“Shredathon”

Last week I did something extraordinary.  At least, it was extraordinary to me.  I put my diary through the shredder.

All fifty volumes.

I started keeping a diary during my last year at school.  It’s hard to say why; scribbling had become a habit.  I suppose it served various purposes.  It was a record of events, and a commonplace book for somebody interested in the craft of writing.  During university, and for a time subsequently, the entries became rather sporadic.  But from 1986 until 2013 I kept a daily record.  Hence the bulk.

When I told some of my friends that I had destroyed this archive, they looked horrified, and I was reminded of a film that the BBC used to screen around Christmas, in the remote past, and with monotonous regularity.  The White Tower.  A disparate group of mountaineers ascend into the Alps and and work through various unresolved personal issues.  One character, played by Claude Rains, is a writer who completes his masterpiece and then discharges it, leaf by leaf, into the frozen wastes, before dying of exposure.  Was my wanton act of destruction my Claude Rains moment?

I don’t think so.  If I were able to write a letter to my 17 year old self I would advise him not to keep a diary.  Write, by all means, but don’t write to yourself.  Write to somebody else.  Keeping a diary is rather like having an imaginary friend.  He’s not going to write back.

I won’t say the diary didn’t have some intrinsic merit.  I couldn’t help but reread some extracts during the act of shredding.  There is, may I say, a richness of experience of which I wasn’t always conscious at the time.  So many people, places, and events.  And so much I’d forgotten!  I can quite see it was a writer’s resource.  Memory is everything to a writer.  I think that was why some of my friends were so horrified at what I’d done.

So why did I do it?  From a pragmatic point of view, it was simply because for about a year I had stopped writing it and stopped reading it.  I didn’t need it any more.  That made me wonder why I had needed it in the first place.  Was it a form of therapy, or a form of neuroticism?  Why are you hauling this library around with you every time you move house?  10 volumes, 20 volumes, 30 volumes…  You are like Christian, in The Pilgrim’s Progress, with a burden on his back.  Dump it.  Let it go.  Don’t live in the past.  Live now.

Our memories are selective, and capricious.  During the cathartic “shredathon” (it took a week) I kept coming across extracts from the 80s and 90s and thinking, “Did that really happen?  Who are these people anyway?”  The fading of memory is in some ways a benison.  Undiminished memory would be a kind of hell.  Imagine if you could never forget your unrequited love.  She is the last thing you think of before falling asleep, and the first thing to come into your head in the morning.  The only thing that can free you from that, is time.  We live in glorious technicolour, but we remember in black and white.  It is a blessing that the archive of memory is, at best, sepia-toned.

To put a piece of paper through a shredder is to exemplify the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  (If you have read this Blog before, you may know I am preoccupied with the Second Law.)  The entropy of the universe is always increasing.  You take a relatively ordered piece of A4 prose and turn it into shredded wheat.  Such is the effect of the arrow of time.  So the future is processed through the present and into the past.  We who are alive are always struggling against this chaotic tide.  The past may be full of serenity, and the future full of hope, but the present is all trammelled up with anxiety.

I like to think of my shredathon as a mock act of defiance against the Second Law (“mock” – because it can’t really be done.)  I took the past and jumbled it up in order to create a better future.  To strive to make something better, while all around you everything is getting worse, is the definition of Hope.  I’m very inspired by Hope.  When you are young, hope is just a casual thing. You hope the weather might be better tomorrow, you hope to pass that exam, you hope to go out with Jennifer Marsden (not her real name).  It is only later that Hope becomes a grace.  It falls upon you, unbidden, from without.  Hope is a kind of nostalgia for the future.

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