Skills

Why would You Write a Journal?

Photo by Walt Stoneburner
Photo by Walt Stoneburner

“One’s first diarist,” suggests psychotherapist and essayist Adam Phillips, “is one’s mother who links facts for one, holds the pieces together.” Forget the priest’s confession booth or your mum. There are more places than ever for confessionals today. Social media is a constant flood of inner thoughts memorialised. Still, the art of keeping a diary continues, despite a technological and social revolution that mean that both writing by hand and private introspection are fast becoming things of the past. Keeping diaries is an ancient tradition that dates back to 10th century Japan.

I found an old diary of mine recently. I had filled its pages about ten years ago, when I first met my husband. How young I seemed then. What a mix of embarrassment and wonder to rediscover who I was. I’m not a daily journal scribbler. I have a journal on my bedside table and use it when my head feels busy. It helps to spill my thoughts onto the page. I have no rules about what goes into it. I use it to hold myself to account with goals and for story ideas, which are starred and filed away in their proper place later. I remind myself to write a list of things to be grateful for, which I find really helpful to reread on the days I have had a disappointment and have lost my perspective. I have found myself journalling more this year in Switzerland, finding many trusted conversation partners far away.

So what is it that leads us to write diaries? There are some who say diaries are the preserve of the troubled. Once the seas are calm, the diary is relegated to the back of a drawer. A diarist its someone, who is self-important and secretly hopes to be read, who wishes to control, or who does not have the courage to voice their thoughts in conversation. S/he is someone who does not live in the present, who is fascinated by their own history.

Photo by Steve Loya
Photo by Steve Loya

While some truth may be found in the reasons above, it would be a shame to dismiss the benefits of journalling out of hand:

▪ Clarity. You can off-load and clear confusion by articulating your thoughts.

▪ Honesty. No-one has to read your journal but you. Your words are unfiltered, a stream of consciousness. You can strengthen your sense of self, show yourself in your wholeness, rather than the separate facets of ourselves you present to the world. You can say the unsaid.

▪ Presence. Too often, we get caught up in the needs of others and go through the motions of our established routines without self-assessments, but is the tiny adjustments to our evolving needs that leads to greater fulfilment. With a diary you are making time to pay attention to yourself.

▪ Freedom. There are no rules with journalling. It doesn’t have to be daily or grammatically correct. It doesn’t matter how long or short the entry is. Crossing out is just fine. Doodle. Leave a thought mid-sentence if that’s what you want.

▪ Creativity. Experiencing your unfiltered self in all its glory is disconcerting. For a writer especially, it can be wonderful material for a fictionalised character. Oscar Wilde once said, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”

Photo by Magic Madzik
Photo by Magic Madzik

▪ Reexamine. Work through difficult episodes. Write down your dreams and explore fantasies. The page is non-judgemental.

▪ Accountability. Track what is important. Map out your goals and progress. Keeping a diary reveals patterns of behaviour and builds self-knowledge.

▪ Recall. We process such a huge amount of information daily. Our lives are crammed full of experiences. It has become the norm to have hundreds of friends we keep track of in different ways. Is it any wonder we are forgetful? Our brains keep only the most important information. There are also physiological reasons why we might only remember the broad strokes of certain events. Take childbirth, for example, where there is good reason to remember the bonding with your newborn over the intensity of the pain of delivery. Use a journal to remember the details.

▪ Destress. The mental health benefits of journalling have been well-documented. It is therapeutic.

▪ Practice. It can be a good warm-up, in the style of Julia Cameron’s morning pages as detailed in The Artist’s Way. W.H. Auden once described his journal as “a discipline for laziness and lack of observation.” For writers journalling is a way to keep our instrument in tune.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 01.25.01Wonderful published diaries include those of Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, Abraham Lincoln, Frida Kahlo and Sylvia Plath. Other famous diarists such as Evelyn Waugh and Philip Larkin burnt theirs. Whether you write regularly or not, in a leather-bound journal or scrappy exercise book, in ink or on an app, what happens in the pages of your diary is completely up to you. If you do not want yours to be discovered by someone other than you, just remember to keep it somewhere safe.

17 thoughts on “Why would You Write a Journal?

  1. Love the Pepys quote. Another one I love (an autobiography rather thana diary, but it sometimes feels like the latter) is Benvenuto Cellini’s. A colourful life told with wit and panache – and not a little ego!

