On Keeping A Journal

The first diary I ever had was a dark red hardcover with a narrow frame of gold embossing. It struck me as being exactly the right size, with one full page for each day, and not too ostentatious. That was tremendously important. I think it was a freebie that my father was given at work. We went through a period of rather good work gifts while I was in my late teens; Scandinavian paper firms sent him whole smoked salmon every Christmas and rather lovely china or glass ornaments. My adolescent stationery fetish was sometimes satisfied by those telephone note pads that ran through a rainbow of coloured pages (I adored them), and then the diaries started arriving. I was sixteen, and on the brink, I was quite sure, of momentous events. It seemed like a good idea to record them.

In fact what actually happened is that I would faithfully write down, every day, a comprehensive and devastatingly tedious account of exactly what I had done. Lessons, phone calls, meals, as if I were simply the secretary to my life. I could not have been duller if I had tried. There was never at attempt at description, nor any inclination towards analysis, there were no frills and no feelings. Saddest of all, I would write all this up in the half hour between five thirty, when I finished my homework, and six o’clock when dinner was served. I never for one moment assumed anything of note would occur in the evening. Astonishing though it is to think of now, I didn’t even record what I’d been reading; it never struck me, in the hopeful egotism of pre-adulthood, that it might be of any interest in later life.

I kept a diary in this manner for several years, but gave up when I went to university. And then there was one more year when a diary tempted me, and that was 1998, the year after I had just come down with viral pneumonia and been extremely ill. The intention was to chart my triumphant return to good health, but instead it was a daily wail of anguish in the form of another tedious and uninspiring list, this time of symptoms. Once again, I didn’t embroider, didn’t explore, and I gave it up in the early autumn out of exasperation and disappointment. It had not done what I had wanted it to do. But what had I wanted? It seems incredible when I think back over my life, so bound up in writing since childhood, that I would never attempt to move beyond factual testimony in a diary. But I never did. My entries were masterpieces of banality, and I have a suspicion that if I were to keep a journal today, I might do exactly the same thing all over again.


I’ve been reading Alexandra Johnson’s brilliant book on journal writing, Leaving A Trace, and this is one of the many writing prompts she suggests. Describe your first diary, she encourages, write down everything you can about it and why you kept it. Then, on the flip side of the page, evade that internal censor and move beyond the well-etched lines of narrative by saying everything that account leaves out. Think of the stories that emanated from the events you recall. Think of the new perceptions that today you bring to the past. Explore which beliefs are not quite true, which are inherited, which are assumed. This struck me as a very clever idea.

When I looked back over the notes I’d jotted down about those early diaries I was conscious of the vivid, sensual, detailed recall I always have of the past. I could bring to mind the exact sensation of sitting in my bedroom (which I will not describe to you for fear of surpassing limits of tedium again), of being sixteen and waiting for something, any old thing, to happen. I have always had a strong and powerful memory and I trusted to it, at sixteen, to dive off the springboard of each plain, lifeless word, and be submerged in all the detail I lacked the skill to convey. But there’s more to it than that. Memory deforms; however good I think my memory is, it is always a portrait of myself looking, colour-washed by the concerns of the present. And I like that; I like the way memory alters, codes, transforms; I like its regal choice of some events, and heartless assassination of other, I find myself captivated by the lure of nostalgia and profoundly disturbed by the emotions of recalled trauma. Memory is a complex process, poorly understood but rich in those swiftly passing glimpses of the real self, rearranging the décor of the past between the acts. It can be a prison guard, locking identity into miserable confinement, but it’s also an artist who, for the right price, can be enticed into trying out a new genre. The emptiness of those diaries was an openness to unpredictability. I didn’t want to suggest how the present would look in the future; I didn’t want to call it, that early on.

