan Sentra. I’d completed a semester of graduate school (English Literature) and hated every second of it; I’d exhausted all my job options in Boone and was ready to leave. When I told Tyler my plans to work out West for the summer, I presented it as a choice, whether or not he joined me. This alone was upsetting for him. So he would have been devastated to know how much a part of me hoped he wouldn’t come.
He came. From June to October we waited tables and lived at Flagg Ranch, a combination campground and collection of rustic cottages, with horseback riding, a gift shop, a gas station, and a restaurant, situated in a snag-ridden, river-cleft forest just eight miles north of Grand Teton National Park and two miles south of Yellowstone. On our days off we hiked or swam or whitewater rafted or drove the hour to Jackson Hole for dinner and a movie, or drank and got high with our fellow seasonal slaves, most of them younger, many of them Russian.
Wyoming was where Tyler first read my journal. He returned to our room after work one night (I had the dayshift) to find me asleep, my notebook open next to me on the bed. He couldn’t help it; his eyes landed on a sentence that kept them glued there. And thus began his habit of reading that notebook, and the one that followed, on a regular basis until his conscience couldn’t take it anymore and he confessed. Confessed to penetrating, again and again for six whole months, the depths of my heart and psyche.
And what did he find there? Nathanael.
Just as I’d been writing about Tyler while dating Jesse, now I was writing about Nathanael while dating Tyler. Had Jesse known he would have laughed. Some sort of vengeance.
I’d known Nathanael since we were fifteen and had only ever thought of him as a friend until we were nineteen, when I found myself in his bed and in his arms. I was dating Jesse at the time and Nathanael was still dating his own high school sweetheart, who just so happened to attend Jesse’s private art school. Our very brief affair ended with a night of awkward sex. We’d both broken up with our respective partners, but for reasons that neither of us ever clearly explained, we never started a relationship of our own. Soon after sleeping with me, Nathanael set his sights on his roommate’s girlfriend. I watched him look at her just like he’d looked at me a couple months prior, and I knew I didn’t stand a chance.
Five months later I went back to Jesse.
But I’d yet to get Nathanael out of my system. We’d remained friends, so we saw each other regularly, and every now and then he’d be in just the right mood to hug me in a certain way or make particular comments that sent me spinning, and I’d think of him for weeks after. And by the time Tyler became my boyfriend I’d long since broken my promise of only writing down the thoughts and experiences that really, truly mattered. Maybe I couldn’t tell what mattered anymore. Maybe it all fucking mattered. Regardless, I had to write about my life, my thoughts.
A month or so before Tyler confessed, I journaled about something Nathanael had said or done that made me “swoon.” Soon after said writing, we were having dinner at my Mom’s house and I used the same word when talking about something literary. (John Updike, probably.) And right after the word came out of my mouth, Tyler echoed it. “Swoon.” His voice was far away, dark and bemused. His eyes contained a challenge. I knew then that something wasn’t right. What had only been a vague hunch up to that point suddenly possessed sharp dimensions.
But I didn’t say anything. Back at our apartment, I moved my journal to a new hiding spot. I’d been hiding it (or so I’d thought) since the Jesse incident.
The Tyler incident proved far more traumatizing. Partly it was the fact that I’d experienced this before — and how could I let it happen again? When would I learn to stop writing things down all the time? But also, it was the nature of Tyler’s transgression. To read a diary once and confess to it mere hours later is one thing. But to read it continuously, repeatedly, over time, is unforgivable.
And yet I forgave. After curling into a ball on the couch and saying “I’m so ashamed” into the cushions over and over again, I found myself insisting that Tyler was wrong: we shouldn’t break up. He’d prefaced his confession by saying we should. He was shaking, pale, dry-mouthed, devastated. I could see that it literally pained him to say what my journal had made clear: I had feelings for Nathanael. And these feelings differed wildly from the ones I possessed for Tyler.
But, as had been the case with Jesse, suddenly everything I’d written in my journal seemed false, foolish, not the real me. I tried explaining this to Tyler. “Just because I write it down doesn’t mean it’s true! I write it down to see if it’s true!” A small consolation.
But why had I so desperately wanted to console him, anyway? Again, my own guilt guided me. Compared to my moral infraction, Tyler’s seemed miniscule. I’d written down in black and blue and purple ink all my worst feelings about him, and all my best about Nathanael. Tyler’s ego had finally taken a hit large enough to leave a dent, and he was kneeling before me, crying. I couldn’t stand the sight of it. I would have done almost anything to get him standing and stoic again.
So I insisted we stay together. Tyler wasn’t hard to convince. We lasted another year and then I finally broke up with him because I never wanted to have sex and never enjoyed it when we did. Nathanael had nothing to do with it. And a few months later I started dating the man who would become my husband. A man whom I can trust to never read my journals, and whose journals I’ve never been tempted to read, because I respect him.
The Jesse incident happened long enough ago that I’ve been able to revisit, recently, the journal in question. But the Tyler incident, though some twelve years in the past, is still too chronologically close for comfort. To read again the words I wrote in those two notebooks, knowing that he would read each entry soon after I wrote it, and that he would then watch me differently, and, to be sure, treat me differently, with his wicked knowledge… I might never be ready for that.
I’m what journal therapist Kay Adams would call a wounded writer. Others in this category include anyone who’s been criticized for how they write, and anyone who’s been made to write in such a way that they’ve grown to hate it, fear it, resent it, etc. There are many wounded writers out there. Brenda Ueland, author of If You Want to Write (a book I only discovered in the past year and can’t believe I even managed to survive so long without it), would agree. Just her chapter titles tell you what Ueland is all about: Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say; “Know that there is often hidden in us a dormant poet, always young and alive” -de Musset; Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate, when you write; You do not know what is in you—an inexhaustible fountain of ideas. And my favorite: Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary.
Like these titles, every word of Ueland’s book serves to inspire and encourage, to remind us again and again (which is how we must be reminded) that our perspective matters. If we can just convey it honestly, through the details that stand out to us and make us feel and think, then we will write well. She talks a lot about the damage done by writing teachers who care more about grammar than about how a given sentence paints a picture in the reader’s mind, or how quickly the reader feels connected to the writer, like they know her. Luckily my own grasp of grammar has always been effortless, so I’ve never experienced such wounding-by-teacher. But I’ve endured enough creative writing workshops to feel that sting on a craft level and be shocked by the speed with which self-doubt can stun (and stunt) a pen.
And of course I’ve endured two Incidents. Either one could have scared me off the habit of keeping a “slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary,” but neither did. Not for long. I bet my wounds heal quicker because of it.