I’m in the middle of one of the strangest, most quixotic projects of a lifetime of strange quixotic projects. Since June of 1992, I have, with very few breaks in the routine, kept a daily journal chronicling my life. Up until the last decade, I did this in physical, longhand journals. Now they are safely ensconced in a plastic bin in my mother’s basement, protected from the floods and other soakings that have afflicted all the important documents of my life. I’ve had the idea of converting them into digital format for a long time. Now, with time on my hands and nothing much to do while I help my mother through the last stages of cancer, I decided to break ground on the project. It’s mindless, which is a plus in my circumstances, but also strangely escapist, which is an even bigger one.
So, last week I dove right into 1992. For anyone who’s keeping track, that means I was 14 years old as the chronicle began. As I typed, I couldn’t help reading; processing the words as I wrote. It was strangely reminiscent of writing my master’s thesis. I spent days of that process reading the personal letters of George Washington, Ulysses S Grant, and then William Westmoreland. You delve pretty deeply into a life that way if the writer is prolific enough, and as teenager I was nothing if not prolific.
Much as I did with the sometimes-insane, always inconsistent orthography of George Washington, I decided to replicate the errors of the original as I copied. My grammar and spellcheck programs revolted, screaming at me and leaving my paragraphs festooned with blue and red, but I kept to it. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. My spelling was solid, with only a few glaring errors. The worst was a constant use of “cause” for because. Why did I do that? I think it was for the same reason that I insisted on using the construction “me and” with plural subjects. Now I had learned not to do that in formal writing as a small child. I clearly remember a stern lesson from my Aunt Hilda, a former elementary school teacher, when I was seven. I knew better, but I had some idea that you should write as you speak. I wouldn’t have phrased it as such, but I was trying to preserve the parole of my vernacular. Nice thought in a way, but it ends up making me sound like a halfwit; not the effect I was going for. One of the most annoying hallmarks of teenagers is a misplaced sense of integrity about things like that.
Other things were genuine errors. I refused to underline the titles of movies and books. I tried and failed to consistently apply the Oxford comma. That flies in the face of everything I hold sacred to not fix as I type. Strunk and White set me straight in 12th grade. Amazingly, there is one perfectly wielded semicolon in an early passage. It crops up like some Antikythera Mechanism of punctuation. It defies belief that my antediluvian self could manage it, but there it is, deftly introducing an appropriately tangential subordinate clause.
Overall, my style improves as the book goes on. I think this came from both a lack of experience with writing in general, and a learning curve about what I was trying to do by keeping a journal. I always objected to the term “diary” and with that in mind, I started out not wanting to delve too deeply into my feelings about things. I was going for a chronicle; a dry historical record of events. For some reason I was obsessed with managing episodes as if they were French scenes. I kept listing who was present and who was coming and going. I have no idea why I thought that was so important, but it probably had something to do with absolutely hating to be alone or bored. I took my historical duties too far and learned that you needed to do more than just write what happened. As I go on through that first year, I began to use foreshadowing. I started talking about the relations between the people around me, characterizing them as human beings. My first-person viewpoint starts to bleed into something broader, edging on an actual narrative.
It isn’t just my writing that matured over the time of this first journal. I was 14 for god’s sake, I was growing and maturing as a human being too. Of course, this is mostly shown in the negative. There were many things I showed about myself as a callow young man that only time would heal. Oddly, the obsession with girls isn’t as obvious as I would have thought. There are a few references to thwarted infatuation, but maybe I was too embarrassed to talk about it much. Friends on the other loom larger than anything else in life. Everything else, school, family, the larger world, takes a distant backseat. My siblings seem to merit personalities, but my parents are handled at some times like forces of nature to be weathered and endured, and at others as instrumentalities fit only to give rides to the mall. They certainly don’t come across as living, breathing human beings. I mention a few actual historical events: the presidential election of 1992, the war in Somalia, but only as a description of what I watched on TV, as if that was the important thing about them. Changing the layout of my room gets multiple lines and more than one entry, while Bill Clinton doesn’t even merit a mention by name. Like all teenagers, I was a narcissistic island universe unto myself.