Last summer, I did something I have thought about doing for 15 years. I burned 90 of my journals.
That’s right, essentially 90 books of handwritten memories, thoughts, ideas, daily recaps, and dreams. Down in flames. Up in smoke.
For those of you who do not journal, you are probably thinking, “Um…yeah? So?”
And if you do journal and perhaps, like me, have done so for nearly four decades, you may think one of three things, for starters:
1) “How could you? That’s your history!”
2) “Good job – out with the old, in with the new!” or
3) “I have thought about doing that, too…”.
Interestingly, a decision that took me 15 years to make took only a few days to execute.
How I Decided To Let Go
As I mentioned, I have waffled over this idea for years. A few months ago, after a massive decluttering fit in various areas of my home, work, and life, I felt ready to make a decision once and for all: Either keep the journals and be happy about doing so, or let them go.
To decide, I turned – of course – to my journal.
I asked myself several questions, and a few really stood out:
1. Why do I journal?
2. Why would I save them? (And what would that feel like?)
3. Why would I burn them? (And what would that feel like?)
My responses formed an early decision (confirmation came later, which I will share in a moment). Why do I journal? The act serves so many purposes: I journal as a way to process emotions, solve problems, and vent on paper. I also journal as a method of dreaming, visioning, planning, and creating. I pray via my journal, brainstorm business ideas, and the mindful act of writing helps me understand myself and make sense – or at least strengthen my acceptance – of the world around me.
When I asked myself why I have saved them for so long and why I might continue to do so, I only had one real answer: nostalgia. Interestingly, however, I never go back and read through past journals.
My response to why would I burn them, however, was robust. To feel lighter, to free up the past, to relieve others from the onerous task of deciding what to do with them when I die, to create space – figuratively and literally – for the fresh and new, and about a dozen more reasons.
But mostly, for peace of mind.
Old Ways Won’t Open New Doors
For a rather prolific period of my life, I mostly journaled when upset, hurt, angry, feeling especially angsty, or swimming in low self-confidence. I might rant on paper, get it out of my system, and clear my head enough to return to life with a fresh perspective. Journaling allowed me to process through a struggle without taking it out on someone else or saying something I would regret.
In this way, journaling has afforded the opportunity to experience the full gamut of human emotions in a safe, sacrosanct place. As Christina Baldwin writes in Life’s Companion, “Journal writing provides a way we can practice intuitive skills without social embarrassment.” Agreed!
I never went back, however, and wrote how I solved the problem, or how it was all a misunderstanding, or how I was existing on two hours of sleep at the time of writing which may have skewed my perception of reality. If someone came across my journals, especially those from a stretch in young adulthood, they would not have an accurate picture of my life.
I looked at my responses to my questions, explored this through the lens of my Purpose Statement, and reflected. The negatives of holding onto the journals massively outweighed the positives. I made the decision to let them go.
And as soon as I started reading through them in preparation to release them, I knew with 100% certainty I made the right choice. I am not the same person I was in many of those journals – and I don’t really need the reminder of her, either. I saved certain pages and excerpts and meaningful moments (and nearly 30 entire journals, too), and I also took pictures of the covers for potential nostalgia’s sake. But releasing the contents into the shredder and bonfire was easier than I had imagined.
And oh, the closet space it opened up!
Why I’m Still Journaling Today
Interestingly, once I began freely tossing all those old writings, my concern was not “Is this the right decision?” but rather “Will I ever write in a journal again?” This may sound melodramatic, but I have a very all-or-nothing personality, and I wondered if knowing that my journals may very likely become kindling for future bonfires would keep me from writing.
It has not. I still journal daily.
And that is perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned in this: Journaling, for me, is not about the end result, but rather about the act of writing in and of itself.
As an author and coach, I publish books, articles, chapters, and blogs frequently. I write those with my readers in mind and always try to educate or inspire in some fashion.
But journaling involves being fully present and downloading onto paper what I feel in the moment. My constantly-moving mind struggles with meditation and yoga and other mindfulness practices, yet when I write, I can only think about the words I am physically putting onto paper. I can only be in the present moment. Journaling is my meditation.
So I still journal. Like with a trusted friend, I can pour out my heart however I need to, without censorship, without fear.
Through this process, I realized once again that I do not need to save every word I write. When my dissertation for my doctoral degree was approved, for example, I did not hold onto every past rough draft. What I have dubbed my Great Journal Clearout of 2017 felt a little like letting go of some of my ‘life rough drafts’ as I continue to evolve, transform, and grow.
My decision to let go of old journals may not be the right one for you. Maybe you destroy your journals each time you fill one, or maybe you store them all in a climate-controlled unit and plan to until the end of time.
Maybe the thought of letting them go makes you cringe, in which case your outcome will likely be different than mine.
Maybe you won’t even ask the questions right now because you know you’re not in a space to make a strong, confident decision.
And that’s ok. You do what’s right for you.
For me, while I can question my decisions like a pro, this one (which, remember, only took 15 years to make!) felt and continues to feel 100% right for me. Maybe my next 90 journals will fare differently, maybe not. Either way, I will continue to savor the daily art of journaling for the creative, mindful act that it is, and revel in the clarity and expansiveness that has come with letting go of the old to create space for the new.