In common with Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, May Sarton, Anais Nin, Gary Snyder, Katherine Mansfield, Joan Didion, Leonardo da Vinci, St. Therese of Lisieux, and countless other writers, I am a diarist. I have kept a diary, with more or less regularity, since first grade. When I fall into a period in which I neglect “the notebook,” as Gary Snyder refers to his journal, I find myself less settled, less clear, less creative, less sure of myself, less inspired, and–yes–I think also less intelligent.
I used to keep a separate notebook for my nature observations and sketches alongside my everyday diary, but now I just throw everything into one book, which seems right to me–life and nature tangled together, as they are in truth. When I teach writing, the habit of keeping a journal is the first thing I recommend: Carry a notebook everywhere, and write whatever and whenever you like.
Starting (or returning to the habit after a long hiatus) is the hardest part. Even seasoned writers know that blank pages, especially the first blank pages of any project, can be strangely intimidating for flat, inanimate objects. Here are my top three tips for staring down page one, and getting started in the habit of diarizing:
1. For your first diary, choose a cheap notebook. I think that once you are in the habit of keeping a journal, you should choose a book that delights you. But does this sound familiar? You want to start a diary, and so for inspiration you purchase some elegantly bound book filled with handmade, flower-petal-strewn paper. A book this beautiful deserves to be started while you are sitting in the perfect place, with the perfect pen, and the perfect cup of tea. The first words to grace its pages must also be perfect: thoughtful, intelligent, yet personal.
How intimidating! Mark Twain himself would be struck dumb by such requirements! And so the gorgeous diary sits empty, sometimes for all eternity. Now you feel guilty for not starting a diary as you’d intended to, and for buying an expensive journal that gathers dust.
Composition books are perfect for starting to journal, or getting back in the habit. They’re a comfortable size, a perfect number of pages, and unintimidatingly cheap. Once you are settled into the habit of keeping a diary, then go for the flower paper, or whatever inspires you. (I am lovingly devoted to my current diary–a cover of rich, aged leather, with refillable fountain-pen-friendly paper. It looks like it could have been carried by a medieval bard, and I plan to use it for the rest of my life.)
2. Counter first-page jitters by starting with a quote or poem. I still do this, and it’s magical–the first page fills up, and you don’t even have to think of what to say! Here a few from my recent notebooks:
“Je choisis tout. ” (I choose all.)–St. Therese of Lisieux
“Everything I do gon’ be funky from now on.” –Dr. John
“It is true that we are called to create a better world. But we first of all called to a more immediate and exalted task: that of creating our own lives.” –Thomas Merton
Or there is always the diarist’s perrenial favorite from Mary Oliver:
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
3. Whenever you don’t know what to write, try this: “So, right now I’m…” This will cover everything from crying over bad break-ups to observing limpets at low-tide.
I don’t often read through my old diaries, but after gathering them for the photo at the top of this post, I heaped them onto my desk, and have been peeking into the pages now and then. Wow–if I hadn’t written most of this stuff down, it might as well not have happened, as far as my memory goes. The most wonderful thing I am learning (or is it the most disheartening thing?) is that I am just the same as I was ten years ago–the same things make me anxious, joyful, peaceful. The same issues–living simply, living creatively, living wild, learning what it means to be a mother, a wife–lie at the center of my mind’s wandering. I see, as I never have before, that my life is a spiral staircase (or maybe a kettle of vultures on a morning thermal) winding around itself, but with an ever-higher view.
And if none of this is enough for you, a new study shows that keeping a diary about emotional events can dramatically speed healing from traumatic physical injury.
Are you a regular, wanna-be, or on-again/off-again diarist? I’d love to hear your stories.