The oldest known and existing diary or journal dates back to the 2nd century A.D. and belongs to the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who wrote a Greek work titled To Myself, a series of self-conversations. After that, this form of writing flourished in the Middle Eastern and East Asian parts of the world when, in the 9th and 10th centuries A.D., for example, Chinese scholars and travelers kept travel diaries to log observations and progress, Japanese ladies at court kept “pillowbooks,” to record events and musings and medieval Arab mystics who expressed inner emotions and documented events and visions. Indeed a very long tradition with works that have been essential to historians, biographers, archaeologists, linguistic experts, and fiction writers of all stripes.
Recently, there has also been quite a bit of writing about the practice of journaling, particularly because of how blogging and social media have been replacing this form of writing. As a lifelong journal writer myself, I’ve had an evolving relationship with journalling. And, although I’ve had four blogs since 2008 (three now defunct) and I’ve participated sporadically in social networks online since 2000, my practice of writing longhand in a notebook for only myself continues to thrive.
So this is the first in a series of to-be-defined length exploring journal-writing including aspects such as: why are we drawn to writing them; how do they evolve in the purpose(s) they serve; what varying kinds of influences drive that evolution; what concerns we might have about allowing others to read this most personal writing; what roles do they play in our personal narratives (the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others), what are the process mechanics of journal-writing (digital vs long-hand, personal vs public, time of day, frequency); and so on. One other phenomenon worth exploring is the use of diaries in fiction and why they continue to be popular (here’s an excellent short take from McSweeneys: Thought Diary from God’s 7th Day). Let’s see how far and wide these forays will take us.
Along the way, in addition to presenting from the published journals of famous people or works of fiction, I might serve up certain morsels from my own journals because, as part of this project, I intend to comb through my 1998-present, 25-something journal volumes (the only ones I’ve saved though I’d been keeping journals for at least a decade before.)
A hat-tip to the writer, Sarah Gerard, who wrote an excellent 2-parter on this in The Paris Review. And another couple of hat-tips to my favorite books about diaries/journals: Thomas Mallon’s excellent A Book of One’s Own, and Ronald Blythe’s The Pleasures of Diaries. Both of the latter are, sadly, out of print and rather dated, having been published in 1984 and 1989 respectively. I look forward to uncovering many other such journal anthologies/surveys.
Let’s start at the beginning. What prompts people to start writing diaries or journals?
Mallon described seven kinds of diarists — chroniclers, travelers, pilgrims, creators, apologists, confessors, prisoners — in his survey of more than a hundred diarists through the ages.
In her Paris Review pieces, Gerard described how she started in elementary school after hearing a friend read out loud from her own diaries, then destroyed her high school journals as a way of turning away from her past and starting a new life phase, then revisited notebook-writing over the years with long gaps in between.
I have a friend who started hers as a “Gratitude Journal”, based on hearing about this practice on an Oprah show. Her practice has evolved beyond that to self-discovery and a form of daily meditative ritual.
Anais Nin started hers at the age of 11, during a trip from Europe to New York, as a letter to her father, reaching an astounding 150+ volumes with 15,000 typed pages.
Virginia Woolf kept diaries from 1915 till her death in 1941. They covered a wide gamut of issues from detailed commentary on other writers’ works, her own literary efforts and her illness, which, during her time, was little-understood.
Reagan, during his two presidential terms, kept a daily diary — his first-hand account that cannot be rivaled by any biographer in giving us both the politician and the man.
Marilyn Monroe’s intimate notes were a way for her to collect personal thoughts in fragments — as poems, sketches, random ideas — and have revealed a more complex woman than anyone knew from her larger-than-life screen persona.
For eleven years, from 1922 to 1933, Einstein traveled all over the world and kept a travel diary. Beyond his meetings with powerful and important world leaders and personalities, he also noted some of the worrisome political rumblings in Germany and across parts of Europe that led to his emigration to the US for good.
