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Expiry Dates On Journals

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tags icon journaling

When do you want your private writing to self-destruct, if at all? Something I found myself questioning today. What will happen to my analog journals when I’m no longer around? Should I issue a specific statement regarding them in a will? That might sound a bit extreme, but many very private journals were published by the family posthumously while the writer never intended for that to happen. For some, it sheds a light on their complicated relationship with the world (Van Gogh). For others, it even helps people cope with setbacks (Marcus Aurelius). But for most less ambitious people like me, its contents, however mundane, is still very much private.

Forget is a service that automatically deletes old (social media) posts. It states: “Shouldn’t databases forget too?", and that’s a very intriguing question! Kev Quirk issued a public statement on his blog why he deletes old content—including (possibly) blog posts—although most of us bloggers are proud to showcase twenty year old stuff rotting away in the archives.

Of course, there’s a profound difference between writing thoughts and feelings in a private journal and blog posts with the intention to publish them. “Rapid” tweet-like messages on a social media platform could perhaps be placed in-between those extremes: sometimes it doesn’t hurt to think before pressing GO!. Like Kev said, opinions change as experience grows, so I totally get it that old articles might no longer align with your current thinking. Except that on third party platforms, your thought is forever someone else’s.

I like clinging on to things. Things like old journals. I re-read them a few times a year, and sometimes wonder “who was that Wouter? What a douche!". To think that someone else would read those after I’m gone gives me the shivers. Journaling teachers like Susannah Conway sometimes share their journals online. Others admit to burning them once they’re filled up—without backing anything up digitally.

What is the purpose of a journal? To answer that, first, let’s try to answer this: what is the purpose of a notebook? To, well, “note” things, as to not to forget them. To do something with them. In my interpretation, notebooks are devoid of deeper (and personal) feelings and emotions. I’d be perfectly fine with someone reading my summary of some book. But in a journal, you also draw/sketch/write about what’s bothering you. That’s people-oriented, yourself included. Those sentences almost always hurt someone, even if it’s only you. It’s okay to judge in a private journal. It’s okay to do anything really: after all, it’s your own journal.

Unless it stops being your own. Van Gogh’s sometimes very private letters to his brother were never meant for our prying eyes. The family even obfuscated quite a few of them to try and “clean them up” for the general public. Others, like Cicero, wrote letters to friends that were clearly also intended to be read by others, meant as wise lessons.

The decision to destroy your own journals is not a light one, as Chris Hegstad also wrote (and the reactions of this Reddit post seem to prove). As to why burn them, she wrote:

My response to why would I burn them, however, was robust. To feel lighter, to free up the past, to relieve others from the onerous task of deciding what to do with them when I die, to create space – figuratively and literally – for the fresh and new, and about a dozen more reasons.

But mostly, for peace of mind.

The only reason she held on to those old journals was nostalgia. That sounds oddly familiar. Indeed, the greatest lesson of journaling is: it is not about the end result, but rather about the act of writing in and of itself.

Contemporary Zettelkasten freaks will surely start protesting here—all that precious knowledge, gone! I don’t have different physical books for personal writings versus knowledge-based writings and summaries, so everything would go up in flames. There goes the old family recipe for (insert cookie here). Not that I didn’t know that by heart already. There go the genius ideas that should have sprouted legions of books.

I must admit, the thought of burning them—and deleting my digital backups—is very scary. But then again, 90% of my older notes, I never go back to. They’re most likely not relevant anymore because (1) I changed my mind, (2) the idea was carried out successfully, or (3) I was wrong about something. To be honest, most digital note-taking bloggers endlessly moan about the technical aspects of linking and the plugins and the regression and … They seem to forget to actually do something with their notes.

An academic colleague of mine destroys his notes once a month. The time pressure helps him do something with them, plus, after they’re processed (either by doing something with it or rejecting the idea all-together), why bother keeping them anyway? A valid point. But not a valid point when it comes to my own journals: they’re filled with pictures of moments I do not want to forget, sketches, etc. Zeitgeist.

The ritual of burning pages filled with your personal past seems like a good way to let go. But I personally think we should accept who we were, and I’d sorely regret doing that.


Yet that doesn’t completely answer my question: what if I die? I don’t even want my wife to read them while I live. There has to be some private place to contemplate things—good and bad—without having to worry about possible repercussions. Would I want to have them burned then? I don’t know. Does it matter then? Perhaps. Not for me, but for others. The memories carefully persisted on ink and paper are memories I cherish, not someone else. That means they’re relevant for me, while I live, not for someone else.

The aforementioned Forget service is personally compelling because it keeps the database size in check for a small VPS like mine. Besides, toots/tweets are merely fleeting thoughts. Another reason why I like sitting down and grabbing a pen: slow (writing) and conscious trumps fast (typing) and fleeting.

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a level 36 Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

If you found this article amusing and/or helpful, you can buy me a coffee - although I'm more of a tea fan myself. I also like to hear your feedback via Mastodon or e-mail. Thanks!