There are two types of people in life…those who keep a diary, and those who don’t. While the latter may write journals off as cringeworthy and self-indulgent, the former rely on them to organise their thoughts and keep a check on their mental health.
At one point, actress Emma Watson kept not one, but 10 personal diaries to help 'figure herself out'. 'I keep a dream diary, a yoga diary, I keep diaries on people I’ve met and things they’ve said to me, advice they’ve given me. I keep an acting journal. I keep collage books... It allows me to get things out of my head and work them out in a way that feels safe,' she told Rookie’s Tavi Gevinson.
While 10 diaries may feel like a lot of hard work, more and more people are choosing to track their thoughts offline, and are recognising the benefits of doing so.
Oprah Winfrey started a gratitude diary (writing down five things she was grateful for every day) 16 years ago and said: ‘It is the single most important thing I believe I have ever done.’ For Tina Brown, who published The Vanity Fair Diaries a few years ago, writing a diary is her ‘soul having a conversation with itself’.
‘I think journaling is a really powerful thing,’ she revealed. ‘It allows me to reflect on where I’ve come from and with that comes a lot of perspective.’
Taking time to write, essentially to yourself, is the cornerstone of many psychological approaches to self-care. In her bestseller, The Artist's Way, which was first published in 1992 and is currently resurfacing in New York and LA creative circles, author Julie Cameron encourages readers to do three pages of free-flowing writing every morning to unclog mental fog.
Experts also say the healing goes beyond the physical act itself. ‘Writing about our thoughts and feelings triggers an area of the brain called the right prefrontal cortex, and once this area is activated, a more primitive part of the brain related to strong emotions and images becomes relaxed,’ explains psychotherapist Maud Purcell.
We spoke to four authors about their relationship with diary-writing, and how it has shaped their lives:
I’ve had an intrinsic impulse to document ever since I was four years old. It wasn’t emotional to start with, just lists of what I’d eaten and the animals I’d seen at Hackney City Farm.
Then, at 16, I tragically discovered blogspot.com and ‘workshopped’ my writing voice, trying out different hats (Carrie Bradshaw, cutting political commentator) while continuing to keep private notebooks, too.
As someone who hated the lack of autonomy in adolescence, my notebooks represented a grown-up space that was completely mine. Everything about me and what I wanted to be was in those pages.
When my first big crush told me he loved me, I recorded what he said verbatim. It wasn’t for juicy reading, it was because writing it all down was the only way I could process the moment.
During my 20s, before I moved into my current flat on my own and when my flatmates were asleep, I’d sit in front of my laptop with a cigarette and write about what was on my mind while listening to John Martin records. It was a sacred time, and I remember thinking I never want to lose that relationship with myself.
Now I record everything, from dialogue I overhear to things I feel and interesting characters I meet. It’s not a daily habit, but if I’m going through something emotional, I’ll always write it out.
Importantly, I’ve realised my notebooks help me understand the seasons of my life. I have a huge fear of death, and I work through that by expressing and reflecting on the passage of time. I think that’s why I’m so nostalgic.
In one of my favourite essays, On Keeping a Notebook, Joan Didion talks about them being a way to keep in touch with your past and future self – and that really resonates with me.
Whenever I revisit my diaries, I’m compassionate and protective towards ‘me’ from the past – especially when she’s 17 and first discovers sex – but I’m also relieved I’m not her anymore.
I’m more fascinated by the insects of time caught in amber: where I was going that day, or what I was eating or wearing.
I do notice emotional patterns: 11-year-old me and 21-year-old me wished she looked differently, which is upsetting, and until my early 20s there’s a theme where I’m trying to force men to be interested in me.
I’m never left thinking, ‘I’m going to change my life’ after writing or reading my notebooks, but using them to reflect and accept the way I am, while reminding myself that there’s always room for personal growth, is cathartic and empowering.
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I met the first boy I ever fancied when I was 12 on a family holiday in France; his name was Xavier.
Unfortunately, he didn’t feel the same, so I went to the local supermarket and bought a brown chunky book that French kids used for their school agendas.
I started writing about my unrequited love, beginning each entry with ‘Dear Xav...’ and on the first page, I made a vow to write in my diary every day. I’ve kept my word ever since.
Even today, I start each entry with ‘Dear Xav’, and I credit my diaries with giving me the gift of writing.
The early ones are a tormented adolescent’s stream of consciousness. I was a melodramatic, self- obsessed teen who was always in love with someone and everything was always the end of the world.
Eventually, I honed my written communicating skills, and I got better at storytelling the things I saw, experienced and felt each day.
When I put fountain pen to paper in my diary, I’m crafting something that has literary merit, even though I don’t want anyone to read it – including me. The hardest part of writing my book Brit(ish) was reading through my diaries, mainly because of the volume but also because it was difficult to face my younger self.
I’ve changed a lot – although in some ways I haven’t – and I struggled to come to terms with that. I’m proud to record my life but I don’t want to relive those pages.
For me, the benefits come from writing in the present. Just like how confiding in someone you trust can make it feel as though a burden has been halved, writing to ‘Xav’ feels like a weight has been lifted. Best of all, I don’t have to worry about what Xav thinks of me.