But there is also the issue of privacy to contend with. Johnson is very good on it, describing all the tricks she has heard people use to keep their diaries completely secret. Some writers hide them on their computers, locked away with secret passwords, some write in a foreign language. The one I liked best bought dull-looking textbooks and cut the heart out of them, hiding the diary inside riveting tomes like Probate Tax. The exquisite dullness of my journal entries was a way of maintaining perfect privacy. I didn’t want to betray a moment of my teenage emotions on the page. I wanted to remain private, even to myself. Looking back I can see even deeper emotions lurking behind those closed doors: the desire, always fierce with me, to present a tidy façade to the world, to maintain composure by not permitting too much disturbance on the inside. I didn’t want to experience anything I couldn’t admit to in public. I had an ideal of a kind of spiritual and emotional purity that could be mine, but one that could only be maintained, I see now, if I scrupulously avoided any indelicate probing into my state of mind. And so naturally, when I finally found a form of writing that suited me, it was completely bound up with the lives and experiences of others. Other people’s feelings always seemed so much clearer to me than my own, in any case, their life events so much more worthy of comment, so much more resplendent with meaning. It seemed infinitely easier to swallow up someone else’s pre-processed life and ruminate on it, taking it to the next level of analysis on high, clear ground.

Blogging has been a slow but steady process of attrition on my bank-vault mentality. Let’s face it, I tell you people far, far more than I should these days, and probably a lot more than you wish to know. But it is undeniably a fascinating process to me, and I suspect possibly a healthy one, to see whether my own experience can make it onto the page (or screen). Blogging is a bizarre combination of privacy with an audience and it has certainly taken me down writing routes I never expected to travel. And Alexandra Johnson’s book is a wonderful store of exercises and prompts that look extremely tempting. It is possible that some more may make it into the reading room, over time. (Thanks to Frequency of Silence for bringing Johnson to my attention.)

19 thoughts on “On Keeping A Journal

  1. as if I were simply the secretary to my life.

    This description is a little gem.

    I’ve been a sporadic journal-keeper, usually a week at a time. When I started blogging, about five years ago, my purpose was to promote my freelance editing/coaching business, and also to tighten a style that had become overly wordy thanks to my having written a long Victorian novel in accurately-voiced first-person verbal extravagance. My challenge to myself was to encapsulate the essence of my day in two paragraphs or fewer. I called this a “snapshot anecdote” and I got pretty good at doing it; some of my blog posts still reflect that style of storytelling.

    However, the lure of emotionally eviscerating myself in public proved a Siren song I was unable to resist. There was something so freeing about it, perhaps particularly since I am a very private person three-dimensionally. I can honestly say that blogging changed my life, in that I became far more open in my real life, after I discovered that honesty and vulnerability endear people to other people. That was a lesson worth learning, and something I would never have discovered with a traditional paper journal, kept under Fort Knoxian lock and key.

  2. You’re writing and keeping a journal and you could make it look that first red one your dad gave you. For a writer, the blog is a great place to work out those knots. I buy journals, I love they way the look all pristine in my closet. Sometimes I actually write in them… 🙂 Not sure, the laptop was such a good idea, but it’s my favorite most filled journal.

  3. Do you still have your journals? And is it a little painful, or at least cringeworthy to go back and read them (it sometimes is for me when I go back and read an old letter or something that I’ve written). I only tried keeping a diary when I was very young–maybe 12 or so–the kind with the lock and key that keeps no one out who’s really determined to get in. I didn’t keep it for long and when I picked it up later I saw that I wrote about people using their initials and had forgotten who they belonged to! Completely silly! I’ve never been able to keep a journal since–I’m too afraid of writing down inner feelings and possibly having someone else read them later on–for me that would truly be painful! Personally I love your posts–and then never feel like too much! 🙂

  4. David – going by your posts and comments, that novel must have been quite something. I admire the way you set yourself formal constraints – that seems to me like an excellent idea, and one I should take on board. I know what to do with a book, but talking about life is always that bit trickier – discipline is good on many levels. Also, I couldn’t agree more as far as blogging is concerned. The discovery of this particular audience would certainly have warranted at least two sentences in my old diary. 🙂 And thank you for the kind words – they are much appreciated.

