There is an article by Maria Popova on her BrainPickings.org site about the creative benefits to writers of keeping a diary. Since I have not kept a diary except briefly in my early teens, and that has long since disappeared, I was curious about the benefits. Maria Popova is a Bulgarian writer, blogger, and critic living in Brooklyn, New York. Her Brain Pickings blog features her writing on culture, books, and eclectic subjects.
Ms Popova says: 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. She goes on to quote famous writers who have kept journals to discover their perceived benefits.
Anais Nim, from a lecture at Dartmouth college: Of these the most important (benefits) 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 fervour, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work.
Virginia Wolff says: Still if (my diary) 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 dust heap.
André Gide’s view: 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.
Susan Sontag says: 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.
Eugéne Delacroix muses: 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.
Virginia Wolff again: 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.
And, in conclusion, Ms Popova writes: 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.
I must say that I’m un-persuaded. I don’t feel the need for a ‘living monument’ to my fluidity of self. I seem to have enough difficulty managing the fluidity of my feelings, my values, my priorities, my relationships, my identity from moment to moment and from day to day! But it does seem to me that the idea of capturing a ‘diamond in the dust’ is a good one; perhaps I should establish just such a file! One activity that I find myself engaged in more and more as I grow older and I observe what are actually ordinary things and events is to ask Why? The answers are quite astonishing sometimes, ranging from the whimsical to the unlikely to the enlightening. Also, I’m beginning to make a habit, when I observe an unusual facial expression or event, of asking, How would you describe that? It’s an exercise in creativity, of avoiding ordinary language.