What they don’t tell you about keeping a diary

Do you keep a diary? If you ask someone about why they keep one, they’ll probably give you a list of positive-sounding reasons for doing it. Writing a diary, like I have for most of my adult life, is a daily writing practice that helps you reflect on the chaos and wonder of any single day. The process involves mentally replaying your day, and then ordering, selecting and writing about the events or emotions that matter. It’s a procedure that can leave you as satisfied as ending the day with a tidy desk, or house (though in my case in a lot less time, as you’d know if you saw my house). It’s a sort of day-end Marie Kondo-ing of the mind.

They’ll also tell you that it helps you remember. When I was young, I thought I would actually remember everything important in life. When my high school friends were dropping cash on cameras and rolls of film, they asked, ‘Aren’t you into taking pictures?’ ‘No,’ I told them. ‘I’m into remembering.’ I actually said it like that, dragging out the word for emphasis. Of course, by my early twenties I came to realize that not only could I not remember everything, I could remember very little of anything, and my childhood was fading into the obscure fog of the past. That is, until my friends started showing up on Facebook to remind me with their scanned camera rolls. But even so, writing a diary helps you remember more than just the cheesy smile you’ve plastered on for the camera. Consciousness is a daily battlefield, and your mind is cruelly efficient at triage, at identifying patterns of significance and choosing to save the useful memories, while banishing the small, unusual details to oblivion. But of course, it’s often those small details that make life interesting, and in your diary you can record them along with all your fresh emotions and mental debates that never show up in a snapshot.

They might tell you lots of other benefits of keeping a diary. It calms you down, helps you destress and puts things in perspective. And if you’re learning something new, training for a goal, or have put yourself on a path towards anything, a journal can be great for helping you see your progress. They might even tell you it can make you a better writer, and better able to communicate your thoughts to friends, family and colleagues.

But they won’t tell you everything about keeping a diary. The biggest thing they won’t say is you’ve got to have an iron stomach. Because it takes an iron stomach to go back and swallow what you’ve written a year, two or ten years later. Things that seemed so serious are laughable in retrospect. Things you thought would change the course of your life had little impact at all. It’s like being stuck in an endless Facebook feed of cringe-worthy sentiment, embarrassing outdated clothes and bad hair days. Despite all the good writing a diary can do, I think this is what stops most people: the ability to look at yourself in the mirror, see your past self, and live with it. Before humans invented pens to write with, we just forgot. And it may be easier.

The other thing is that it can be a slog. Like anything you have to do every day, from showing up for team meetings to going for a run or walking the dog, sometimes you really just don’t want to do it. Nowadays, when we’re looking for support, we might turn to social media, but the very nature of a diary is you can’t go public. Your friends might post on Instagram about sticking to their diets and their beach-body routine; ‘Hey, I’ve just written in my diary for the 1103th day in a row!’ said no one ever. When we post everything on social media, you might come to expect a little community-fuelled dopamine hit every time we do something good. ‘Picked up some litter today!’ Like, like, like. ‘Baked a chocolate cake!’ Like, like, like. ‘Here’s my cat!’ LOVE. But a diary – and not a blog, but a good old-fashioned diary – is personal. The rewards are all private, and they won’t earn you a like, share or follow.

Even if I don’t look back and reread everything I’ve written, keeping a diary day after day, year after year, has been a rich and rewarding experience. But it’s certainly not for everybody, no matter what they say.

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