My own beginning, nowhere nearly as momentous as the aforementioned, likely echoes that of many early-teen bookish girls. I was introduced to journaling through Anne Frank’s Diary.
During a visit to the home of my best friend in the eighth grade, after lunch, I stared at the floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall bookshelves in her living room with open envy. Mostly her parents’ reading, but, not having anything even close to a collection like that in our home, I was in awe.
As we gushed over this book cover or that, repeated aloud some of the funny or difficult titles, rifled through pages densely crammed with words that we had never spoken or even heard, it felt better than being in any library. There was no need to speak in low tones and behave ourselves. We shouted out words, sentences, bits to each other for the sheer joy of hearing ourselves read them aloud and then laughed conspiratorially.
And so we went on till her father walked in. Embarrassed, I fell silent, trying to gather up the books strewn around us on the floor.
He pulled out the Anne Frank and held it towards me. “Have you read this?” he asked.
I shook my head as I took the well-worn copy from him and opened it randomly.
Even before I could finish reading a sentence to myself, he looked at my friend and said “Maybe your friend would like to borrow that?” and left as quietly as he had entered.
Reading the book over the next couple of weeks, snatching time between classes, homework, and chores, I knew it was like nothing I had read before. The introduction had provided the context around Anne’s life and fate, so the diary entries were all the more poignant for that. Here was a girl exactly my age, confined to a small space with a few people, unable to know if she was going to live at the end of it all, but writing her heart out because she had to. My adolescent mind identified with every single emotion, thought, and action of this girl who was of a different era, country, and culture.
When I returned the book to that friend, I was a transformed person, still brimful as ever with my own tumbling, incoherent thoughts, but with a new sense of purpose that I could, like Anne, organize them into words on a page and make some sense of them. For some reason, I was unable to actually discuss this particular book with my similarly-bookish friend. In hindsight, I can only imagine this was because Anne Frank had such a profound impact on me that I was unable to articulate my impressions with any sort of detachment and was afraid of being laughed at for being too sentimental or childish. At that age, we liked to think we were all grown up and worldly, even as our actions and words frustratingly betrayed us otherwise many times in a single day.
I pulled out a brand new notebook and sat down at my desk later that evening, when the rest of the family was glued in front of the one TV set we had in those days, and wrote the date. Then I paused. What could I write about? Anne had something to write about. But my days were mundane and eventless. So, with that first entry, I wrote about the only thing that seemed worth writing about: Anne Frank.
That’s how my lifelong journaling started. I don’t have those early notebooks anymore, having destroyed them on leaving India for the UK. The sporadic legal pad pages I wrote while studying in the UK were also destroyed before I left to work in Germany. I did not restart journaling again till 1998, when I moved to the US. With the two big ritualistic destructions in India and the UK, the attempts had been to put the past behind me and start fresh new life chapters. This, of course, was my naïveté as, documented or not, your past is yours forever.
Let me end this post with some bits from Anne Frank’s Diary:
I hope I shall be able to confide in you completely, as I have never been able to do in anyone before, and I hope that you will be a great support and comfort to me.
Her first entry on Sunday, 14 June, 1942:
On Friday, June 12th, I woke up at six o’clock and no wonder; it was my birthday. But, of course, I was not allowed to get up at that hour, so I had to control my curiosity until a quarter to seven. Then, I could bear it no longer, and went to the dining room, where I received a warm welcome from Moortje (the cat).
And some choice bits that I have marked in my old, worn copy:
Although I’m only fourteen, I know quite well what I want, I know who is right and who is wrong. I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles, and although it may sound pretty mad from an adolescent, I feel more of a person than a child, I feel quite independent of anyone.
I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore I am grateful to God for this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me. I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear; my courage is reborn. But, and that is the great question, will I ever be able to write anything great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?
I’ve reached the point where I hardly care whether I live or die. The world will keep on turning without me, I can’t do anything to change events anyway.