Gogol, the monks and me: a true story about growing up

I am enjoying Euan Semple’s book Organisations don’t tweet, people do immensely. You won’t find a better, more accessible read about the value and potential of social media anywhere.

When I came to a short section talking about his inability to keep a journal or diary, I found I had put my kindle down and was staring out of the bus window.

I recalled when – starting as a teenage – I kept a diary – one page, every day, written last thing before bed – for fully five years. I somehow believed at the time that I was doing what blogging now does for so many, “writing myself into existence”. We all recall the angst and suffering in those teenage years, the emotional struggle of growing into our own skin, and if we don’t we can listen to early Cure albums to remind ourselves. Perhaps I expected that one day when I was famous for a string of philosophical and emotionally engaging novels that they would be discovered deep in the recesses of a dusty store and marvelled at for the formative thinking that defined my later literary prowess.

Anyone that knows me will be aware that the novels have not yet arrived as a rather consuming career in property and workplace took over, and that the chances of my obsessively tidy approach to everything in front of – and often behind – me would render a dusty storeroom a physical impossibility.

Yet the diaries did not get a chance to be discovered. The tales of my misadventure, normal and understandable for someone of my age and curiosity, were read by my parents who were unable to contain their own wonder, despite my having hidden the book. Nowadays it’s all on Facebook and anyone can see it. Strange how times have changed.

So I decided to incinerate them. Like Gogol throwing his only draft of Dead Souls onto the fire for fear it was hopeless, I placed them in a metal dustbin and set them alight. Five years of journal keeping, literally up in flames. I managed to burn my Dad’s broom handle in the process, making sure they were all destroyed (no easy feat) – he was more upset about that than the ceremonial and tragic literary sacrifice I had made, depriving the world of my unique “memories, dreams and reflections”.

The fact that they were crap and would now be embarrassing renders it a relief to me that that they were put to the flame.

Some years later I saw an article in a newspaper about a group of Buddhist monks on a visit to the UK, creating an incredible carving of a large boat from balsa wood – and then promptly setting it alight on the Thames and watching it burn. They did so to remind us of the transitory nature of all things.

I wondered as I reflected on Euan’s comment whether with our blogs, tweets and other social comments, we have the chance any longer to destroy what we have created, as I and the monks were able. We are indeed writing ourselves into existence, but can we ever write ourselves out of it if we choose to? We are free in this day and age to create, but the freedom to extract is no longer present.

For some weeks after I burned my diaries I kept finding small scraps in the garden that had caught in the thermals from the pyre, and drifted into bushes and flowerbeds. Fragments of my reflections, in their own way looking to take root and grow again. Now, with this blog, they do.


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