Writers and diaries

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. 

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.  
–Anne Frank

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
A diary can train you to observe and remember. If you are using dialogue in your diary, you will try harder to capture the exact words someone has said. If you describe the people you meet, you will look at them more carefully. 
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 Castleby Dodie Smith
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. 

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.

Don't throw old family diaries away! 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. 

Julie Sullivan


  1. A fascinating article full of truths and inspiration!

  2. Thank you for this great piece on diaries - and I love that sibling drawing too!

  3. I recognize so much of what you say here. Right down to the type of notebook.

  4. This is a beautiful piece, thank you.

  5. One of the most annoying things in a blog is when it is full of basic spelling mistakes. It gives an impression of a lack of care for the readers. See more edit my essay


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.