Growing up, I was often the only black girl in my environment, and I was conscious of feeling different and ‘othered’. I think that made me a person who thought about what others thought of me, maybe too much. My diary became a way of interacting with something without worrying what others thought.
Today, my diary-writing is more reflective social analysis. As a journalist, I’ll record the story behind a story. I’ll also write my thoughts about people’s relationships or my hopes for my daughter. My partner jokes it’s the greatest act of self-indulgence: ‘Who has time to actually sit and write about themselves every day?’
This ritual, which I do just before bed, helps me to clarify and rationalise. I’ve realised I’m good at thinking ‘in’ writing – although that can also be a curse because I can’t say what I really think until I’ve got it out in my diary. But I think that makes me appreciate the power of the written word even more.
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I don’t know why people think you keep a diary when you’re a teenager to establish who you are, and then you don’t need it again – that’s so not true.
I have a fireproof safe filled with 80 journals. I care less about remembering things; it’s more for mental-health reasons, like keeping myself in check and telling myself I’m OK. Every time I freak out, I’m able to journal myself to a place of sanity. It’s a superpower.
It started at school when I read Harriet the Spy and would write about my classmates and teachers in a notebook.
By middle school I was blogging, and when I was about 13, I realised I didn’t want to write about things like boys on my blog, so I turned to private diaries, too. The pages ping-ponged between writing about a guy making fun of me in gym class to what I saw at fashion week.
Then, I began journalling obsessively. I enjoyed making tangible documents of my days – I’d stick in any artefact, even a wrapper, and do elaborate drawings of my outfits.
With every new journal, I’d change the colour palette of my clothes, the posters on my bedroom walls and the music I listened to.
I was trying to make movies out of my life. At that time, I was working on Rookie while being at school, where I felt like one in a herd of sheep. I needed somewhere I felt in control – an escape – and something that was aesthetically pleasing, so that energy went into journalling.
But when I moved to New York to act in a play, I stopped keeping a diary. I became tired of my voice and tried to unlearn the instinct of living ’through’ my journal. After the play, I realised if I didn’t keep one, I’d go crazy.
Journalling isn’t a creative outlet for me anymore, it’s where I work on me. I have to force myself to do it, but I do feel more whole carving a private space for myself, to be myself.
As life moves faster, the impulse to make sense of it is even greater. There’s a need to get out of the online soundbite, tweet and post and really delve deep into yourself.
People spend a lot of time pretending to be someone else. No one on Facebook has an unattractive child or a failed birthday party, it’s all: ‘We’re doing great!’
The more we turn ourselves into these ‘positive’ brands, the more important it is to uncover one’s secret life; one’s inner thoughts and feelings – I think there’s no better place to do that than in a diary.
I started writing one aged 11, when I went to boarding school – I was homesick and it became fulfilling. I found myself recording more dialogue, situations and drama.
I used to think hungrily when I was out, as if my diary needed to be fed with interesting new stories. I didn’t think I would ever publish my diaries, but I did think I was hoarding material for something.
When I started writing a memoir, I didn’t enjoy the process of making an artefact out of my whole life. I knew my diaries from working at Vanity Fair [1983 to 1992] must be interesting – there was something about the warp speed and the in- the-now-ness of them. It felt more authentic and right for the time to publish those observations in the raw.
Two things stood out when reading them: my Englishness, and how social life was back then. People were giving black-tie dinner parties in their homes – you were out in long dresses every night.
When editing my diaries, I asked myself three questions: does this move the story of my life along? Is this amusing? Does this give an interesting picture of the times?
I started to censor and then I thought, ‘F*ck it – I want to talk about these things as they were.’ You’re either going to be honest, or you’re not.
The strands about money got a lot of feedback – people liked reading about how I hadn’t felt well paid enough and how I summoned the courage to change that. It’s interesting that people would rather talk about sex than money.
If you get five girlfriends together, not many will say what’s going on in their money life. I don’t regret it, though. I like to think I’m helping out the next lot.
One issue I did find sensitive was my son’s Asperger’s. He’s self-aware, so I talked about it with him, but sharing that story was important because it would be misleading to give the impression that my life was one big social whirl.
Backstage, it was by no means glamorous. Even though I was lucky to have help, being a working mum is exhausting.
I think my diary was how I kept my head together. It’s watering the oasis of your internal life and allowing your starved soul to have a say; it’s my soul in conversation with itself.
I switched from a paper diary to my laptop in 2000. Today, I write mainly first thing in the morning, when the world feels quiet.
There’s still something wonderful about capturing the mood I’m in. You put your faith into things you think are going to happen, or discover something you think isn’t important, is important.
That’s the joy of it: the constant unravelling of life. It’s also a good steer for creating content.
I was recently at something where someone was talking about the bombing of Syria, which might be interesting later. I don’t have time to necessarily write an article, but I want to make sure I record what I think. It’s more a desire to describe the world.
I feel I’m living in strange, explosive and hard-to-understand times, and writing about it in my diary makes me feel calmer about that.
Tina’s book, The Vanity Fair Diaries is out now in paperback
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of ELLE UK
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