7 Truths About Keeping a Diary From 10 Brilliant Minds

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Flavorwire recently posted a wonderful piece looking at what 10 famous authors have said in the past about the solitary, introspective act of keeping a diary. Inspired by that article, we decided to extract the best observations and truisms we learned about journaling from those 10 brilliant minds.

Tell us in the comments section below what you think of these insights – and, indeed, if you have any of your own – and definitely check out the full article from Flavorwire here.

1. Writing Just To Write Is Great Practice

Virginia Woolf observed that writing for no audience – writing just to write – is great practice. “It loosens the ligaments.” Her diary writing, she noted, is rough and ungrammatical. She tended to write in her diary at a quick pace, “with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink”, and, though looking back on these entries was embarrassing and mortifying, she traced improvements – “some increase of ease” – in her professional writing to all those casual half hours spent with her diary.

2. Occasional Brilliance Can Arise From Lots and Lots of Writing

David Sedaris, who wrote of keeping a diary for thirty-three years, accepted that most of it is really just whining -  “but every so often there’ll be something I can use later: a joke, a description, a quote.”

3. A Diary Is Not Meant for Others’ Eyes… Or Secretly Maybe It Is?

Susan Sontag talked about a time she read someone else’s journal and, specifically, about reading that persons’ true (and “curt, unfair, uncharitable”) feelings about her. “Do I feel guilty about reading what was not intended for my eyes?” she asked herself. No, she doesn’t – because she believed that one of the functions of a diary – a function we would more than likely deny to ourselves – is to be found and read. A diary is the one place where we have the opportunity and the luxury to be truly, cruelly honest, and it’s not inconceivable that we would secretly – dangerously, even – want others to learn those true thoughts.

4. Journaling Can Help You Come to Know, Understand Yourself Better

Joan Didion thoughtfully broke down why she kept a journal. Her method is typically to preserve everything she observes (from “dialogue overheard in hotels” to “impressions” of people), and while she often told herself the notebook is all about other people, she ultimately had to admit: it’s about her. “My stake is always, of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”

Anaïs Nin, on the other hand, said she writes to discover “the moments of revelation.” She actively chooses to write about heightened moments – “moments of emotional crisis” – because these are times when “human beings reveal themselves most accurately.” Keeping a diary, for her, was essentially about coming to better understand herself.

5. Keeping a Diary Can Sometimes Be An Unpleasant Trap

Joan Didion characterized the keeper of a private journal as a “different breed” of person: “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” She spoke of her daughter in contrast as being the opposite of this anxious person – someone who wouldn’t have this compulsive need to write things down because she is “a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up.”

C.S. Lewis, also looking at the darker side of keeping a journal, wrote about the trap that one can inevitably fall into with the act of keeping a journal. Writing in his journal in a state of mourning after the death of his wife, he questioned whether writing about his grief as he did actually had the unintended effect of aggravating it.

Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on think about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief. Do these notes merely aggravate that side of it? Merely confirm the monotonous, treadmill march of the mind round one subject.

But like Didion, who believed her impulse to write was a compulsion she had no control over, Lewis concluded he has no other option but to write: “But what am I to do? I must have some drug, and reading isn’t a strong enough drug now.”

6. Looking Back On Old Entries Can Lead to True Reflection & Growth

Jessamyn West very astutely said, “People who keep journals have life twice.”

Maybe what she was referring to was that you have the moment you lived and then you have the moment you’ve written about – something you can always refer back to. Franz Kafka believed that referring back to old journal entries – looking back on situations, life changes, old sufferings – gives one a kind of reassuring feeling. You look back on these situations and times – some “which today would seem unbearable” – and you realize you lived, you survived. You were even able to write it all down! And doing so can lead to great wisdom about the self.

Jonathan Franzen also talked about the insights he gained from looking back at old journal entries. He speaks of the feelings of mortification he felt from reading even day-old entries, discovering his own “fraudulence and pomposity and immaturity.” These insights made him desperate to change himself, “to sound less idiotic.” His journal entries, he attests, led him to a private commitment to personal growth.

7. Diaries Can Be An Invaluable Aid to Winning Arguments

And then there’s this gem from David Sedaris: “[Keeping a diary is] an invaluable aid when it comes to winning arguments. ‘That’s not what you said on February 3, 1996,” I’ll say to someone.”


Tell us what you think about these insights and observations below. Do you have anything interesting to add about the act of keeping a diary?

About Paperblanks®: We have been producing superb writing journals for twenty years. We are book people, and we believe that the written word matters and that our blank books have a critical role to play in the art and continued practice of writing itself. For more about Paperblanks®, go to our website at paperblanks.com.

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32 comments on “7 Truths About Keeping a Diary From 10 Brilliant Minds

  1. I’ve kept a daily journal for almost 20 years. I agree it’s comforting to re-read entries concerning long ago troubles and to see how I survived. I employ lots of irony and outrageous sarcasm when life doesn’t cooperate, and find myself laughing out loud at events that seemed dire once upon a time. I write about my life, my partner (of 30 years)’s life, and world events. A curious friend once asked me why I wrote so compulsively and I replied, “I can’t stop time, so I try to put it on paper.”

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  3. “That’s not what you said on February 3, 1996,” I’ll say to someone.”

    Made me laugh and a great example to keep a diary.

  4. I keep journals and I loved reading this article. Thank you so much. I was particularly affected by the Joan Didion quote at #5, saying the keepers of journals were a “different breed” of people and “children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss”… I sort of understand that.
    Thank you for this lovely article, it made me learn some things about this little thing that I do. :)

  5. I enjoyed these observations greatly. I admit most of my entries to be belly button lint. Still over the years the range of lint types gets more interesting. I am better able to share the wonder.

    But I did come to this post hoping to find an app for my iPod Touch as this is where I do my journal. Any tips from the distant stars?


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