Up on the high bookshelf in my home office, there sits an ugly, plaid-bound journal of mine. It has been in my possession since 1982, and it provides a unique embarrassing window into who I was, or more accurately, who I was trying to be at the time.
I’ve alluded to it a couple of times in this blog – once to share a sketch I did, a self portrait that shows me as a long-haired and bearded biker, and the other to transcribe set lists from a couple of amazing rock concerts I saw in the period of one week in the fall of my sophomore year in college.
Recently I thumbed through the 30-year-old diary, and could feel myself blushing. I’m periodically tempted to torch the thing, or feed it, page by page, through the paper shredder.
Lately, however, I’ve tried to distance myself a bit, in order to consider my writing as it was in those days in a different light. When I step outside myself I’m able to see a young man of 19 – still a child, essentially – who is using a blank book in order to gain an understanding of, and become comfortable with, a number of aspects of his life. They are facets that all have one thing in common within his existence; namely, they are all new to him.
Since starting college a year earlier, he has experienced a number of “romantic” encounters, after a relatively sheltered life in that arena up to this point. He writes a lot about these couplings – not pornographically, but keeping a tally (I have decided to write down a list of the year’s infatuations, starting on New Year’s Eve till now.) He writes this on December 31, 1982, recapping his year, writing down the initials of a number of young women. He then attempts to put them in the context of his emotions, which he also grapples with, often to melodramatic effect:
I came to a realization last nite. I don’t think I could ever love M again. (Actually I do love her; I don’t think I could be in love with her again.) I get depressed sometimes, though, just because I am new to all the superficialities that bachelors put up with and perpetuate.In addition, his autobiography consists of overwrought poems and a slew of bad rock and roll songs of his devising – formulaic stuff about sex and partying, with titles like “Too Cool for Chaos,” and “Let’s Go It Again” – giving the impression that he is trying to mask his insecurities about both.
Finally there are ideas for short stories , along with a rough draft of the first one he ever workshops – in an evening class with author Rhoda Lerman at the Extension School. There is some spectacularly bad writing:
The skinny brunette who he had been exchanging darts of the eyes with was now apparently alone, as the tall, Italian-looking fellow slung his coat over one arm and offered the other to a chunky blonde. Her eyes were now fixed on his, and he smiled at her pleasing, dark features.
But I forgive my 19-year-old self; he was doing what I’ve encouraged my own writing students to do over the years. He’s flexing his writing muscles, trying on new vocabulary, making errors with grammar and spelling, and tripping over clichés, all in the service of going for the perfect turn of phrase. His characters are, like the author at that time, introspective and emotionally underdeveloped, but he clearly cares about them and their situations, and there are glimpses of good writing here and there.
Mr. Valentine had made a fortune in the ball bearing business and retired at age fifty. I had never seen him do any type of work, household or otherwise. He just read and watched cultural television. He cooked occasionally, but it didn’t seem like work when he did it. “I shall beckon my daughter,” he said in a mock-Shakespearean voice. “Angela! Your friend David is here!”
It was good enough to prompt Rhoda to tell me, along with my best friend, also in the class, “There are a lot of people trying to write in our workshop. You two are the only writers, as far as I can tell.”
This conversation was a turning point, one that propelled me forward in my wish to be what she perceived me to be. That journey continues to this day, and despite cringing when I read my early writing, I could never burn or shred it. He (that awkward, skinny kid, trying to get comfortable in his own skin) was, and continues in some sense to be, me, after all. And if I could go back, I can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing.