Memories

I Reread My Teenage Diaries. Oh Boy.

What was strange about reliving this twenty years later was how raw the emotions still felt.

by Carley Fortune
Photo Taken In Hiddensee, Germany
Bernd Friedel / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

My Aunt Colleen was a smart woman. Among her choice phrases: Only truly beautiful women can have short hair. (Hers had been cut into a pixie since the seventies.) Never underestimate the power of a hook — or a can of paint. Be curious. Be skeptical.

When I made the drive from Toronto to my hometown of Barry’s Bay — a small lakeside town in eastern Ontario that’s also the setting for my debut novel, Every Summer After — I often stopped at my aunt and uncle’s house on the way. I’ll always remember the day I made the trip north to help my mom finish cleaning out our family home before we sold it. Colleen gave me an egg salad sandwich and some advice: Throw out all the crap. Don’t cry, this will be hard enough on your mom. And when it’s time to go, don’t look back.

I did exactly as my aunt said. We threw out all the crap. I didn’t cry. And I didn’t look back. Until, ten years later, I did.

In March of 2020, in lockdown with my husband and four-year-old son, I dug out two shoeboxes from the back of my closet. I took very little with me when we cleaned out the house — but I took those boxes. Inside were thirteen journals I kept from age seven until my early twenties. For the first time, I plunked them on my bed, and I read them all.

The earliest is a tiny white diary with two harlequins on the front and perfumed polka dotted paper that has somehow retained its baby powder scent. When I press my nose to the pages, I’m right back in my childhood bedroom in Australia, where I lived from ages three to eight. It has a small silver lock that I lost the key for along the way, and at some point, I ripped the spine to open it up. The first entry is from 1991 and foreshadows just how boy-crazy I’d be for, oh, ever. It says, “Tim kisst me today on the playground. I said whah!” (Truth: There’s no way Tim kissed me — I would remember such a momentous occasion. I was telling myself stories even back then.)

Most of the journals span the years from fourth grade, when my family moved from Australia to Barry’s Bay, until the end of high school. The entries are full of girlhood dramas, tales of friendships forged and lost, complaints about my younger brother, and crushes galore. My teenage diaries are stuffed with ephemera: notes passed in class, a six-page letter from my best friend breaking up with me, an invitation for two friends’ sixteenth double birthday party. There’s an email address on a torn corner of paper from a boy I was into, and a letter I wrote to a crush telling him I liked him, which I clearly never sent. One friend’s note, telling me I looked “exceptionally pretty, glamorous and beautiful today,” brought tears to my eyes — I never felt pretty as a teen.

One of the wonderful things about reading the diaries was being reminded of stuff I’d long forgotten, like how I spent the night of the winter formal watching movies with a guy friend I’d known since fourth grade. Or the fact that my friends and I made a hilarious two-page memo outlining our “purpose, materials, and method” for a girl’s trip we dubbed The Ottawa Relaxation Vacation. “The purpose of this trip is to relax, and pat ourselves on the back for having to endure such a stressful school year.” When one of those women died in the fall of 2020, I was grateful I’d hung onto her notes and that I’d read them recently — a piece of her will always be with me.

Penguin Random House

Some of the entries made me laugh out loud. “I think I’m starting to like him, but he confuses me. Does he like me or not? He asks me for a pen every day — how juvenile! But I think he might like someone else. I don’t know! Grr!” Others are legit tear-stained, like the one I wrote at sixteen (about a different boy) that reads, “I wish I could just have platonic feelings, because now it’s all f#*%@d up and it’s my dumb ass fault. He likes her. He talks to her all the time — we never talk at all anymore.” It’s amazing how much I bottled up as a teenager, how poorly I communicated with my friends, even though we spoke on the phone for hours. I didn’t confide in my parents about any of the stuff I was privately obsessing over — the diaries were the place where I worked out my feelings.

What was strange about reliving this twenty years later was how raw the emotions still felt. It was like being plunged into my adolescence. I had a very tight circle of girlfriends, but I felt so alone. I have many happy memories of those years, but I don’t think I was a very happy kid. There is so much yearning for a “real” boyfriend, but underneath that there’s a deep desire to be seen and heard — for a friend who truly understood me.

A couple months after reading the journals, my husband, son, and I were staying at a cottage on a lake near Barry’s Bay. I was feeling deeply nostalgic for the summers of my childhood, and when I decided that I was going to write a book, my diaries and the voices of my friends must have been in the back of my mind. I wrote Every Summer After as a love story about two thirteen-year-olds who, over the course of six summers, become best friends and, of course, fall in love. I wanted to give my characters exactly what I dreamed of when I was young: a person who truly understood them.

And also, someone they could kiss.

Carley Fortune is an award-winning Canadian journalist who’s worked as an editor for Refinery29, The Globe and Mail, Chatelaine, and Toronto Life. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two sons. Every Summer After is her first novel.