In praise of the diary

Posted by Dom
Diaries are getting a bit of a bad press at the moment. Alastair Campbell has been forced to defend his right to publish his inside account of life in the Tony Blair era, although judging by the huge sales that the diary (The Blair Years) has been generating already, he’ll probably be laughing all the way to the bank. You can read our own take on the ethics of selling your story here.  
Anyway, with diaries so much in the news at the moment, we got to thinking about our own humble additions to an art form that already encapsulates famous figures such as Samuel Pepys, Alan Clark, Anne Frank, Bridget Jones and, um Adrian Mole. My homepage colleague Ian has kept a diary for an awe-inspiring 21 years; I myself managed to keep a series of page-a-day efforts up from age seven to eighteen.
The question is: why do people keep diaries? Are they just vanity projects to convince the writer that their life is meaningful and interesting, or is there more to it than that?
From a personal point of view, I think I started writing a diary just because I had some vague idea, even at just seven years old, that I enjoyed writing. It certainly couldn’t have been because I thought my life was interesting enough to commit to paper, revolving as it did around such earth-shattering events as going to regular Cub Scouts meetings or playing cricket down the local park.
Over the years, of course, the diaries came to describe all those horrific/amazing rites of passage that pretty much every teenager in Britain goes through sooner or later. First kiss, first ‘grown up’ party, first girlfriend, first job, first relationship split-up, GCSEs, A-Levels, driving tests (a mere five of them in my case – all the best drivers pass fifth time apparently)… all described in an at times quite amazing level of detail (I had to fill a page every day, so there was a lot of padding).   
Ultimately the humble diary can feel like one of the few, if any ‘friends’ you have that gets the raw, unexpurgated, no-holds-barred version of your life. The printed version of Alastair Campbell’s diaries that is in your local Waterstone’s now may be a heavily edited down, 350,000-word version of events, but there’s been serious speculation already that the full version, containing over two million words (!) may be available for public consumption at some time or other. And that will surely be more entertaining and illuminating than what’s on offer to the public at the moment. For a diary should surely detail every single high and low of a life well lived; and not skimp on facts just because they may be somewhat embarrassing to the writer.  
While not wishing to compare my own ramblings to that of one of the most important men in British politics of the last decade, there are many, many moments from my past that are almost too cringeworthy to revisit. It’s hard not to read, for example, my tortured account of seeing the girl I was in love with walking down Kenilworth high street hand in hand with another boy, prompting me to go home in tears, put my head under the duvet and play Portishead’s ‘Sour Times’ on repeat for four hours, without wincing in pain. Fainting on a hot summer’s afternoon into the arms of the headmaster’s wife at school, capsizing in the River Avon while playing water polo and nearly succumbing to the dreaded Weil’s Disease (an illness caused by rat’s urine in the water, which can kill), and my numerous cock-ups as a paperboy and nervous Top Shop employee may all be things I want to forget, but such tragicomic events make you who you are today, and a diary without them isn’t even worthy of the name.
I even wrote my own weekly soap, entitled ‘Trials and Tribulations’. This ‘classic’ ran for over 200 episodes, and its surreal, badly written mixture of over-the-top drama, romance and murder in a quiet Warwickshire town would probably be of huge interest to any psychiatrists out there. Although, with the BBC on the look out for a new soap now that Neighbours is set to move to Channel 5, maybe I should just bundle all the episodes up and send them off to Broadcasting House (it would probably still make more sense than Home and Away).
People at the time who knew I wrote a diary would say that I was ‘sad’ or needed to ‘get a life’. As far as I was concerned, however, writing a day-to-day journal actually inspired me to live a more interesting existence than I may otherwise have experienced. After all, I wanted as a teenager to have enough interesting things going on in my life to write about, and although the acres of ink I used dissecting life’s highs and lows may have made me slightly more analytical than is strictly healthy, at least it meant that I was taking a keen interest in life around me, and not just sailing through my days on auto-pilot.          
Maybe diaries do feed into our desire to make sense of our random, chaotic lives, or even, without getting too morbid about it, leave something tangible about us behind when we’re gone. Maybe they just feed our egos. For myself, however, I know that diaries instilled in me a love of writing from an incredibly early age, the discipline of setting yourself a task and carrying it through over an extended period of time, and even the ability, crucial as a journalist in later life, to make the most mundane days and events sound exciting and interesting (not an easy task when the most newsworthy incident in a week would often be something as fascinating as the school bus breaking down).

Although I stopped writing a diary when I hit university, reasoning that I wanted to live life rather than write about it for a while, part of me wishes I’d carried on. Some of the things that happened to me as a twenty-something, whether tragic or euphoric, should certainly have been committed to paper. As it stands, though, I have an invaluable record of 11 magical, confusing, terrifying, complicated, depressing and joyful years, and that can never be taken away.     
Did you keep a diary when you were growing up, or do you still write one now? What motivates you to keep a daily account of your life? Drop us your thoughts below.
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16 Responses to In praise of the diary

  1. Sadaquat says:

    DOM ,From whatever I read about your  "diary" I found it quite a delightful piece, and can say that you do have a flair of a prolific writer. I hope you will eventually dabble into humor and come up with some nice piece of work.
    Keep it up! I shall be on the look-out!

