Keeping a journal makes you a better writer
Having a diary or a journal is a habit that all people should adopt, even if they hate writing - well, actually, specially if they hate writing. I'm not talking about a notebook to take notes on everything and write drafts, but a proper journal for you to write about your every-day life, a daily register of your thoughts, feelings and actions. Even nowadays a traditional diary might be one of the greatest therapeutic tools one can resort to, and, trust me, it really works.
We are used to live our lives in such a hurry we just seem to never find some time to be alone with our own thoughts. We never stop and, as a result, we actually never think about us in the present. We are so eager to make money, and to build a career, and to be someone, and to look like someone, and to look for what is wrong with other people so we can never act like that, and to pass as an interesting person... In fact, we tend to want so many things we forget about what we really have - and about what really matters.
At the end of day an exercise of calm reflection can help you on decision making, working just as meditation; and that is what a journal is about, written meditation.
When dealing with an extreme depression my journals were even more helpful than doing therapy. While I was writing, and later, reading previous entries, I could find out patterns of behavior and thoughts that were quite harmful to myself and to other people. To this day, reading about this moment scares me, because only through those registers I was able to realize what a dark place my mind had become. And it also gave me the lead to find out about my borderline disorder.
Franz Kafka wrote about having a diary in a quite objective and clear way:
“One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer and which in a general way are naturally believed, surmised, and admitted by you, but which you’ll unconsciously deny when it comes to the point of gaining hope or peace from such an admission. In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.” (From: Diaries, 1910-1923)
Write what you want, say what you need
Writing a journal doesn't necessarily need to be painful or memorable. You can write about random things that happened to you, or about how boring your day was. Think of your diary as a private space where no one can enter but yourself, and maybe this is a good opportunity to write letters to your "old self", stating what aspects of your behavior you believe you should change and which personal characteristics you want to work on.
Developing your own voice should also come easily since you don't feel the same pressure as when you write for someone else to read it. You also don't need to worry about grammar correctness nor style effectiveness. For writers, specifically, the journal offers a space for self-evaluation in terms of writing and personality. And, of course, some of the things you put on your journal can be recycled and turned into creative material.
On that note, Susan Sontag goes even deeper on a diary's meaning:
"Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts — like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.
The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it." (From: Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963)
A diary can be helpful for mental decluttering and for personal problem solving. As you use a diary to empty your mind from negative or confuse thoughts, it also helps you to improve focus.
Learn from your own experiences
Writing a journal should be enjoyable and, most of all, truthful. It is not something you treat as an obligation, but a moment of your day you separate so that you can get away from your routine and all the noise we constantly find ourselves surrounded by.
Some people might say that contemporary social networks, like Facebook and Twitter are the modern versions of the diary, but there is a major difference: they are as far as possible from privacy. Even though you write about your life daily - maybe hourly - on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, what happens is you are much more worried about the way you present yourself. (And isn't it incredible how Facebook seems to do absolutely nothing to improve one's writing? Sometimes I guess they make it even worse!)
Ideas written in a journal don't need to be coherent, your sentences don't need to be concise, nor objective. Basically, all of those rules we are forced to learn at school to produce good compositions can be overlooked in the pages of your journal. That freedom helps us to keep the flow and to concentrate on what we want to say. That is exactly how journals will help you to improve your expression, and the clarity of your communication will certainly evolve.
To keep a journal is to set a commitment - with yourself. There will be times you don't feel like writing, there will be those days you're so full of engagements you'll don't even remember your diary exists, but you must be willing to write. Fortunately enough, once you start a journal you'll realize that it can become a good friend and keeping it turns into an addiction. As you discover more about yourself and about your inner thoughts you feel stimulated to go on.
Being a great way to preserve memories, in the future, you can read an old piece of your life with a nostalgic sense, assessing your past choices and mistakes, as well as appreciate accomplishments.
Do you keep a diary?
Do you keep or intend to start a diary?
Writers and their diaries
Like Kafka, Sontag and Plath, many other authors kept diaries in which they built themselves as the writers we know. Because writing is a lonely activity, one can see a diary as a talk to oneself, a moment to improve insights and understandings through reflection that can later be used in the composition of a text. In fact, we seem to have this fascination with famous people's diaries since they offer an opportunity to glimpse inside the mind of a "genius" (or at least someone most people admire).
Known for recording even her spicy thoughts on her diaries, Anaïs Nin began keeping a diary at eleven years-old, in 1914, during a trip from Europe do New York with her family. Having a crucial role on her craft and on expressing her inner self, she asserted that:
"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.
When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.
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. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material."
Literally dependent of her notebooks, she kept a diary until her death, in 1977. Some of the manuscripts were published as early as 1966, becoming responsible for her popularity as a feminist icon in the 60s.
Another writer who cultivated the habit of keeping a diary was Virginia Woolf. Her thoughts are published in the book "A Writer's Diary", put together by her husband, Leonard Woolf, with excerpts from the manuscripts she kept for over twenty seven years. In an entry from 29 April, 1919, she wrote:
"The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since 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."
Famous and historical diariesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Ideas to have fun writing in your diary
There are no rules to write in a diary. Daily entries are expected for the sake of write-practicing, but the truth is: you do whatever you want with it! So, here are some ideas to get you inspired:
- Feeling of the day: try to sum up your day in a unique word. After choosing the word, try to describe why you pick that specific one.
- Make lists: list your goals for the year, or the books you want to read until the end of the semester, or the places you want to visit; or simply make a list of verbs that describe your week.
- Had a bad day? Write about how you wish your day went, and why.
- Begin or finish every entry with a quote. Try to describe what the quote means to you and why you've chosen it.
- What is your biggest fear? Write about it and how do you think it has developed inside you.
- Can you remember your happiest childhood memory? What about your saddest one?
- Freewriting: spill your thoughts and words you just feel like writing. Don't worry about making sense of it. Set your alarm clock for 5 or 10 minutes and don't stop writing, don't correct nor erase anything!
- Look for ready-made questionnaires. Print them or copy them into your diary and answer the questions using a different pen color.
- Do you remember your last dream? Try to describe it in details.
- If you have a free day, take the bus to a neighborhood you haven't been to in a while, or maybe to a town nearby. Try to observe as much as you can and write about it.
- Write about your last year. Do you think you have changed a lot?
- What was your last big accomplishment? Describe it in details.
- Write about your last family meeting. What were your impressions? Did you behave well? What do you think can be changed in your behavior and in your relatives behavior?
- Do you remember the last time you've been really angry?
- Do you remember the last book you've hated?
Remember, if you are aiming to improve your writing, to every question you answer, there must be a justification; don't just write a word and stop, try to keep writing as much as you can, and let it flow!