‘I stopped journalling – it was too dangerous…’

This new post in my guest series on personal writing, by Anne Phillips, vividly evokes the feeling of danger and edginess that writing can bring – something I’ve often felt myself, and that I see in other writers who come to workshops. It can hold you back, but overcoming it is part of the buzz of writing.

Anne lives and works in North Wales as a teacher; she’s widowed with four grown up children. Her entry spans 50 years of diary writing life.

Some of Anne’s lovely notebooks

My writing life began at a young age. I was two. Blue pencil in hand, I scrawled my name backwards on the wall beneath the coats in the cupboard under the stairs. No one had any idea it was there, until twelve years later (seven after dad died), when my mother decided to paint the cupboard.

I filled exercise books with ‘double writing’ writing books for my doll and teddy. One of my earliest memories is sitting at my brother’s school desk and pretending to be a writer. No surprise that I kept diaries between then and the age of seventeen …. Young love, crushes. The superficial details and concerns of teen life. I vividly remember the day I stuffed them into the rubbish bin outside Swansea Market. I was seventeen, I had my job. I was an adult. It was time to grow up.

Writing then was a secretive occupation — not to be admitted to. This was compounded when someone close to me read a diary where I had been working out my thoughts and feelings about our relationship. In my memory I heard my mother’s voice, ‘You can’t write that. You can’t say that.’

I married, left the bank, had children. I stopped journalling — it was too dangerous and disturbed other people. Best keep thoughts inside. Writing was the stuff and dreams of childhood.

Unsurprisingly, as a full time privacy freak, full of censored thoughts, I was outraged in my thirties, when a therapist, casually — yes casually — asked me, ‘So, have you had any dreams this week?’

To begin with, I’d narrate them, then for speed I’d write them down. Stories would emerge, poems, thoughts — each in its designated notebook. For more speed I’d email my dreams. My husband was diagnosed with an incurable but treatable multiple myeloma. My dreams and journals became uglier, muddled, frightening. How would I cope? Widowhood brought with it a series of A4 journals too ranty to reread. In the middle of this I rediscovered my love of writing. Somewhere in this process – I remember where, not when – I said, ‘All I want is to be a writer.’

I kept an ideas notebook, a work notebook (by now I was teaching), a dream notebook and a notebook for my MA. I was awash with notebooks swapping one for another dependent on where I was. I down graded form A4 to A5 swapped utility blue for sparklier, more colourful diaries.

Now I am still negotiating widowhood, single parenting, a stressful job. My MA is complete and I write, occasionally with a small amount of success. I only keep one notebook and I nearly died of fright this week when I mislaid it. It’s got my whole life in there: stories, ideas, dreams, to do lists class lists resit lists, plans story arcs. I don’t want anyone to read it and realise that inside my head is a dangerous place to be.

My use of journals and journalling sums up my attitudes to a writing life. Keeping one integrated book feels ok. It’s ok to have thoughts and feeling written down. It’s ok to have dreams. It’s ok to disrupt other people. The note book covers enlivened my life as it become more enlivened. I had a sparkly phase, a butterfly phase, a blue phase, and these reflect my inner state too. There are still ‘no-go’ areas in my inner life. That too is ok. I’ll get to them when I need to or am moved to.

Only one notebook remains unwritten in. A gift from my sister who is as much a mother to me, it is the most beautifully jewelled clasped design. I simply cannot bring myself to write in it! This is a book not for drafting — not with my mucky handwriting! The inscription reads, Anne keep putting pen to paper, but most of all have joy in doing so. Love L & H

Can you relate to Anne’s conflicting feelings about writing? Leave a comment!


7 thoughts on “‘I stopped journalling – it was too dangerous…’”

  1. Thank you Jenny for publishing Anne’s post. I very much enjoyed it. “Writing was the stuff and dreams of childhood”. I remember this vividly from my own childhood. Sometimes I had an itch in my arms that just provoked me to pick up a pen and words streamed out of it. Now it has just become a dripping, of a few spots here and there (usually on my blog).

  2. Hello Anne. I can relate to your fear of anyone reading your innermost thoughts. When I was going through my divorce, it was easier to convey my thoughts to a diary rather than share them with my husband. But I secretly wished he’d read it so I didn’t have to explain. Then one day he did. It cleared the air but it could so easily have gone the other way.

  3. hello, thanks Jen for hosting this and for the comments. re reading this now it comes across as fear, but also I think it was the exposure which was scary. The “you can’t say/write that… for fear of what other people will think of you/me/us. they were valid thoughts though, I know that now

    1. They definitely are valid thoughts, Anne – I really relate to them. Writing is a powerful process. The words remain, after your thoughts and ideas have moved on. John Fowles talked about that – how the writer can’t leave their past behind as other people can, because all the previous versions of him still exist in his work. I’ve talked about it here in my post about why you should never read someone else’s journal.

  4. I’m glad you picked up a daily journal again, Anne. Yes, such writings can be dangerous. Any writer knows that the truth often spills out onto the page or computer screen. There are really no filters for we creative types. Writing, drawing, dancing, etc., is how we communicate with the world. So what’s to hold us back? Everyone else seems to tell us what to do; how to think; how to feel – as if though they know what’s best for us. In a journal or diary, however, anyone can be free of society’s restraints. There are no rules for grammar or political correctness. They’re your words and thoughts. No one else bears the right to command how we should present them.

    Last month an older female friend of mine passed away after a brief ailment. I hadn’t heard from her in the longest time and wondered what happened. She was elderly, so I often suspected the worst. But she was an extraordinary person; someone who pretty much lived life on her own terms. That’s amazing unto itself; considering she was a Black woman born and raised in the southeastern U.S. Over her long life she kept frequent journals, which we discussed a few times during our many conversations. While she was much more extroverted than me, we had that much in common; a love for the written word and a desire to communicate our truest thoughts. She once emphasized, however, that her journals would never be published. They were strictly therapeutic, as mine are to me. I don’t know if she left any instructions to her children and grandchildren to destroy those journals. But I always thought what a shame that would be because she was such an incredible person. She, too, spoke the truth, but didn’t just leave it on paper. If we all could only be so bold!

    Indeed, diaries and journals can possess a degree of intimidation – often for the people who occupy our lives because they never know how they’ll turn out. But they definitely can pose a threat to the authors as well – but only if we fear the truth of our own personas.

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