  2. “There are some who say diaries are the preserve of the troubled. Once the seas are calm, the diary is relegated to the back of a drawer. A diarist its someone, who is self-important and secretly hopes to be read”

    For good and ill, there’s a lot of truth to that. Certainly when I’ve been content and comfortable, I’ve had less to write about. And I think, fundamentally, all writers have a degree of self-importance. After all, if it was just for the pleasure of writing, we wouldn’t have this burning desire to make any of our work public.

    My first journal (which was online, as all my journals have been) was very much the quiet teenage boy raging anonymously into the wind, shielded by a pseudonym and being somewhere in the vast morass of Livejournal. Although I don’t have any physical remains, I can remember it well – lots of me being angry about how my then girlfriend was being treated by friends, how alienated and impotent I felt against the world, talking up every little slight and stray glance as evidence of the latest battle in a wider war. Later on, thanks to my exposure to satirists like Chris Morris, they became opportunities to do all of these things but in a more entertaining and abstract way – replacing direct references with increasingly hyperbolic and ridiculous entries. It was through people’s appreciation of my journal entries that I had the courage to push on and write actual stories that people might like to read.

    1. Hi Jimmi, I think you’re right about the self-importance, though it smarts a bit to admit it ;). I’ve not explored the online journal world. Sounds interesting. The description of your teenage self pouring himself into a diary is powerful. It’s like your journal was a rite of passage. I like the idea of writing a journal as being a stepping stone to further creativity, almost a training ground. And I’m very glad it gave you the impetus to write. Thanks as ever for your thoughtfulness. Goodnight, Nillu

  3. Love this, great post! Journaling is the best. Don’t know what I’d do without it.
    Was wondering if I could include this paragraph in a book I’m working on called Fall in Love with Writing:
    “I found an old diary of mine recently. I had filled its pages about ten years ago, when I first met my husband. How young I seemed then. What a mix of embarrassment and wonder to rediscover who I was. I’m not a daily journal scribbler. I have a journal on my bedside table and use it when my head feels busy. It helps to spill my thoughts onto the page. I have no rules about what goes into it. I use it to hold myself to account with goals and for story ideas, which are starred and filed away in their proper place later. I remind myself to write a list of things to be grateful for, which I find really helpful to reread on the days I have had a disappointment and have lost my perspective.”
    It combines the words of over 150 bloggers who share their love of writing. There is a section on journal writing and I would love to include this. You name, age and country of residence would be included or you can be anonymous. All good if you’re not interested. Just thought I’d check. Thanks heaps, JD.

    1. Hi JD, thanks for reading. Glad you liked it and sure, why not? Can you drop me a line when it’s ready so I can have a look? Fine to use that quote, attributed please. I’m 33, from London, UK. Best wishes for the book, Nillu

  4. Brilliant. Yes! I keep a diary and have done pretty religiously for 20 years now. They are great for my memory (which is not the best for detail) some make me laugh out loud, some I cry at, some I look back and think: wow…I got through that! They’re even better for accountability for oneself (there certainly are patterns of behaviour I’ve noticed). Last year’s led me to look hard at my life and goals going forward. They’re great for disciplining writing (to a certain degree). Very therapeutic. I agree with what Jimmi says: mine tend to be sparser when my mind is settled. There’s a lot of angst I’m those pages at times but months of gaps. The gaps tell their own story of course. I know why the gaps are there and what happened in that time. I like the physical act of writing in my best pen in a lovely looking book. And yes some of my diaries have given me fodder for fiction! :) more than anything they reflect me and my life and who I am. It is quite narcissistic but I am also a historian and I think it’s primarily my way of recording my own history.
    Thanks for another thought provoking and great post.
    (please excuse shoddy grammar/punctuation – I’m on my phone! ) :)

    1. JB! So awesome to see you there. I’ve not been on Twitter that often of late and have missed you. Thanks for stopping by. I like that you look back at your entries. I wonder how common that is. In fact, I’d love to do a poll about how writers use journals, much like Paula’s one for hashtags ;). I’d like especially to know what the majority would like to happen to their diaries after death. Brilliant thought that the gaps tell their own story. I forget how important white space is. Bed time now. Am quite looking forward to the white out. Night night love, and thanks for commenting.

  5. “diaries are the preserve of the troubled.”

    I’ve never heard it phrased that way; that’s perfect and poetic. I think I fall into that category. I journaled most during times of trouble. Though last year I deliberately started writing down the highs and lows of each week. Didn’t want to just focus on the negative.

    Great post!

  6. Very good advice. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Writers need thin skin. I request help and I get it. Be thankful for the people wiling to help you.

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