Collective journaling

As we approach the start of Knitting Season, I thought I’d write a few posts about how I use (and have used) journals. I imagine many of us think about journals as deeply personal spaces, and yet my most formative experience of journal keeping was collective and not individual. (Because this story belongs to others as well as myself I can’t share images of the journals (which I have kept) or too much detail about their content).

Between the ages of 12 and 15 I, like many girls in my school, had a “thing” for a particular type of small, pocket-sized hardbacked notebook that could then be bought cheaply at Woolworths. There was just something about the binding (so radically different to our flimsy school exercise books) that made these journals feel extraordinarily special. And if the binding of these tiny books made them into indulgent objects, so writing in them became a secret luxury, completely different to the writing we did for class or homework.

Our journals were personal, and to some extent hidden (they weren’t ever seen by teachers or families) but they weren’t private, because we were writing for each other, for an audience beyond ourselves. We all swapped and shared our journals with our closest female friends. We forged firm bonds by communicating with each other through the written word and by participating in each other’s pages, each other’s spaces, each other’s worlds. Thus, the pages of our journals became shifting, ad-hoc fields of collective composition. A boring chemistry class was simply an invitation for happy secret journaling, as we wrote messages and jokes and stories, passed a notebook under the desk, read each contribution and added our own in turn. We became extraordinarily adept at moving a small journal around a classroom beneath the teacher’s eye, and the continual threat of discovery somehow made our tiny, hardbacked notebooks even more numinous as objects. And the journals had a communicative and collective function beyond the school classroom too. For, on one particular evening, we’d each write a few pages in our own journal, then over the following few evenings, we’d take home the journals of our friends, adding to their narrative, or providing commentary upon it. Journals might be borrowed over a holiday, or, on one occasion when a friend moved away, put in the post, swapped over a long distance and timeframe, then carefully returned.

I still have a few of these collective journals and looking over them today, much of their content is personal detail of the inconsequential kind that you’d expect from a group of young teenage girls. But there’s a lot in there that’s very sharp and very funny too in a way that reminds me of Searle and Willan’s Molesworth, without the Latin or unacknowledged privilege. Writing collectively (and, I suppose, competitively, as we vied to be either gripping or amusing) we composed creative narratives over several weeks of consecutive evening composition. We’d quietly contain a bullying classmate by making her the anti-heroine of a made-up play in which she became the proprietor of a sinister and badly-run hotel. Or our over-enthusiastic geology teacher might be cast as God in an alternative creation story, his wild exhortations conjuring volcanoes and mighty tectonic shifts. And alongside these works of the imagination we articulated the predictable, rapidly shifting allegiances, small jealousies, beliefs and questions, of young teenage girls. Do animals have souls?

What I find interesting about the journals I shared with my friends between the ages of 12 to 15 is that they contain very little of the heterosexual attractions, connections, and betrayals that formed a new and intriguing part of our day-to-day existence. Our journals were homosocial environments and the boys in our class knew it, because they found our notebooks absolutely fascinating. We girls guarded our journals jealously, though the hands of boys were continually attempting to pilfer them, grabbing at us as we slipped them between our bodies and under desks. We spent all day surrounded by and engaging with boys in ways that were becoming increasingly complex, but the pages of these notebooks were just for us. Our journals were exclusive girlhood spaces and there were no boys allowed.

On one occasion my journal was stolen by a boy, who took it home, and, overnight, painstakingly annotated every contribution of one of my participating friends with footnotes in which he articulated his own longing. Now, I myself harboured a secret yearning for this boy. He was the leader of the youth orchestra in which I sat toward the back row of the second violins, and when he came round to my house and played Debussy’s Clair de Lune on our piano the whole earth paused and took a breath. I was his pal, a fellow musician, a fiddle-playing comrade. I’d accepted that I’d be no more to him than that, and I also understood the completeness of his obsession with my friend, because he had told me that the words “still she slept in an azure-lidded sleep” in Keats’ Eve of St Agnes made him think of her. Because I liked this boy, I didn’t mind so very much when he stole my journal, but I did mind him writing in it, and I didn’t like what he wrote. For his scrawl disrupted the integrity of my journals’ female narrative, changing its dynamic from one of friendship to desire. I didn’t care that he thought he loved my friend whose skin was so pale and so transluscent that the blue veins tinged her eyelids, but the pages of my journal were not the space for him to share that. I never shared his annotations with the girl that they concerned, nor showed the pages to the rest of my group of friends. I put what I regarded as my damaged journal to one side, went out to Woolworths at the weekend, and bought a new one.

Given my early experience of collective journaling, was it any coincidence that, a couple of decades later, as a young academic, I developed an obsession with the commonplace books and notebooks kept by eighteenth-century girls? A few years ago, I spent a lot of time in some wonderful American research libraries reading these collective journals, the vast majority of which were kept by Quaker women, during the Revolutionary War or just after. Reading these journals as a historian, I was primarily interested in the content of these women’s writing, but I also became fascinated by the similarities between my own experience of collective journaling and theirs. For, like my friends and I, these young women found their voices as individual writers by producing shared narratives of friendship. Like us, their books would be passed between groups of girls being taught collectively; between private homes in the same town or area; or occasionally between friends divided by long distances. Two centuries and countless differences separated these girls from me and my friends, but, just like us, they wrote plays and poems and stories. Like us, much of what they wrote was completely inconsequential, but some of it was also incisive or funny, imaginative or engaging. Like us, they kept their books from boys while, just like us, boys hovered at the margins of their narratives. In the all-female spaces of our journals we both responded to contemporary events and difficult ideas. We asked big questions. And whether we were born in the eighteenth century or the twentieth, the pages of our journals were places for us to find our identities, to communicate with each other, and to celebrate our female collectivity. Journaling enabled us girls to forge ourselves together on paper and through the written word.

Do any of you have experience of collective journaling? I’d love to hear about it.