What Every Writer Needs to Know about Keeping a Personal Diary

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Put aside any thought of a little pink diary with Hello Kitty on the cover, secured by a lock that can be jimmied with a toothpick. I'm here to talk about why keeping diary may hold the key to achieving a meaningful adult life.

It's a realization I came to not long ago. I'd never thought much about diaries until I was well into researching my latest book: The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death, and Everything in Between. The book's about how each of us, beginning a young age, begins collecting memories. And how, as if by magic, we build a story out of them—the story of our life, the narrative we carry in our heads. Just like a written story, it's got a beginning, a middle, and eventually an end. Some chapters are happy, others we'd delete if we could. There are any number of turning points along the way.

This guest post is by Lee Eisenberg. Eisenberg is a New York Times bestselling author and the former editor-in-chief of Esquire Magazine. His latest book, The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death, and Everything in Between, is available online and at bookstores now.

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You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. For more information, visit LeeEisenberg.com.

One day, grappling with how best to describe this miraculous process, I remembered that once in my life I'd kept a diary. Twenty-five years ago. I started keeping notes when our son was born, continuing on for two years until shortly after our daughter came along. I hadn't looked at the document since. But when I searched my current hard drive, there it was, tucked away in an ancient folder: an 81-page Word document that had been transferred from desktop to laptop to desktop, accompanying me into and through middle-age. The instant I reopened the file, a clutch of memories sprang back to life: A day in a park on a lonely business trip abroad, when I watched a father with his young son and felt a profound longing to be back home with my own toddler who was about to take his first steps. Didn't want to miss that. The name and face of a woman long-forgotten, who gently helped in the delivery of our daughter. These and other long-lost memories reminded me, in laser-sharp detail, just how rich and meaningful that chapter of my life story was.

Rediscovering that journal ushered in a fresh phase of research. A diary is yet another version of the life story that we carry in our heads. When revisited, it can help us decide whether the story's been meaningful or not. You'd think, then, that more of us would keep a diary. But most people said no as I continued my book research. Some folks told me that they've thought about keeping a journal but don't have the time. Others said they had nothing much to tell a diary: their day-to-day life was humdrum and besides, there were plenty of other places — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — where they could offload half-baked thoughts at the drop of a hat. Keeping a journal and posting on social media, however, are two different things, I tried to point out. There’s also plenty of stuff that occurs to us that we’d rather not share with others. And there’s stuff we don’t fully understand and can’t easily put into words, which is reason enough to try and articulate them in the pages of a journal.

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These conversations about diaries cleared a path to my figuring out the last third of the book. In fact, the book closes with a quote from someone else's diary, one that goes right to the heart of what makes life meaningful. I won't spoil the ending, but I will say this: there's now a 5" x 8" Moleskine notebook on my bedside table.

I'm keeping a journal. And you might do likewise, for at least five reasons:

1. A diary enables us to save for the future—precious memories, that is.

Joan Didion has said that she keeps a journal because she can’t bear the thought of wasting so much as “a single observation.” A “thrifty virtue,” she calls it. “See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there….”

2. A diary offers a clear view into not just who we are, but who we're striving to be.

Critic Susan Sontag, whose posthumously published diaries recount in intimate detail her evolution as a lover and a public intellectual: “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.”

3. A diary trains us to pay attention to the moment.

We’re all busy and distracted. Ideas, insights, and observations strike us when least expected, only to flicker and vanish in the course of a hectic day. Writing these moments down is akin to capturing lightning in a bottle. We thus become avid collectors of even minor strikes of lightning, day-after day.

4. A diary serves as an invaluable backup vault.

Studies show that we routinely and predictably underappreciate key events when they happen. And that events, when recalled in a different mood or another context, mean something entirely unexpected. The studies also show that the more ordinary an event seems at the time, the greater the likelihood that we’ll make an error in judgment about how meaningful it will turn out to be. If you’re a writer, an otherwise forgotten or underappreciated event can give rise to a great book idea or a compelling character.

5. A diary keeps the writing gears greased.

P.D. James, the great mystery novelist, said she never suffered from severe writer’s block, though sometimes she had to wait out a dry spell before nailing down the idea for a new book. While biding her time, James made it her habit to do some—little stuff, anything, if only to keep the wheels turning, as she put it. James described how she started keeping a diary—her one and only—when she was well into her seventies. She then published it: Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography, which came out a few years before she died in 2004. In the prologue, James writes: “My motive now is to record just one year that otherwise might be lost, not only to children and grandchildren who might have an interest but, with the advance of age and perhaps the onset of the dreaded Alzheimer’s, lost also to me.”

But whether you're a writer or not, a diary is an invaluable reference when we reach final chapters of our life story. It's then that most of us, not just P.D. James, conduct what social scientists refer to as a "life review." We replay our life story in an attempt to assure ourselves that our lives were meaningful. During this review, in the words of one gerontologist, “hidden themes of great vintage may emerge.” And the end, that's exactly what a diary's intended to do.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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