    Stella – I am always so very grateful that my blogging friends have the patience to let me work away at knots here! And I wonder whether it’s because my handwriting is so awful that I really prefer the screen as a medium. Instantly those words have some authority, so yes, the computer is definitely my favourite venue too.

  5. Danielle – I have a few still at my parent’s house, and oh yes, completely cringeworthy!! I really like this book by Alexandra Johnson but the thought of returning to those old journals for the material I need is a bit horrific. Putting down only initials and forgetting who they refer to sounds exactly like the kind of thing I would do! And I know just what you mean about owning up to feelings – I shift into good old academic mode then, when I can hold them a bit away from myself and pretend that whatever it is happens to everyone. 🙂

  6. I kept diaries – on and off, and mostly off – for years, but it was only when I started to harbour serious ideas of being a ‘writer’ (whatever that meant) that I started to keep one in earnest, almost as a test of my resolve. It worked, at least on that level. And looking back on it can be fun (but probably for no-one but me).

  7. I’ve always liked stationery. I like to buy beautiful journals. I imagine filling them with interesting and beautiful thoughts. I never do. I’m just not a journaler except at times working out difficult parts of my life. I did that in regular notebooks (pre-computer) and then later in password protected files (post-computer). People write what they need to write, what means the most to them, or exercises the most of their creativity, and that isn’t always a personal journal.

  8. This sounds like a great book. I’m thinking back to my first diary as I type this. It was given to me by a very dear family friend when I was seven years old. I really can’t remember what I wrote, but I remember the way it made me feel grown up to keep a diary.

  9. Isn’t the Johnson book marvelous? I have it on my shelf, read and enjoyed it years ago. My first diary i got when I was 10–Hello Kitty. I also had a Donny Osmond diary and those diaries with the little lock like Danielle describes. I used to be a pretty regular diary keeper until I started school last year and I haven’t been as good since then. It is interesting how our memory of events and of ourselves changes. I have plenty of cringeworthy entries to keep me reminded of that!

  10. Very interesting. I started out recording details just like yours — what I ate, what I did, nothing at all interesting. I remember my mom telling me I could write about what I’m thinking and feeling too, and that’s the bizarre part, because my mother encouraging me in my emotions seems all wrong. She never does that! But probably that’s not true, and I’m being unfair to her. Your last comment about blogging being bizarre in that it is both private and involves an audience strikes me as very true — sometimes I get the urge to write a post that only strangers can read, that none of the people in my real life who know about the blog could have access to. I get all irritated, because I’ve come to think that having an audience of strangers is some kind of right. I mean, shouldn’t everybody have the ability to put their personal thoughts out there and get responses from people they have never met? How odd that the experience has become so important to me, so quickly.

  11. The first diary I actually REMEMBER (but I know it wasn’t my first) was red, with a narrow frame of gold-embossing no less, but this one had a lock and key. I remember it so distinctly because my raging bastard of a stepfather broke into it, read it, and then had the incredible nerve to PUNISH me for what he found inside. I was ten, maybe eleven, and I had expressed a very murky but unmistakably sexual desire of some sort, and he was outraged. OUTRAGED! Livid. He was not a nice man, so any excuse would have done in the rage department, but it was without a doubt one of the most formative writing experiences of my life. I continued keeping diaries, and I got away from him instead.

    My teenage journals are just like yours, Litlove. I’m wondering if all the blood rushes from our brains and leaves us without a single intelligent thought until adolescence is over?! Because this is sort of it for me for about two years: “Slept late, missed breakfast. Dropped by to see X – love him, he’s SO HILARIOUS!!! Dinner was crap, but sat with X, Y, Z. They are SO COOL!!! Went to student store for chocolate. Ordered pizza. Got drunk with K and L. Had the BEST night, it was SO FUNNY!!!”

    I wish I was kidding. I still keep a journal, I’ve always got one on the go, but I use it less these days, and that’s partially to do with blogging. I love what you choose to tell us, especially when you choose to tell us more.

