Dear Diary: Our Journey to Journaling

For centuries, diaries have been a fixture of our lives. From a secret journal with a lock, kept under the bed, to a personal blog with hundreds of followers, each diary is as unique as the individual who keeps it. Diaries can be spaces to record the past, or places to plan the future. 

But where did they come from? Why do they persist? And why should we care?

From Factual to Personal

Early diaries were less about exploring feelings and thoughts, and more about cataloging information. In fact, the diary’s closest ancestor is the almanac. First published in 1697 (and still in print today), Old Moore’s Almanack compiled past weather patterns and other observations as a way to forecast the weather for the coming year.

The popular publication underscored the importance of regularly recording minutia, and paved the way for a more personal kind of record keeping. Before long, we had the modern planner (or scheduler), which, in some countries, is still referred to as a diary.

 A Portrait of Samuel Pepys.

A Portrait of Samuel Pepys.

In addition to the almanac, the 17th century also marked a turning point for more confessional writing, embodied by the journal of British Naval officer and politician Samuel Pepys. Pepys is credited with transforming the diary from a form of daily record keeping to an outlet for personal exploration. Every day from January 1660 to May 1669, he wrote about what was going on in his life. And the entries varied from the mundane— 

‘January 6 1660 - This morning Mr. Sheply and I did eat our breakfast at Mrs. Harper's, (my brother John being with me,) upon a cold turkey-pie and a goose.’

to the extraordinary, such as his thoughts on the Great Fire of London. 

‘September 2 1664 - I rode down to the waterside…and there saw a lamentable fire…Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the waterside to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down.’

Though Pepys’s words could’ve easily been forgotten, fate intervened. In 1825, a two volume edition of his diary was published. 19th century audiences, who’d increasingly taken to keeping their own journals, totally ate it up. Today, Samuel Pepys's diary is considered one of the most important  in the English language.

By the time the 20th century rolled around, individualism was all the rage, which led to an even greater interest in journaling. Today, the word “diary” is practically synonymous with personal expression.

The Benefits of Keeping Diaries

Keeping a diary isn’t just writing for its own sake—it comes with some tangible benefits. Psychologist James Pennebaker found significant therapeutic value in a daily writing practice, including stress reduction, better cognitive functioning, and even faster wound healing. (Yes, really.) 

Anne Frank, who famously chronicled her experience of hiding from Nazis during World War II, wrote, “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” Though Frank ultimately suffered a tragic fate, the simple act of writing provided her invaluable solace. And her diary has since offered generations of readers a deeply personal perspective from an unthinkable point in history.

 Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Author Virginia Woolf was another prolific diarist, but her notes are full of gossip, drama, and deep wells of emotion. A Writer's Diary, first published in 1953, consists of extracts from the diaries she kept from 1918-41, compiled by her husband Leonard Woolf in an attempt to show how “she reveals, more nakedly perhaps than any other writer has done, the exquisite pleasure and pains...of artistic creation.” 

Virginia Woolf viewed her diary as an essential part of her creative process. These writings offered catharsis and creativity, the journal a vessel to empty into and gather from. Rereading her entries, Woolf would discover new things— 

“I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time.”

For some people, it’s this desire to remember that keeps them recording. Alan Cooper, a writer from the UK who ho has kept a diary for many years, says, “I worry about forgetting memories and want something to look back on when I’m old and remember some of the ‘glory days’ of my late teens and early 20s.”

Indeed,  research has shown that both writing a diary and re-reading past entries can help dementia sufferers remember and “reclaim their social identity,” while also reminding them to carry out certain daily routines.

For millions of diarists around the world, sitting down to write offers a daily escape. The book becomes a friend and confidante, a place to have the conversations that you can’t with anyone else. For this reason, the diary is an incredibly intimate piece of writing.

These days, we’re recording more about the inner workings of our lives than ever, but are turning away from the page and towards our screens to do so. But with the ability to share with anyone, anywhere, and at any time comes a real risk—that the once intimate act of journaling is reduced to a hollow performance.

Diaries in the 21st Century

Dr. Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum and co-founder of The Great Diary Project, doesn’t believe that modern implements are true replacements. Instead, he feels the presence of an audience makes the so-called “online diary” an “aberration.” A real diary, he says, is “written in confidence that no one will ever read it.” When we’re aware that someone else will read our words, we may be more likely to distort the truth.

It was this passion for the physical diary that led Irving Finkel and Polly North to set up The Great Diary Project. Founded in 2007 as an archive for what they saw as an “extraordinary resource,” they now have almost eight thousand diaries in their collection.  

Finkel and North believe that diaries are a genre unto themselves, and should not be lost to waste bins or dust heaps under the bed. In his work at the British Museum, Finkel comes into contact with historical texts of all kinds on a daily basis. But he sees diaries of ordinary people as particularly excellent tools through which to view history, calling them a “long stop of truth about how things were.”

The Future

Despite Irving Finkel’s concerns, the diary is, indeed, alive and well in 2017. Across the globe, several organizations have popped up to encourage the keeping of diaries—for example, The Center for Journal Therapy in the US, which has now been running for over thirty years, and Lapidus International, whose hundreds of active members who see real value in the act of writing from the heart and mind. 

For those looking for a digital alternative to the traditional “lock and key” journal, there are several prominent websites (Penzu, My Diary, Journalate), as well as a wide variety of apps to choose from.

But while the benefits of keeping a diary seem obvious, it’s sometimes hard to get people to commit the time and energy to actually follow through. For some, the idea of jotting down one’s innermost sentiments for posterity is self-indulgent, and, for others, it’s utterly terrifying. 

Perhaps we need to evolve our understanding of what a diary is. More than a place to keep notes on the weather, or for teenage girls to drool over their latest crush, it is an interesting form of art, record, and therapy in equal measure. It offers personal and social value, based entirely on what we’re willing to put into it.