Celebrated Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary
Reflections on the value of recording our inner lives from Woolf, Thoreau, Sontag, Emerson, Nin, Plath, and more.
By Maria Popova
“You want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you,” Madeleine L’Engle counseled in her advice to aspiring writers. W.H. Auden once described his journal as “a discipline for [his] laziness and lack of observation.”
Journaling, I believe, is a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude — how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our experience, and fully inhabit our inner lives. As a dedicated diarist myself, I’ve always had an irresistible fascination with the diaries of artists, writers, scientists, and other celebrated minds — those direct glimpses of their inner lives and creative struggles. But, surely, luminaries don’t put pen to paper for the sake of quenching posterity’s curiosity — at least as interesting as the contents of those notable diaries is the question of why their keepers keep them. Here are a few perspectives from some of history’s most prolific practitioners of this private art.
Anaïs Nin was perhaps the most dogged diarist in recorded history — she began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and maintained the habit until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals in which she reflected on such diverse, timeless, and timely subjects as love and life, embracing the unfamiliar, reproductive rights, the elusive nature of joy, the meaning of life, and why emotional excess is essential for creativity. In a 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, she spoke about the role of the diary as an invaluable sandbox not only for learning the craft of writing but also for crystallizing her own passions and priorities, from which all creative work springs:
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.
It was also her way of learning to translate the inner into the outer, the subjective into the universal:
This personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.
A deep personal relationship reaches far beyond the personal into the general. Again it is a matter of depths.
In her extensive meditation on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, found in the altogether absorbing A Writer’s Diary (public library), 37-year-old Virginia Woolf speaks to the value of journaling in granting us unfiltered access to the rough gems of our own minds, ordinarily dismissed by the self-censorship of “formal” writing:
The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.
I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap.
A diary, she observes at the age of forty-eight, also builds a bridge between our present selves and our future ones, which are notoriously cacophonous in their convictions. She writes with a wink:
In spite of some tremors I think I shall go on with this diary for the present. I sometimes think that I have worked through the layer of style which suited it — suited the comfortable bright hour, after tea; and the thing I’ve reached now is less pliable. Never mind; I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 1920 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; and take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; and here’s the bricks for a fine one.
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.
A year later, Gide offers a meta-remark on the endeavor already underway:
A diary is useful during conscious, intentional, and painful spiritual evolutions. Then you want to know where you stand… An intimate diary is interesting especially when it records the awakening of ideas; or the awakening of the senses at puberty; or else when you feel yourself to be dying.
Henry David Thoreau was among history’s greatest and most lyrical diarists, as evidenced by The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that endlessly revisitable compendium, full of Thoreau’s timeless meditations on everything from the true meaning of success to the greatest gift of growing old to the meaning of human life. In an entry from October of 1857, Thoreau considers the allure of the diary not for the writer but for the reader:
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.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, a close friend of Thoreau’s and a keen observer of the human experience, illuminated the question of diary-writing with a beautiful sidewise gleam, observing in The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (public library):
The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.
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.
I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
In a 1957 diary entry found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — the same volume that gave us Susan Sontag on marriage, life and death, the duties of being 24, and her 10 rules for raising a child — 24-year-old Sontag writes under the heading “On Keeping a Journal”:
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 do 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.
There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. I am thinking now of what I read today (when I went up to 122 B[oulevar]d S[ain]t-G[ermain] to check for her mail) in H’s [Sontag’s lover ] journal about me — that curt, unfair, uncharitable assessment of me which concludes by her saying that she really doesn’t like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune. God knows it hurts, and I feel indignant.
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. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself. In it he exists solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being.
In an entry from April of 1823, the influential French artist Eugène Delacroix writes at the age of twenty-five:
I am taking up my Journal again after a long break. I think it may be a way of calming this nervous excitement that has been worrying me for so long.
But by the following spring, he is anguished by the inability to sustain this fruitful habit despite its clear creative and spiritual benefits:
I have hurriedly re-read the whole of my Journal. I regret the gaps. I feel as though I were still master of the days I have recorded, even though they are past, whereas those not mentioned in the pages are as though they had never been.
How low have I fallen? Am I then so weak that those flimsy pages will be the only record of my life remaining to me? The future is all blackness. The past, where I have not recorded it, is the same.
And yet he sees in the diary a way of better inhabiting his own life, and sets out to do just that:
I grumble at having to perform this task, but why always be indignant at my weakness? Can I spend a single day without food or sleep? So much for my body. But my mind the evolution of my soul are to be destroyed because I do not want to owe what is left of them to the necessity of writing. Nothing is better than having some small task to perform every day.
Even one task fulfilled at regular intervals in a man’s life can bring order into his life as a whole; everything else hinges upon it. By keeping a record of my experiences I live my life twice over. The past returns to me. The future is always with me.
Sylvia Plath, like Nin, began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and penned nearly ten volumes, which were posthumously edited and published as The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — that vibrant and bittersweet compendium that gave us Plath on life and death, wholeheartedness, and the reverie of nature. She saw her diary as a tool to “warm up” her formal writing, but perhaps the most ensnaring passage from her published journals is one of strange synchronicity as two literary legends of staggering genius and staggering tragedy meet across space and time through the pages of their diaries. In February of 1957, six years before her suicide, Plath captures the role of the diary as a lifeline for the writer with poignancy utterly harrowing in history’s hindsight:
Just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels saturday with Ted. And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper’s (no less! – – – and I hardly can believe that the Big Ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen. And cooks haddock & sausage. Bless her. I feel my life linked to her , somehow. I love her – – – from reading Mrs. Dalloway for Mr. Crockett – – – and I can still hear Elizabeth Drew’s voice sending a shiver down my back in the huge Smith class-room, reading from To The Lighthouse. But her suicide, I felt I was reduplicating in that black summer of 1953. Only I couldn’t drown. I suppose I’ll always be over-vulnerable, slightly paranoid. But I’m also so damn healthy & resilient. And apple-pie happy. Only I’ve got to write. I feel sick, this week, of having written nothing lately.
But perhaps the most important meta-point on the subject comes from Woolf herself, who considered the impact of reading a writer’s diaries on how we experience his or her formal work, an impact the magnitude of which she argues is ours to decide on:
How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life — how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us — so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.
Indeed, if there is one thing I’ve learned about diaries, both by having read tens of thousands of pages of artists’ and writers’ journals and by having frequently revisited my own from the distance of time, is that nothing written in a diary is to be taken as the diarist’s personal dogma. A journal is an artificially permanent record of thought and inner life, which are invariably transient — something the most prolific diarist in modern literary history articulated herself in her elegant defense of the fluid self. 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.
This, perhaps, is the greatest gift of the diary — its capacity to stand as a living monument to our own fluidity, a reminder that our present selves are chronically unreliable predictors of our future values and that we change unrecognizably over the course of our lives.
Published September 4, 2014