Nulla dies sine linea. No day without a line.
–Pliny the Elder, quoting the ancient Greek artist Apelles
Do you keep a diary? I recently discovered that my mother, father, grandmother and sister all kept one. It was odd that I didn't know, because I've kept a diary myself since I was a child. I'm on volume 36 now, and instead of the cheap lined notebooks or vinyl five-year diaries I used as a child, I now use a beautiful blank book from Venice, but my reason for writing is the same as most people's: I don't want to forget these things.
The thing is, you do forget. A diary is a reality check. I don't often go back and read those notebooks full of childish handwriting, sketches, dried flowers and quotations, but when I do, I find myself asking, "Who was that girl? Why is she acting like that?" That nine-year-old travels with her uncles to a big city and thinks the most enthralling thing there is a girl with six fingers. That thirteen-year-old is utterly heartbroken at being left out of a class trip; that university student doesn't even realise quite how boy-crazy she is. Everything was so much more intense than I remembered it. (Also sillier.)
There's nothing like rereading a diary to cast a light on the limitations of memory. My children's funny sayings and antics? Lost as if they'd never happened, until I reopen that page:
Me: Lucy, are you being good?
Lucy: No, Mommy, I'm being beautiful.
Lucy: No, Mommy, I'm being beautiful.
Diaries are powerful. Malala became famous for the diary she wrote for the BBC's Urdu website, and almost died because of it. Anne Frank's diary touched the whole world. Maybe the idea that we have secret access to someone else's life is another reason for the popularity of diaries, real and fictional. It's no accident that first-person narratives are so popular in YA and middle-grade right now. They give readers the feeling of furtively opening a diary on someone's desk and sneaking a peek.
It strikes me that later neither I, nor anyone else, will care for the outpouring of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.
For a writer, as well as for any artist, a diary can be a useful way to "loosen the ligaments" for other work, as Virginia Woolf wrote. In The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron offers artists of all kinds the advice to begin the day by writing "three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages." Diaries aren't limited to words, either. The new U.K. Children's Laureate Chris Riddell has challenged parents to draw with their children every day, just as they would read to them.
|My little sister, age 9, by me, age 17|
There are two schools of thought about how frank a diary should be. One kind of writer writes very self-consciously, thinking about future readers; the other keeps the diary as a dark secret and tries to tell the complete truth.I am writing this journal partly ... to teach myself how to write a novel– I intend to capture all our characters and put in conversations....Rose looks particularly fetching by firelight because she is a pinkish person; her skin has a pink glow and her hair is pinkish gold, very light and feathery. Although I am rather used to her I know she is a beauty. She is nearly twenty-one and very bitter with life.–from I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
You see, it is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication. –Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest
You need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. –Madeleine L'Engle
Even when you think you are writing only for yourself, ego creeps in:
I want to appear a success even to myself. –Virginia Woolf
Diary, n. A daily record of that part of one's life, which he can relate to himself without blushing. –The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce
It's important, too, not to get carried away and spend more time on your diary than you do on the story you are writing.
Above all, though, here's the main reason keeping a diary can help you. This is Stephen King in On Writing:
To many aspiring writers, a great piece of writing is ... filled with an almost frightening power....They look at the writers who create such magic with reverence... longing for the day when they can discover their closely-guarded “secrets.”
Yes, there is some magic to it, but ...it’s accessible to everyone. Here’s how:
Write. Every day. For years.
They are historical documents. In the U.K. you can give them to the Great Diary Project, which can keep them safe and private until everyone they could possibly hurt is long dead: the choice is yours. In the U.S., the Society of American Archivists has information on what to do with diaries you may own or find, and almost all other countries have similar organisations.