  2. Wendy says:

    I never kept a dairy until I left my marriage of 20 years last year!  I prefer to call it my journal as a normal diary would not be big enough to hold all my hopes thoughts and dreams!
    I met a wonderful guy via internet dating, live with him and my journal is full of everything we do together, such as buying a pet rat, getting a puppy, walking down the beach every day! To some it may be boring, to me, this is the way my life should be and I aim to continue writing till the day I die.

  3. Wild Style29 says:

    I love my diaries. Been keeping them for many years. I, too, love writing, but not having the \’one book\’ in me that we are all supposed to have, my diaries are my way of keeping in touch with what I\’ve done. I\’m not blessed with a water-tight memory, so these journals are a great (?) reminder of the highs, middles and lows of my life. Diaries ROCK !
    Wild Style 29

  4. Seven says:

    I would love to keep a journal as I think it can be very theraputic as well as training your writing skills. I kept a diary from about 7 to 13, but then my sister found it and showed everyone and I was so shocked that I stopped the next day. Maybe when I have my own home with privacy then I will, but for now I don\’t want everyone reading all my secrets! I\’ll stick to writing novels.

  5. Tony says:

    I started a diary January 1976 and I have kept it ever since. I dont write about feeling (often) but it\’s more a place and events diary. It is for me to look back on in my dotage. Each January I pull out two or three random years and look back. I started putting boarding cards and ticket stubs to add something extra to the entries. Some of my friends consider me their memory and at a recent 50th party for a very old friend he said "without you at the party I have no history". I take quite a few photographs so this combination is very useful to me.
    I lost 18 months worth when I had my briefcase stolen and although my credit card was stolen at the same time I was more upset about losing my memory than the £500 on the credit card. Incidentally after losing the credit card I submitted an idea to APAC and the Bank of England to stop credit card fraud. It was called PASS card, which needed card holders to tap in their pin number into a terminal and carry a photo on their credit card. APAC said it would never be launched in the UK as it would slow down transaction times. I\’m not bitter at all!

  6. Nicki says:

    The only times I have kept a diary is whilst travelling for 3 months, I felt it was important to me to make the most of the experience and to keep a record of the memories.
    I have always been in two minds about keeping a diary of feelings and experiences in the \’real world\’. I like the idea of having a record of events and situations that have influenced my life and made me the person I am today. However, as  you mentioned is there any point in keeping a diary if you don\’t keep a note of the lows as well as the highs and I think it is this that keeps me from writing true feelings and opinions on things.
    I must admit this piece has inspired me to reconsider these feelings as I look at my two children and think that it would be lovely to have a record of them growing up and the comical things they do as well as the temper tantrums.

  7. Jan says:

    I find keeping a diary is an essential part of my life and have kept one since 1948. (aged 6yrs) I have followed in both my mothers\’ and her mothers\’ footsteps, who each respectively kept diaries from 1918 and 1877, these have given an addition to an average and almost completed Family History Tree. My grandmothers\’ diaries were a great source of Social History which I often relied on heavily throughout my education. In retrospect, I guess hers could be classed more as journals than diaries, since they are not in book form, but in sheets of paper bundled together in individual years.

  8. Quick As A Melting Duck says:

    I have just started writing a diary as my friend and I have agreed to swap at the end, and apparently it has helped with the amount he writes in English GCSE papers! Diaries are great for me because I can get my thoughts down on paper and forget about them, and is interesting and amusing to read afterwards, it also brings back lots of memories! You are a good writer and your blog was interesting to read because I can relate to what you have written!

  9. Rosie says:

    I keep a diary – not confiding my secrets or anything private – but just a record of the day, funny quotes, and the latest gossip, so that in a few years time, my future self will be able to read about any day of my life and I\’ll always have great memories.

  10. Mandy says:

    I have kept a diary for about 4 years. I enjoy writing in it mainly because I have a terrible memory and it helps me to remember what ive done with my life so far, but i am paranoid of people finding them as they aren\’t all in one book!

  11. mitch says:

    i have kept a sort of diary/journal since i was 12 \’till present… i am now 16 years old. primarily created to keep note of my thoughts and opinions, not only to remember them but use them for future reference, on basically what ever comes to mind, never to touch on events in my life. at times it may be an seemingly endless rant on whats wrong with the world, and others it may be a poem about the girl i like. redundant to say… i keep all of what i have written (30 pages, 10 pt. font) on a word document on my FAMILY computer (may i add, i have no brothers and sisters) and when im using it and someone happens to walk into the room i become paranoid that they will even get a glimps of it.

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