What a Diary Can Do That Social Media Can’t

Looking for a better way to express who you are?

Once and only once in my life did I keep a personal journal. It was twenty-five years ago. I started entering notes the day my son was born and stopped two years after that, shortly after my daughter was born. No one’s ever read my diary, no one’s even known about it until now. I wasn’t even sure that it still existed until I recently discovered that it was preserved in an ancient folder on my current hard drive. The folder had traveled through time and space, nesting unobserved in seven or eight successive computers, transferred from desktop to laptop to desktop to laptop, surviving at least a dozen Apple operating-system upgrades. It survived Steve Jobs himself. “Some moments are nice, some are nicer, some are even worth writing about,” Charles Bukowski wrote in a poem. That’s precisely what I was doing in that diary: writing down moments that seemed worth writing about at the time.

That I even thought to go looking for the all but forgotten journal had to do with the book I was researching. The book is about how we draw on memories to make sense of ourselves. Curious about why we choose some memories and not others, I went around asking people whether they kept a written record of certain thoughts so as not to forget about them when building their narrative.

Some people who’ve never kept a diary struck me as pigheaded. They’re channeling Rudyard Kipling, who once boasted that if something isn’t worth remembering, it’s not worth writing down. Others told me that they’d like to keep a journal but simply don’t have the time. Still others said they had nothing much to say to a diary, that their day-to-day life was humdrum and besides, there were plenty of other places — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — where they can dump half-baked thoughts. But keeping a journal and posting on social media, however, are two different things, I tried to point out. With a journal, your observations don’t scroll out of existence two seconds after you record them. They’re linked one to the next, resulting in an open-ended, running account uninterrupted by geo-targeted ads or the quotidian bleats of others. There’s also plenty of stuff that we’d rather not share with others — not on Facebook or Twitter, not anywhere — but they’re worth preserving. And there’s stuff we don’t fully understand and can’t easily put into words. A diary doesn’t care how you say something. A diary’s not judgmental. Nothing’s not important enough. Everything’s not unimportant until time proves it fatuous or incomprehensible.

One person told me she never kept a journal because writing doesn’t come easily for her — as if that matters. Virginia Woolf, whose lifelong diary stretches across thirty-eight handwritten volumes, said that how a private diary’s written “doesn’t count.” Reading through one of her own journals, she confided that she was “much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles.” My modest seventy-page diary jerks intolerably over the cobbles as if yanked along in a little red Radio Flyer. Literary quality? Somewhere between prosaic and cringe-worthy, no big deal since I never imagined the sentences would ever see the light of day.

Then there are many out there who think diaries are only for people who’ve led an epic life such as Anne Frank’s, or a train wreck of a life like Bridget Jones’s. They’re totally missing the point. There’s no correlation between how singular a life is and how interesting the diary. A boring life can make for a fascinating diary, and a fascinating life can make for a boring diary. George Orwell kept one of the most mundane diaries imaginable: shopping lists, daily weather summaries, vegetable-growing reports, speculation on what may have caused his goat’s loose bowels.

Finally, there are people who think that only the lonely keep diaries. Those who do, Joan Didion said, “are a different breed altogether… anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” Didion was reaching for effect. She herself kept a journal because she couldn’t bear the thought of wasting so much as “a single observation.” A “thrifty virtue,” she called it.

Here, though, are the two best reasons to keep a diary, I realized after rediscovering my own and reflecting on what others said about theirs. First, it’s a way to create who you are. So remarked Susan Sontag, whose posthumously published diaries recount in intimate detail her life as a public intellectual and generally unsatisfied wife, mother, and lover. “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself,” Sontag confided to her diary. Absolutely, I said to myself when I read that. I launched my short-lived journal to create myself — create myself as a father. Or re-create whatever self I’d been into a substantially revised self, this one having one, and then another, young soul who’d be dependent on me, at least for a while.

And here’s the other good reason to keep a diary:

Let’s say you’re jogging through the park one day and you spy a mighty oak tree. Big deal. A tree’s a tree. Except this time, for some inexplicable reason, you see a tree and you think to yourself: A tree is strong. A tree is stalwart. You’re then hit with the blinding insight that a tree speaks to the meaning of life — whereupon you’re filled with rapturous joy that you are alive at that very moment.

Now, granted, it’s the kind of borderline-deranged insight a poet might have. In fact, Hermann Hesse had that exact borderline-deranged insight, even went to the trouble of writing it down: “A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.”

But let’s say that you had that insight. You can do one of two things with it. You can make a note about how strong and stalwart trees are, or you can make a mental note of it, betting that the mental note will be appropriately tagged and stored in your memory archive, to be retrieved as needed when you’re building your personal narrative. Why go to the trouble of hauling down your journal from inside the dropped ceiling tile? or typing the tree epiphany into your iPad? Because a diary serves as a backup vault. Much as we assume we’ll remember things that strike us as interesting or inspiring, we don’t. We’re busy and easily distracted. Most things that strike us as interesting or inspiring go in one ear and out the other. Moreover, studies show that we routinely and predictably under-appreciate certain events when they happen. And that events, when recalled in a different mood or another context, mean something entirely unexpected. When jotted down in a journal, however, the insight about the tree is locked and loaded for future use. In time it may connect to another insight about — I don’t know, gnats. Not how annoying gnats are, but how joyfully they take to the air on a gentle summer night, which suggests that even gnats have some halfway legitimate reason to exist.

Now you’ve got a theme going, don’t you see? How meaningful the world is on a quiet evening when there’s nothing going on, except everything is going on. The whole damn world’s swarming under the watchful security of stalwart trees. (Or something like that, I’m not a poet.) The point is, you’re making connections you hadn’t made before. How there’s meaning, purpose, and beauty in nature, which is not only comforting, it may even provide you with the reason you’re here in the first place.