Famous authors who maintained a journal and why you should too
A diary: a record of everyday events, engagements and transactions
To a writer, a diary is a confidant. The idea of maintaining a diary or a journal goes far beyond the principle of recording your mundane or perhaps the lack of that single, plain way of living. Its more than acknowledgement of daily happenings but the impressions and suggestions of a rather curious mind, looking for direction through words. Somewhere, perhaps the reading of what the mind narrates offers a new perspective.
It is the notion within yourself to document and preserve. Our human instinct is to hold on, whether to things or memories or people, and diaries are like half-finished museums, always offering something archaic and always waiting for more.
Before I quite understood the benefits of maintaining a diary, I too as a skeptical, thirteen-year-old girl chose to lead a life rather above these measures. Only a few years ago, while stumbling and crumpling under what we today may refer to the trials of teenage angst or cycles of pain, I turned to journaling. It was through this process of acceptance and laying my defences down that I came upon the journals of Virginia Woolf. If I wasn’t already quite bought on the idea of journaling, now, it was written in stone.
Woolf’s journaling was “a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.”
She admitted to bring it out once in a while and read it. She confesses that the rough, random style with grammatical mishaps made her wince while crying for a word altered. She, however, admitted that it was through this that she convinced her future self, that she could always write better. That potential was hidden, it would take time, but soon, the vigour and fluid effect of her work would hit a bull's eye. To write for her own eye, was practice for her mind, peace for her soul. It helped loosen the ligaments.
She further wrote: What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind.
Rather embarrassed she says, her diary definitely doesn’t count as her writing. Over further analysis, there’s too much-going haywire, too many intolerable cobbles jerked over. But to her own comfort, she says, if she had paused, taken a minute to frame that sentence, it may never have come at all. The advantage of this method is that it sweeps us almost accidentally stray and orphan matters or thoughts, forgotten or ignored if thought over. But in the end, there are the diamonds of the dust heap. The bricks for a fine book someday.
Woolf observed the troubles of this first-hand too. The diary as a therapeutic tool to release internal demons or the diary as a boost of vanity, the pat on the shoulder of oneself. This friction led her to constantly write about how on softer days, she wished to write and write, to let herself feel like a success. On other days, the abyss pulled her down and the tragedy that life is came knocking at her door.
Among others, W. H Auden said that his journal was “a discipline for (his) laziness and lack of observation”.
“You want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you,” Madeleine L’Engle offered as advice.
Another rather persistent diarist was Anaïs Nin materialising her passions and creative desires, the birthplace of all art. She wrote:
“It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.
Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.”
To her, it was simply what the material noted in a diary could become when captured in a book's essence. It could be transposed to all other kinds of writing.
It was no generalisation or habit, but the discovery of new in the ordinary.
“Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work.”
Momentary expressions, the spontaneity of words, obedience, a mood, impulse on some days and improvisation as a tool on others gave her a path. And that path showed her portraits, pictures, sketches, symphonies, ideas that she could dip into for meaningful material.
The Journals of Andre Gide, a six-year-long undertaking, enlighten us on the 21-year-old pondering over his writing:
“Whenever I get ready to write really sincere notes in this notebook, I shall have to undertake such a disentangling in my cluttered brain that, to stir up all that dust, I am waiting for a series of vast empty hours, a long old, a convalescence, during which my constantly reawakened curiosities will be at rest; during which my sole care will be to rediscover myself.”
Henry David Thoreau famously said: “Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.”
Anne Frank was immortalised through the means of her gut-wrenching and hopelessly promising diaries.
“For someone like me, it is a very strange habit to write in a diary. Not only that I have never written before, but it strikes me that later neither I, nor anyone else, will care for the outpouring of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.” She thought as she began what would become a beacon that touched millions of people.
Oscar Wilde, was a man of gusto, vigour and strong opinions. A passionate and expressive spirit, he showcased his wit in ‘The importance of being earnest’.
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train”
Susan Sontag says “Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate.”
“Of course, a writer’s journal must not be judged by the standards of a diary. The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself.”
Our familiarity with Sylvia Plath through the ‘Unabridged journals of Plath’ see her diary as a means to “warm-up” her writing. Referring to Woolf on occasions, we witness the strange and staggering synchronisation of the genius mindset, coming together across space, time and pages.
(We are creatures of remarkable moodiness and mental turbulence, and what we think we believe at any given moment — those capital-T Truths we arrive at about ourselves and the world — can be profoundly different from our beliefs a decade, a year, and sometimes even a day later.)
We are beings of remarkable and exhausting potential. Chaos and confusion, marked by turbulence and moodiness are what we identify with. In a lifetime we go through phases like the moon, constantly changing and evolving our thoughts, our ideas, our beliefs time and time again. A day, a year, a decade and through and through, we unlearn to re-learn and drop, stumble and fall over and over again. What we confess in our personal commentaries sometimes help our past selves save our future ones. And sometimes, writers are the ones that need saving.
- Maitreyee Sathe
Author: Maitreyee says, "18 and a creative enthusiast. Quite often I find myself down internet rabbit holes and books to forget the outside world, on other days, I see the world a little too realistically. Strongly believe the man was born for love and revolution. Fancies myself to know the ways of the world yet I fall prey to every single poem I read. I Believe if not for art, the world would lay barren. Intellectually curious but quite stupidly idealistic when it comes to life. We put all our love in books because sometimes it can’t exist elsewhere. The only dream is to create something that leaves a mark behind."