Scrapbooks, Journals and Learning What to Remember
Dementia runs in my family on my dad’s side. We sometimes call it ‘doting’ where I’m from. I wouldn’t say this was the reason I began making scrapbooks and journals, but throughout my teenage years, it helped to justify my rather uncool hobby of documenting my life piece by piece. I imagined that one day I’d be a senile old lady able to sit back and read over my life story, significant and insignificant details sellotaped side by side. I’d no doubt forget and read it all over again with renewed amazement.
I vomited on the first scrapbook I ever had sitting in the front seat of my mum’s car on the way to hospital. I can’t remember why we were going there exactly, because I was very young and it’s a vague memory. But I can remember what the book looked like, as soon after, I received an identical copy of the neon yellow binded notebook with A5 lined pages and a pink margin. I began to redraw and copy out what I could remember from the now soggy original version. And so began Kristen’s Book 1 (the ‘1’ was added later in a different coloured pen, as I’m sure my six-year-old self didn’t anticipate I’d still be making them in my twenties). The two letter o’s in ‘book’ were turned into googly eyes at the suggestion of my older cousin, complete with luscious eyelashes and everything.
I’m not sure if you’d exactly call this small notebook a scrapbook, but I went on to use it to document anything from playing in the park, my opinions on the best furry animals to how to write my name backwards. The assortment of colouring sheets and leaflets spilled into my next endeavour, inevitably titled Kristen’s Book 2. I’d started to type some of my accounts of family Christmases and friends’ birthday parties with my burgeoning Microsoft Word and Clipart skills, leading to a jumbled collection of disposable photos, crinkled leaves, school report letters and certificates. The small blue book from the village corner shop ended up needing elastic bands to keep its broken spine and swollen contents together. Among itschaos, there are some moments of poignancy, such as my account of the day I was diagnosed with diabetes in the large, overly thought-out script of a child learning to write, and my heartfelt (if ever dramatic) account of the day our paddling pool burst. The third one, compiled largely in my teenage years, is plagued by adolescent self-consciousness; messy feelings and structured reports coexist in its pages.
Travel journals form the basis of a lot of my scrapbooks. I keep an ongoing general scrapbook for ticket stubs, receipts from special occasions and keepsakes from everyday life, but more elaborate ones for trips away. This compulsion started from a small, flimsy booklet I got as part of a kids’ club on a package holiday when I was about six. It divided each day up into ‘what I did’, ‘what I saw’, ‘who I met’ and ‘what I ate’. I religiously filled this in each day of the trip and my dad helped me make another one myself for the following year. This hobby progressed to detailing my thoughts more freely in my own notebooks, which I’d compulsively type up when I returned home.
This isn’t a practice I picked up entirely from my parents, but I did come into possession of their California ’96 scrapbook at some point whilst they were clearing out the attic. Whilst much more of a photo album than a scrapbook in the traditional sense, their late friend Tom, part of the group they travelled with, wrote a deliciously sarcastic run-down of their two weeks on the road. Never indulging himself more than a few lines to describe the day, he typed it all in capital letters and signed off with “Bought the T-shirt” at the end of every entry except one. It’s nothing like the rambling and often unnecessarily detailed accounts I would come to write, but its witty tone and snappy delivery always gave me a laugh.
However, my interest bordered on fixation — I compulsively documented at the expense of living in the moment, the same criticism often aimed at social media. Will this photo make a nice title page? What was the name of the place we had lunch? Can we take a detour so I can find a postcard? My general sentimentality manifested itself in a fear of forgetting. I obsessively noted names, dates and times. When others had gone to sleep or whenever I could grab a moment in transit, I’d labour over recounting every detail into my journal, inadvertently trying to hide my compulsion to do this. Why? Because ever since I filled in that little booklet as a child, I always had. I felt like such events couldn’t truly be remembered or commemorated unless I documented them like this. I couldn’t ask myself what deserved to be documented and therefore put an emphasis on every moment; I felt a sense of relief and control knowing that these things would not be forgotten and I was under less under pressure to commit them to memory. I took comfort in the belief that as I grew and changed, these things would be preserved. I’ve always wanted to be a journalist, so there’s perhaps some aspect of my personality that feels compelled to ensure that nothing is left out.
I stopped writing the inane rundowns of each day and instead opted to create collages of postcards, ticket stubs, photos, leaflets and even coins to capture the essence of the occasion. I displayed keepsakes in an aesthetically pleasing way that would help me to trigger memory through the emotional context of these mundane items. Typing up weeks’ worth of journal entries had come to feel like a chore, and so this new approach not only made them more fun and less time consuming, but something I could also share less self-consciously with others.
Having access to my early life and formative thoughts in such detail that others often don’t is at once endearing and unsettling. I’ve laughed but also physically recoiled reading my scribbled thoughts about how I felt about people, situations or myself in that moment. Some I have memories of writing late at night in my room, enraptured by teenage angst, and others so bitter and hidden in boxes of lost journals that I’d swear I’d never written them were it not for my own handwriting. I sometimes find myself thumbing through the aging pages of a bucket list according to my fourteen-year-old self (‘Wear a bald cap…Get kissed in the rain in Paris…’), to mundane to-do lists, rough outlines of things I wanted to write that never materialised and plans for summer that actually did. I even remember finding a pink padlocked notepad under my desk in my childhood bedroom, with ‘Benjamin’ scrawled in a heart inside. Despite how I feel about them now, they are a mirror to my feelings at the time. I can have a quiet laugh about how naïve I once was or the pretentious way I described something. If I always agreed with my past self, I wouldn’t have learnt anything.
Creating these books has been such a huge part of my development and are wonderful to look back on. Although they often inspire nostalgia and cringeworthiness in equal measure, I can truly tap into the emotions of the girl in their pages. I can indulge in my memories in vivid detail whenever I like. I enjoy the arts and crafts aspect too, whilst also leaving something for future relatives who might wonder about the life of their pedantic grandmother.
Now my relationship to documentation is now much healthier and more like a normal hobby than a compulsion. I’ve even got some of my friends into it. In the fifteenth century, commonplace books were used to compile knowledge and are considered a precursor of the modern scrapbook; I like to think of my childish volumes as something similar. Scrapbooks and journals are a way of shaping our own legacy as we are still living; we can choose what to remember and how to present it.
With age, I’ve come to realise what’s necessary and what’s not. I can discern the scrapbook pages where I struggled to make all the leaflets and postcards fit but bullishly wouldn’t sacrifice any. I see the complementary colour schemes of some and the haphazard gluing of others where I should have used double-sided tape. I see the ones I made on my exhaustive quest to document everything and the ones I enjoyed making on a lazy afternoon. I’m constantly letting go of my impulse to record and trying to consider moments more thoughtfully; life is to be enjoyed and not lived to be remembered on paper, despite my joy in doing so. There is no point in creating a beautiful book if there was no true joy in the moment behind it. Author Damon Brown believes the biggest reason for obsession with documenting is fear; the fear of letting a special moment blossom without our interference. For once in my life, I’m trying to be less afraid of just watching them flower.
This article appeared in print in Sunstroke Volume 4: Space Oddity, which you can purhcase here.