I have been reading (and re-reading) Alison Bechdel’s just-released Are You My Mother?
If you don’t know about Alison Bechdel, you should. Her lefty lesbian soap-opera comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For ran in alternative newspapers for 25 years, and earned her legions of dedicated fans. In 2006 she published her first graphic memoir, the critically acclaimed Fun Home, which examines her closeted gay father’s probable suicide through the lens her own coming out as a lesbian. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Bechdel’s new graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? purports to be about her relationship with her (still very much alive) mother. But it’s also several interwoven essays — about mother-infant bonding, psychotherapy, the perils of mining your life for literary material, and the difficult and fraught process of writing Are You My Mother?
Turns out it’s trying to write about trying to write about the trying thing you’re trying to write while you’re trying to write it. Who knew?
Are You My Mother? is also about journal-keeping. That’s what I’m thinking about now.
Alison and her mother, Helen, both keep daily journals, but differently. Helen sticks to the externals, treating each entry like a completed to-do list. Alison documents everything — dreams, flights of self-analysis, even the minutiae of her daily phone calls with her mother, which she secretly transcribes on her computer in real time as Helen chats. And while Helen never re-reads her entries, and sometimes even discards her completed journals, Alison saves everything in such meticulous order that if you asked what she discussed with her shrink the week she got her firewood delivered ten winters ago, she could probably pull out the relevant volume and tell you.
I have kept journals from time to time. I have been sort of irregular about it. For months, I will loyally fill notebook after notebook. Then I’ll stop for no apparent reason, and years will pass before I take the habit up again. Even when I’m out of the habit, I always keep my notebook and a jar of pens by my bed, just in case. When I’m in the habit, I record the major events of the day, what’s on my mind, stuff about my current writing project. In the habit or not, I always record the onsets of my periods, because doctors always ask, and I always feel stupid not remembering.
I started my first serious spell of journal keeping in ninth grade. A well-meaning English teacher who was worried about the crowd I was hanging out with gave me a copy of Go Ask Alice – the supposedly real (but as it turned out, fake) diary of a teenage girl who does drugs and gets in trouble. Mrs. Upton meant it as a warning, but I took it as inspiration. I started keeping my own diary, and when I decided I didn’t have enough interesting material, I started seeking out experiences in order to write them down. The process carried me through high school. And gave me plenty of material.
I had another good run of journal keeping in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was a stay-at-home mom trying to squeeze in time to write picture books, short stories, and newspaper stories. Rather than seek out experiences to write about, I welcomed the chance to write about the experiences I was having. I wasn’t just documenting my life and clarifying my thoughts. I was also practicing the art of writing. As much as anything else, keeping a journal was a discipline, a daily exercise in free writing.
I started writing in my current notebook eighteen months ago. So far, I have only managed to fill a few pages. And those consist almost entirely of lists of dates followed by the word, period. To read it, you would think that since September, 2010 I did nothing but monitor my bodily functions. My daughter’s wedding, my son’s first solo art show, trips to Denmark and France, visits with family, hopes and frustrations around my writing career, taking up running, planting a garden, a blizzard and a hurricane all go unrecorded.
Why? Because rather than saving my thoughts for a journal, I can tweet, update my status statement on Facebook, or, if I really feel like I have something to say, write a blog post; and once I’ve mentioned whatever it is in one of those places, no matter how thoughtlessly, I’m ready to move on. So topics that might merit closer scrutiny get lost. And since I censor what I put out there for the world to see, I end up never writing about lots of topics I really care about. Damn.
After I started writing this post last night, I went upstairs to bed. On the table beside me were the book I’m currently reading (Alice Munro’s short story collection Friend of My Youth) and, under it, that nearly empty, 18-month-old notebook. I took out the notebook and plucked the best, smoothest-writing ballpoint pen from my jar, and I started free-writing.
I had thought that my fingers had become so accustomed to the keyboard that they couldn’t produce decent longhand anymore. I was wrong.
I had thought that I had nothing to say. Wrong again.
And I had thought that after spending the whole day revising my novel and then composing this post, I would have gotten the sheer joy of writing out of my system. Wrong, wrong, wrong.