How To: Diary Advice Then & Now

One of the fascinating themes in popular writing about diaries is advice on how to write a diary/journal. You can find a host of contemporary advice books on diaries — and I hope to write about them here someday. But, it is by no means a new phenomenon.

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 5.36.08 PM In 1860, under the title “Concerning Hurry and Leisure” the popular periodical The Living Age republished an essay that was originally published in a British magazine (following the common practice of poaching from European periodicals). The article begins by advocating keeping a diary through a memorable image: “If a man keeps no diary, the path crumbles away behind him as his feet leave it; and days gone are but little more than a blank, broken by a few distorted shadows.” After providing specific suggestions for how to write a diary (“A few lines, a few words, written at the time, suffice …”), the author continues to make his case for the rewards of diary writing:

There must be a richness about the life of a person who keeps a diary, unknown to other men … Life, to him looking back, is not a bare line, stringing together his personal identity; it is surrounded, intertwined, entangled, with thousands and thousands of slight incidents, which give it a beauty, kindliness, reality.

It is not merely a collection, an aggregate of facts, that comes back; it is something far more excellent than that; — it is the soul of a few days ago; it is the dear Auld lang syne itself!

These ideas are familiar, I think, recycling the old adage that reflecting upon one’s life gives that life more meaning. The diary is the tool for this self-reflection and memory-preservation.

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 6.12.54 PM

Compare this with a much more recent incarnation of the “diary advice” genre: Blogger Karen Walrond posted a wonderful version of this on the blog Lime. In her “A new way to think about journaling: a primer,” Walrond lays out her own journaling practices and encourages readers to adopt them. What makes Walrond’s journaling practices innovative is that she advocates breaking away from the conventional “diary as daily reflection” model and instead using one’s diary for a variety of purposes: as a to-do list, for “morning pages,” as a scrapbook or photo album, as a place for artistic expression, etc. Walrond’s language is, however, as promotional as the 1860s piece above:

… capturing your messy, imperfect life, with no thought about how you want the final product to look or read — the result, of course, is that you’ll have an accidentally beautiful record of your life and times.

Although Walrond’s method is different, the spirit of these advice columns remains pretty consistent: diary/journal writing is a personally transformative experience. Whether the promise is to result in a perfect recreation of one’s life (as stated in 1860) or to honor the messy imperfection of one’s life (in 2014), both authors promote the diary as the ideal mechanism for gaining a new relationship to existence.