Diary of the Brain-Dead Teenager
Girls write in "Diaries," Dudes write in JOURNALS!
A common piece of advice for aspiring writers is the suggestion that they keep a daily journal of their activities, travels and habits. Not only will it keep your literary chops sharpened, but keeping journal entries on a regular basis may provide an inspirational spark for other writing projects. Even if you don't have any aspirations of becoming the next great American novelist, maintaining a journal can be a fun activity that will eventually result in a treasure trove of memories that the writer can look back on and enjoy many years in the future.
...or if you're like me, you can revisit your youthful scribblings decades later and say, "WOW, did I really write this? Holy crap. I wish I could go back in time and punch my younger self." Either way, keeping a journal can prove to be an eye opening experience.
Inspired by "Algernon"
When I was fourteen years old, my 8th grade English class read the novel "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes. In case you're not familiar with the story, "Algernon" tells the tale of a mentally-challenged adult male named Charlie Gordon, who is chosen to undergo an experimental treatment intended to increase his intelligence to "normal" levels. The entire novel is written as a series of "Charlie's" entries in a journal detailing his experience. As the story opens, his writing is childlike and filled with spelling and grammar mistakes, demonstrating his reduced mental status, but slowly his language becomes clearer and more adult-like as the experimental treatments take hold. Soon Charlie's writings take on a decidedly more "advanced" tone as his IQ increases beyond everyone's expectations, but sadly things take a cruel turn for Charlie in the last half of the story, which I will not reveal in case you'd like to read it for yourself. ("Flowers for Algernon" was also made into the Academy Award winning 1968 film Charly, starring Cliff Robertson.) Inspired by the "journal entry" format, our teacher assigned everyone in the class to keep a journal of our own for the next thirty days.
The "journal" that I wrote for that assignment is long gone, but since our teacher was reviewing the pages at the end of every week (to make sure that we were, indeed, writing an entry every day as we were supposed to), I'm sure that I kept my entries as short, sweet, and squeaky clean as possible.
When the "Algernon" unit ended, I found that I'd actually enjoyed keeping the journal, and the activity lingered in the back of my mind for months afterward. I'm not sure why, but eventually something clicked and I decided that I was going to start writing in a journal again, this time for my own amusement. In the Spring of 1985 I began dutifully recording my experiences as a 9th grader...and since I wasn't writing for a teacher or any outside readership this time, I declared that my mission would be to provide a warts-n-all record of my life, with all the teenage angst, foul language and totally uncensored opinions intact!! Sounds great, right? RIGHT!
...unfortunately, as it turns out, I had absolutely NOTHING interesting to write about!!
I kept that journal faithfully throughout the remainder of my high school days, through my college years and well into my early 20s -- though as the years went on it became harder and harder to find time to keep it up to date, and entries would often be weeks - or even months - apart. When I finally decided it was time to let it go, I had been writing journals for more than a dozen years and had filled up two dozen notebooks of varying sizes with my ramblings. These books were then boxed up and stuck in the attic, where I recently rediscovered them after more than a decade in storage.
Can you see The Real Me?
At first I was excited to re-visit these ancient records of days gone by, but it didn't take long for that excitement to be replaced by a feeling of embarrassment. I arranged the notebooks in chronological order and started re-reading them starting with the very first entry (April 12, 1985), and after skimming only a few pages I began to wonder what had possessed my fifteen year old self to start keeping these records in the first place... because I certainly wasn't doing anything worth writing about. I was a mediocre student (at best), I wasn't part of the "cool" crowd, and I wasn't involved in any extra-curricular activities or sports. Therefore, 90 percent of my early entries were some variation on this theme: "I went to school today. It sucked. After school I hung out, which was boring. I did my homework, which sucked, then I watched TV and now I'm off to bed. Gotta go back to school tomorrow. Have I mentioned that I hate school? Well, I hate school."
...this was not exactly earth shattering stuff, but I obviously took these writings SERIOUSLY, because the front and back covers of many of my early notebooks were covered with garish hand-drawn warnings informing imaginary intruders that they were MY journals and NO ONE ELSE was allowed to read them, because they were PRIVATE and TOP SECRET so everybody had better just STAY OUT of them or face CERTAIN DEATH!!!
...Needless to say, thirty years after the fact, I found it hilarious that my teenage self seriously thought anyone would even be interested in reading the drivel I was putting down on paper. Hell, I was the guy who wrote it, and even I was getting bored after only a few pages.
As of this writing I've read through about a year's worth of entries so I'm somewhere in the middle of my sophomore year of high school, circa 1986. The writing has gotten slightly better over time, thankfully, but so far the subject matter hasn't gotten much more interesting.
What I've learned from my teenage ramblings thus far:
- I had an extremely overblown sense of my own self importance at age fifteen. Rather than the quiet, socially awkward teen that I was, I saw myself as some sort of high-and-mighty bad-ass who was intellectually superior to everyone around me (even though if memory serves, my grades at that time certainly didn't back that theory up!), and apparently I decided that my lack of popularity was because I wasn't 'understood' by my classmates... or anybody else. Yeah, I know, pretty much every teenager feels that way to some degree, but the pretentiousness I was dishing out in these journals is on a whole 'nother level of ridiculous.
- My favorite descriptive word was "bullsh*t," as in "School today was bullsh*t. All of my classes were bullsh*t. I have a term paper due Friday, which is total bullsh*t."
- I really, REALLY liked to read comic books, chew tobacco, and listen to Metallica, because all three of these activities are mentioned at least once per entry. The biggest laugh I've had so far was when I stated that school should've been closed on the day that the Master of Puppets album was released so I could've gone to the Mall and gotten a first day copy. I hope I was trying to be funny when I wrote that. I also have to wonder why I never made the connection between my chewing tobacco habit and my lack of a girlfriend back then. Duh!!
- When I wasn't rambling about how much I hated school, I was keeping track of what several girls I admired from afar wore to school on a daily basis (i.e. "So-and-so wore a red mini skirt and high heels today! Damn, she is SO HOT!")... which was kind of funny at first, but it started veering into creepy, Silence of the Lambs-esque stalker territory after a while.
Oh, wait... wrong Shredder.
Meet the Shredder
It didn't take long for me to decide that it was high time for these notebooks to go, but I wanted to give them one last read before they hit the trash. I started reading a few pages at each sitting before bed each night, then tearing what I'd just read out of the notebook and ripping it into teeny tiny little pieces. I have to admit, this process has been unexpectedly therapeutic... I think it may have actually helped me get rid of some lingering emotional baggage from my past that I'd been carrying around without even realizing it! (Haha)
I thought it would be hard for me to "let go" of these journals at first, but obviously whatever importance they held for my younger self is now long gone...and they're certainly no good to anyone else. I doubt I am going to become rich and famous anytime soon, so there will be absolutely no demand for my memoirs after I'm gone. Besides, I hate the idea that my kids might find these journals in the attic years from now, read through a few passages and say, "Wow! I thought Dad was a nice guy! I had no idea he was such a screwed up, whiny, self obsessed loser when he was a kid!!" Believe me, I'm doing the literary world a favor by making sure that these writings remain "undiscovered."
My advice for prospective journal-writers is not to bother keeping one unless your life is actually interesting enough to write about. Your future self will thank you later!