The Benefits of Keeping a Diary

I was listening to Saturday Live on Radio 4 yesterday and there was an interesting item on ‘diaries’ (a subject close to my heart. I wrote about it once on the blog here).

If you’re interested in diaries, there’s an exhibition running at Somerset House in London until 7th July 2017: ‘Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendants’ and one of the curators of the exhibition – Dr Clare Brant – was a guest on Saturday’s programme (27 minutes in, if you want to listen to it).

It sounds fascinating. Might I humbly suggest the exhibition would be a great venue for an artist’s date? I’m sure you’d get some writerly inspiration.

Something that appealed to me which was mentioned in the programme: you can donate your old diary to The Great Diary Project (they currently have 8000 diaries) and you can even put a closure notice on it when you send it in, expressing how many years it must remain closed (30 years, if you like!)

“The Project’s idea is to collect as many diaries as possible from now on for long-term preservation. In the future these diaries will be a precious indication of what life, in our own time, was really like.”

I’ve got a pile of diaries, dating back to when I was ten or eleven. I might donate them…!

I wrote an article about keeping a diary – and how it could help your writing – for Writing magazine a few years ago and I’m reproducing it here.

Let me know if you keep a diary now, or if you did once. If you’ve still got all those diaries stacked up or hidden away in drawers, what are you going to with them…?

‘Dear Diary…’

Many of us kept diaries or journals in our youth but something (self-consciousness perhaps, or a perceived lack of time), makes us stop as we reach adulthood. But are there benefits for writers in keeping a diary and if you’ve stopped, is it perhaps time to start again?

Author Ben Hatch, who wrote a diary when he was 21 (and which ultimately turned into the bones of his first novel, The P45 Diaries), suggests that recording real events and conversations ‘helps to give you an ear for dialogue.’ He also believes that ‘over time the diary will naturally describe the outline of a story. Before you know it – you’ve got a book.’

You may not be convinced that your life’s interesting enough to turn into a novel – or that the quote attributed to Mae West, ‘Keep a diary and someday it’ll keep you.’ – applies to you but nonetheless, keeping a diary could still help your writing.

For a start, it’s habit-forming. We all know the writer’s mantra: ‘write every day’. If you keep a diary, you can tick that off your ‘to do list’ right away. Virginia Woolf observed that writing for no audience – writing just for the sake of writing – is great practice because ‘it loosens the ligaments’.

You can use your diary to record everyday events, anecdotes and snippets of dialogue that you might otherwise forget. You may find it reassuring, to look back at past worries and difficult situations and see how you got through them. You may find you can use them later in your writing. Over time, your diary could turn into a valuable research tool.

If you have a stack of diaries written, say, in the ’70s or ’80s, they’ll contain all kinds of details from those decades. If you wrote diaries as a teenager, they’ll be invaluable if you want to recall how it felt, in order to write from a teenager’s point of view. I once heard a great example of the ‘teenage mind’ on the radio. A woman phoned in to talk about re-reading her diary from one day in July 1969. She’d written in great detail about her clothes and make-up on that day, the friends she’d spoken to and – most of all – the boys she fancied and then, at the very end, she’d added a cursory, “And a man landed on the moon.”

Most of us who look back at our teenage diaries will laugh, cry and cringe but there’s no denying, they can be fun to read. I spent two hours recently going through all my diaries and they gave me several ideas for stories and articles – not least, this one.

It’s been proven that keeping a diary can make you happier. Some people find it therapeutic, to write down their thoughts and certainly, keeping a journal can help to process worries and get things into perspective. But collecting positive memories can also help us to appreciate them. By keeping a diary and building an archive of memories, you’re producing a bank of instant ‘happy moments’ to relive in the future. It’s a kind of literary mindfulness.

I once took my 1975 diary to a family gathering and read out random extracts. None of us could remember the day my dad locked the dog (and car keys) in his Ford Capri or when the neighbours’ hamster went walkabout but those anecdotes produced howls of laughter all those years later and yes, made us happy.

You can even use your diary to practice your writing. Instead of describing your feelings, write descriptions and observations; forbid yourself from using the verb ‘to be’ – it will make your writing more interesting – and try experimenting with form. Keep a diary for a week using sentences of no more than 10 words (or only allow yourself to write one sentence for each day); instead of writing in the usual first person, try writing in the third person; experiment with stream-of-consciousness, or write in an accent, in broken English or in baby language for a week. Make a list entry – just using nouns to describe the day. These short exercises will enhance your powers of description and observation.

