Regret and the Phantom Journals

“Phantom Journals” is the first in a short series about some of the emotions surrounding the writing life.

Time passes in ordinary life, and many things remain unsaid, undone, unfinished. I look back on my writing life and I struggle with regret. It’s not unlike being present at the death of friend, or a loved one. Tears fall for so many reasons, all the “I love yous” left unsaid, all the adventures delayed for one reason or another.


Regrets. We all have them. Hindsight at work, you know.

But if I could share one regret that I live with every day, it’s this:

I fervently wish that I’d kept journals throughout my life.

Keeping a journal requires a certain perseverance, a sharpness of vision, and, above all, commitment. An entire body of literature concerns journal keeping and those who kept them.*

Remembering all my flown-away days, years in exotic and unfamiliar places**, days of boredom and days of pain, days of violence, days of clouds and rain, I think how much easier it would be now to write of those things if I’d only possessed the gumption and the sticktoitiveness of journaling. If only someone warned me, “Be wary, memories fade just as a kilim carpet does when set in the sun for too long.”

Memories tangle and shred like spider webs caught up in the wind, flung into the universe.

The comings. The goings. The stallings. The stoppings. The arrivals. The departures. The discoveries. The losses.  The short roads. The long roads.  The names.

All lost. Or nearly all.

And I regret that.

Phantom journals.

Something remains, though. Regret fails to kill the urge to write. The stories I write might not be the stories I want to write, but I can still tell them, regrets or not.

Dozens of half-filled writing notebooks lie in the bottom drawer of my black metal filing cabinet, rows of faded ink on lined pages seeping wider and wider as the years go by, across the yellowing acidic paper, crumbling along fang-like edges. Pages and pages, curving blue script merging like Staffordshire flow blue ware, dust-covered, refuge for silverfish.

Lists. Ideas.  Dreams. Diatribes. Abbreviated paragraphs. Long ramblings. And soulful rumblings. All there.

Just a few words, sometimes covering just a few pages, whenever I found the energy to write of the quotidian. I convince myself that a piece of tattered paper is better than nothing. What remains may be enough to piece together many of the gaps in my mosaic of memory.

Boxes of letters help, too. Saved by my family, these narrate day-to-day life, tempered with a bit too much of  navel-gazing and not enough of the elusive particulars that I crave.

And I did write morning pages once, for three months running, ten years ago, full of whines and yearnings and silent screaming. Not much has changed, to be honest, as far as my inner life goes.

Phantom journals.

Sometimes I think that I might remedy my persistent journal-less state by buying a book of blank pages and begin filling those pages with wisdom and the mundane. That might go far in reducing my regrets to ashes, at least in my mind. Does the old adage, “It’s never too late” apply here?

But lately, when Regret insists on leaning over my shoulder, I pull out a passage I read some years ago, from a 2010 Paris Review interview with Ray Bradbury:

As soon as I get an idea, I write a short story, or I start a novel, or I do a poem. So I have no need for a notebook. I do keep files of ideas and stories that didn’t quite work a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago. I come back to them later and I look through the titles. It’s like a father bird coming with a worm. You look down at all these hungry little beaks — all these stories waiting to be finished — and you say to them, Which of you needs to be fed? Which of you needs to be finished today? And the story that yells the loudest, the idea that stands up and opens its mouth, is the one that gets fed. And I pull it out of the file and finish it within a few hours.

When I read what Bradbury said, I stop mourning the phantom journals for a while.

Regret still hovers when the details of a past journey or a face or a place escape me. But I just whisper, “Get lost,” and keep going.


*See this article about some writers who were long-term journal keepers. For example, Anaïs Nin kept a journal beginning at age 12 and kept it up until she died at age 74.

**Haiti, Honduras, Morocco, Burkina Faso, Mexico, Paraguay, France

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