For me, a diary is many things: a therapist’s coach, a playground, a laboratory. It’s— to borrow Virginia Woolf’s lovely phrase— a “blank-faced confidante,” a caring friend who will always listen and never judge. Though the practice seemed pointless at first (after all, could there be anything more self-indulgent than documenting the mundane matters of your day? who cares?), I’ve been keeping a diary now for nearly ten years. Nothing has been more important to my formation as a person or as a writer.
Here are three reasons why I believe you— too— should keep a journal:
1. you’ll free yourself of your inner censor’s picky perfectionism
For Anais Nin, who began her legendary diary at the age of eleven and devoted herself to the practice for over half a century until her death, a diary was a place to explore and experiment. Unlike in “real” writing where we’re mercilessly tortured by self-criticism and silenced by self-doubt, in a diary, we can play like a carefree child in a sandbox. Usually, writing is fraught with anxiety (“Was our point clear?” “Was our topic interesting/relevant?” Did we sound silly/stupid?”) but in the private pages of our diary, we don’t have to perform— we are free to frisk and frolic. There’s no need to obsessively-compulsively write and rewrite sentences, to endlessly tweak and alter and adjust. We don’t have to write anything original or sharp-witted— only what genuinely intrigues/interests us. Nor do our ideas have to march to a neat and orderly logic: topic sentence, example, evidence. They can wander down windy roads, get lost down dead-ends.
Too often, we bring our censor to the page in the early stages of the writing process: when we’re brainstorming, when we’re just playing with ideas. The result? We get blocked. “What does that have to do with anything?” our censor will snap when we start to follow an interesting— if unrelated— thought, “Stay on track…no detours!” But just as we stumble upon Maine’s best blueberry pie when we decide to stop at a diner off the main road, we often discover our best ideas when we bypass the highway and take the scenic route.
In an illuminating 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, the ever-elegant Nin argued her diary helped her amass a wealth of material and write without restriction:
“… in the diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, brought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.”
2. you might find diamonds in dust
Perhaps the most compelling reason to keep a diary comes from dedicated diarist, Virginia Woolf. Though it’s hard to imagine that a genius like Woolf could doubt her own talent, for the titan of modernism behind such masterpieces as Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, writing was often torment: she loathed what she wrote, she tossed entire drafts in the trash, she exasperatedly scratched sentences out. There were days when she felt everything she wrote was obvious and trite, when she cruelly compared herself (“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence. Oh if I could write like that!” she once wrote.)
The fact is writing can be hell. Some days we dread sitting at our keyboards. We’d rather do almost anything— get a root canal, read dusty decades-old magazines in a three hour DMV line, visit our insufferable in-laws— than put one word against another. On days like this, putting pen to paper feels as torturous as having dinner with your right-wing, Trump-supporting uncle. Every word, every sentence is a struggle. We freeze up rather than let words flow. Because we long to write The Great American Novel— something history-making and monumental— we feel blocked. Should we employ more evocative description? Should we replace lethargic forms of “to be” with vigorous action words? Is it okay to simply say “went” or should we use something more specific like “hurried” or “skipped” or “jumped”?
For Woolf, keeping a diary was a potent remedy for such crippling writer’s block. In a April 20, 1919 entry from her own blank-faced confidante, she wrote the purpose of a diary was artistic— not historical. More than just a mundane record of her day-to-day, the diary was a safe space where she could express what first came into her mind without fear of judgement or ridicule:
“The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments…What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.”
In a diary, we can write with an ease and effortlessness that often eludes us. Ironically, our writing is worlds better when we stop trying so hard. Think of a first date. When we try to “make an impression” and dazzle our date with impressive accomplishments, riveting stories, and hilarious jokes, we repel rather than attract our potential paramour. But when we relax, sip our wine, and be ourselves, our chances of a second date increase tenfold.
The same is true in writing. If we write out of ego— to impress with our scholarly, sophisticated vocabulary or to astonish with our ability to quote Dante in the original Italian or to gain literary celebrity or to win awards— we’ll a) find it impossible to write at all or b) only write god awful dross. But if we dash things off instead of compose, if we simply surrender and let go, we can write— and write well.
Will our diary be a masterpiece of prose? Most likely not, much of it will be worthless junk, but— in Woolf’s charming words— other times we might uncover “diamonds in dust”:
“I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dust heap.”
3. you’ll create yourself
Lastly, we should keep a diary because it’s a place where we can create ourselves. As essayist, political activist, and public intellectual Susan Sontag wrote in her 1957 journal:
“Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.”
Writing— above all— is an act of making meaning. Sadly, most of us don’t try to make our lives mean: we simply go to work, pay bills, go grocery shopping. Rather than form a narrative that follows a conflict’s escalation from exposition to climax to resolution, we let our days pass without scrutiny. A breakup of a long term relationship, a heated argument with our headstrong sister, an impossible roommate are a series of unrelated episodes. Because we don’t examine our lives, we can’t identify the unifying theme, the recurring patterns. We have no sense of how chapters contribute to the whole novel.
But when we take the time to reflect in a diary, we better understand our lives and ourselves. By translating our thoughts into words, we make things comprehensible. Our diary is the narrative of our lives, a novel we can analyze and dissect and pour over.
Have we written the same tear-filled story about our husband day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year? Maybe it’s time to get a divorce.
How many pages have we spent wondering why our on-again/off-again “boyfriend” hasn’t called? Maybe— our diary suggests ever so gently— he’s not our boyfriend at all. Maybe we should drop his ass because he treats us like a booty call.
How many times have we written that we missed our regular ritual of Sunday brunch with the girls? Maybe it’s time to pick up the phone.
Are we always enviously admiring the accomplishments of our ambitious friends who volunteer for good causes and get their Master’s? Maybe we should sign up to read to children at our local library or research grad schools.
Are we constantly complaining about how we despise our dull, dead-end jobs? Maybe it’s time to change careers.
Or does page after page brim with a desire to explore and adventure? Perhaps we should road trip across the country or trek to Timbuktu or abandon civilized society and live in a loincloth.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear,” Joan Didion once wrote. Writing makes us aware of who we are and what we want. Keeping a diary, we realize we’re the authors of our own lives: we can take control of our narratives, we can rewrite our stories, we can revise our plots.