Most people’s diaries are private but you may wish to write one to pass on to your family. There’s never been such an interest in genealogy and your ancestors may one day treasure your diaries, if you’re writing them with one eye to the future.

Whatever your reason, it’s never too late to start writing a diary again. You don’t even have to wait until January 1st!

First published in Writing magazine, 2015.

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14 Responses to The Benefits of Keeping a Diary

  1. Wendy Clarke says:

    I write a diary up until the last year of uni – pretty cringe-worthy but very amusing. Why was I so obsessed with Sean?

  2. Jenny Roman says:

    I burnt all my diaries from my teenage/Uni years (something I don’t regret doing!) but last year a friend bought me one of those five year diaries where you just write a couple of lines a day and that’s proving quite interesting now I’m in the second year!

    • Jenny, that was very brave, to burn them all (I have visions of you chanting as you threw them in a big bonfire but I’m sure it was probably less dramatic than that…!). Now I’m wondering why you wanted to burn them.. hmm, but obviously, that is for you to know and the rest of us to ponder! Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.

      • Jenny Roman says:

        Not sure if this makes sense but they almost felt like a huge weight. Getting rid was sort of de-cluttering me! (And you’re possibly not far off with the chanting, Helen!!)

      • I can understand what you mean about ‘decluttering’ yourself. I suppose it was like getting rid of bad memories and experiences. While they were written down they were still ‘there’ but once you burned them, you could forget them? (this is just hypothetical of course!)

      • Jenny Roman says:

        Yes, that’s about right – though funnily enough, not all bad memories! x

  3. edinburghs says:

    I heard the curator of the diary exhibition talking about it on Saturday Live yesterday. She said her favourite donated one was written by a girl who was only seven or eight in the 60s. I’ve only once kept one for a whole year, when I was 16/17 (and destroyed it a few years ago). Blogged about that diary and other people’s diaries here:

  4. Lovely post, Kate, I’ve just read it. Great reminder too, of all the fabulous fictional diaries out there! Bridget Jones is one of my favourite all-time characters and one of my favourite books, ‘I Capture The Castle’ by Dodie Smith, is written in diary form. It has the fabulous first line, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink…” Can’t recommend it highly enough, if you haven’t yet had the pleasure..!

  5. Like Jenny, I burnt my teenage diaries when I left home (on Dad’s bonfire in the garden!) and I really wish I hadn’t – I’d have loved to have read them (however cringe-worthy). Mind you, I’m not sure how much I’d still be able to decipher as I wrote them in a phonetic code i.e. using the Russian alphabet (I was doing Russian O level at the time).
    I started a diary again in 1981 when I was given a Garden Diary for Christmas, then felt compelled to continue the following year keeping a note of events during the Falklands War. Once I’d established the habit, I couldn’t stop so it’s been a daily “ship’s log” ever since! They amount to a fair few box-fulls now…
    Sometimes I think it would be nice not to have the commitment at the end of each day but then the family historian in me kicks in and I think, wouldn’t I have loved to read something similar that my grandmother/great-grandmother-/great-great-grandmother wrote, and I can’t bring myself to stop!
    Then again, maybe I’ll use a major Big O birthday to say, enough is enough. After all, there’s plenty of material for the archive.

    • Wendy, I love that throwaway line ‘I wrote them in a phonetic code, ie: using the Russian alphabet’ – I’m impressed! I know what you mean – when do you stop with the diary-writing?! It seems to be a theme: burning diaries!

  6. Heather Walker says:

    I’ve never been a diary writer but I did take part in a diary poetry writing session a couple of years ago with The Poetry School. A lady from this project you’ve written about brought along some of the old diaries for us to look at and read. The idea was to respond in poetry to some of them. The diaries were fascinating – all types from school children written 100 years ago to an engaged lady describing dress and friends. There was also a guy who drew his face everyday in an exercise book (recording moods) and another man who kept a log of all the things he could never throw away – slightly strange and creepy! (old Kodak boxes flattened neatly, toothbrushes etc.)

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