  12. “Probate Tax” would be the first place a snoopy mother would look for a diary. After all, what the heck would that be doing in a teenager’s room. Also, tax is a three letter word ending in x. It is interesting to think of tedious boring detail as a way of hiding the self from the self. I see it all the time, but it is of course never conscious. It occurs before the discovery of the self, like a cryssalis.

  13. I’ve kept a diary for the last 3 years and most of the time they are pretty dull. This year I have a very small one that can only fit about a paragraph a day so I write down whatever I am thinking about first thing the next morning. Usually it’s something like “Soup again for dinner. If I have to chop one more eggplant I am going to lose my mind.”

    Your first diary sounds lovely. Mine was green marbled cardboard with a brass lock – very cheap and small, with pages that fell out after you turned them once.

  14. Tim – Nowadays I’m more drawn to the idea of ‘morning notes’, twenty minutes of automatic writing to clear the junk out of the mind so that writing can begin. Now they really would be of no interest whatsoever! Bluestocking – I somehow picture you with a very glamourous diary – something very beautiful with marbled end papers and parchment paper! Lilian – writing is so oddly linked to genre, isn’t it? I loved writing when I was young but really couldn’t find a form that suited me until I really got into literary criticism. Now, having foudn that, I can branch out a little, but I am mostly dissatisfied with what I write outside the comfort zone! Lisa – seven is very young to have a diary, but how nice that you recall such a lovely experience. I wonder what you wrote in that first diary, and what memories it would bring back for you? Anne – isn’t it? If three years ago you’d said to me I’d be baring my darkest secrets to hundreds of strangers on the internet, I think I might have been offended! 🙂 Big hugs! Stefanie – the Johnson IS marvellous. Your Donny Osmond diary cracks me up completely – I can picture it so well. It’s reassuring to think of you having cringeworth entries; I have you down in my mind as someone with such fine judgement and literary restraint. Still, adolescence is notable for its lack of both, right? 🙂 Dorothy – well, you’re talking my language here. Same diary experience, same blogging experience. I write things here that I wouldn’t always tell my friends, and would miss it terribly if I couldn’t. Doctordi: oooooh bad, bad behaviour on your stepfather’s part on every conceivable level. Good solution on your part. I feel there must be hope for me as a writer if your diaries were also veering towards the inane (although they were undoubtedly more vivacious than mine!). I’m really interested to know that several of my blogging friends also keep a journal too. But yes, on the whole blogging fulfills that need for me. Squirrel – I would be surprised to find Probate Tax in my son’s room, but would probably ignore it on my husband’s bookcase – I think the title is supposed to be age-specific! 🙂 But interesting what you say about the chrysalis state of the self. Boxofbooks – I don’t believe you are capable of writing a dull sentence – something always happens to it en route to the page and it becomes entertaining!

  15. I kept a diary from kindergarten (those entries are hilarious, mind you) until I turned about 25 and then I practically stopped. I have about 20 volumes, all carefully stowed away in a chest and from time to time I will get them out and look up what I was doing say 15 years ago on a given day. Most of what I wrote was ordinary, day-to-day reflections on what was going on in my life. They are not extraordinary. It was a few years ago when I tried to revive the tradition that I realized I stopped journalling at almost the same time as I met my husband. It took me some time to figure this out, but I think I stopped writing in my diary because I finally had someone to discuss everything with. I didn’t need to write it down anymore, someone was actually listening 🙂 But the book you mention sounds wonderful, I’ve often thought I should go back to writing in a journal and see if I could do something different, more meaningful with it.

  16. Verbivore – wow! What a professional diary-keeper you are! But that’s rather sweet about your husband – I hope he feels suitably honoured. I can thoroughly recommend the book; it’s wonderful.

  17. Leaving a Trace is wonderful – so glad you’ve been enjoying that. I had a diary when I was a little girl and also kept one through high school but for some crazy reason I decided to destroy my high school diary! Oh how I wish I had that now. I love journaling but it tends to come and go in phases.

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