Most of my adult life I've been a very intermittent journaler (not journalist, I think). In addition to notes I hoped I might make use of for stories either new or under way, I'd remark on current family events. It's a good thing too. I don't know anyone with a worse memory. Today I opened a fat notebook that reminded me of two years that in retrospect were so full of significant events for us, it amazes me to find I would remember nothing but the facts today if it weren't for that notebook.
My husband was in a career crisis; I was president of our public library association in the midst of fund-raising and beginning a major addition; our second son and his wife were leaving for four years while she pursued her doctorate; I was struggling with the first draft of my second novel while editing a museum publication...just for starters. Twenty-five years ago we were younger, of course. Still, thank goodness I recorded some of our feelings and reactions to what was overwhelming us. When I read what I wrote, I realize I had completely blocked those out. Now I wonder if any of the other players were aware of how events were shaking the two of us. Good example of how easy it is to forget the rest of the world when you have too much on your own plate.
If at any time a writer needs a prompt, there are always the family pictures and, with luck, the journal or commonplace book entries. For those with retentive and unflinching powers of recall, perhaps these aides memoire aren't necessary. For me, they're life savers. Sometimes I think I was oblivious; these jottings prove to me that I wasn't. I'm glad.
So when the day comes that as a writer of fiction or personal essays, or as a poet, you need something to push the Start button, turn to those records. At my age, of course, the past is ninety percent of what I can write about. As a character in a movie I watched last night said, "I'm eighty years old. My future is a short line as straight as an arrow..." Of course, he was talking about preserving something for as long as he had time left to enjoy it. In a sense, so am I, even if some is less enjoyable than instructive. And instructive is what a writer needs!
For many of us, it's a question of revisiting what happened on the road while it was still mostly in front of us and so full of twists and hills we had no idea of where it would lead. It's astonishing how much pain and pleasure and how many surprises and perhaps insights might be available for new sightseers, if we can find a way to tell them about it.