Why are writers so often advised to keep a diary or journal? How can regular entries support your writing? I always wanted one of those 5-year diaries with a key, kept in a box or a slipcase, bound in padded faux leather, edged with gold. Instead, every Christmas I was given an adult’s one-year pocket diary, with rice-thin paper and four or five lines per day. They were often business gifts my father had received at work, so they bore the trademark of the company and details of relevant business organisations inside.
I diligently made entries for a few weeks: ‘went on a walk’, ‘snowed’, ‘went to see the Bennetts and played charades’, that kind of thing. Then around the time I went back to boarding school (mid-January) the entries would tail off. After all, every day was more or less the same. Got up, had breakfast, made my bed, did English/Maths/Geography and Games. Rained.’ and so forth. It became boring to write, it is boring to read. But I was learning a useful skill: recording in words.
On writing courses I have been recommended to read writers’ diaries, specifically John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel from the time he was writing East of Eden. In this collection of letters you learn that Steinbeck was a keen amateur woodworker. He wrote in pencil and really did have a pencil sharpening routine as a prelude to his writing. He planned a fixed amount to write everyday and which scenes. It was all mapped out in advance. Nothing I read in his diary has any relevance to my writing, except it was often very hard work for Steinbeck as well.
Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck, published by Penguin Classics. 192pp
Virginia Woolf kept diaries. They have been edited by her husband and published, with an eye to illuminating her writing practices. When I posted about To The Lighthouse as part of #Woolfalong recently I greatly enjoyed looking up the references to the novel in the diary. The entries cast light on her writing processes, what she saw as her innovations, how she felt she was dealing with the new approaches she was trying. Recommended!
A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. One edition was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.
Reasons to keep a diary
I mentioned my desire for the locked 5-year diary. Two features of my thwarted wishes indicate important reasons to keep a diary:
- To make a record over time. I grew up to read a history degree. Perhaps you can see the connection.
- To have a secret or at least a private place. An interesting piece in the New Yorker in March referred to the importance of diaries as secret places in a review of What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Black Women Writers and the Secret Space of Diaries by Morgan Jenkins.
And I can think of a number of other reasons why I still do have a journal of sorts:
3. As I indicated above, it is a place to make sense of the world through words.
4. It’s a place to make sense of my writing through reflection, comments, experiments, notes, mistakes.
I have a daily weekday routine of getting up, making coffee and writing two A4 pages by hand, intending to focus on my writing. But it often turns out to be a reflection on activities of the previous day: a play, an exhibition, a conversation, a walk, a book or a dilemma not connected to writing. How is it helping my writing? Perhaps it just gets my writing mojo going. A way to loosen the ligaments, to use Virginia Woolf’s phrase (April 20th 1919, p13).
The benefits according to others
Writing about traumatic experiences and the associated emotions for 20 minutes a day speeds up the healing of wounds, it is claimed. Research on this was reported by Oliver Burkeman in his Guardian Blog in July 2013.
Michael Palin has an instrumental reason for keeping his diaries: a record of his days, helping him remember things he would otherwise have forgotten. But he also has this to say
I’ve tried to approach each morning’s entry as a story of the day that’s just passed, without limits and without self-censorship. And composing a story a day is not a bad discipline for any would-be writer. (The Guardian, Do Something supplement, September 2015.)
Journaling to help learning
I think the most useful aspect of my regular writing is that it is part of my reflective process. I record my successes – a story completed and entered for a competition; the MS of The New Age of Ageing sent to the publishers; a target number of words achieved and so on. I record my frustrations. Periodically I review the pages of my journal, focusing on what I did, and what I learned from my actions. And sometimes I plan what I will do in future in the light of this learning.
On my tbr pile
What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Diary of a Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt
Journals of Sylvia Plath
Over to you
How does writing a journal help your writing? Are there any journals by writers that have influenced your writing?
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