Why write a diary?

by June Alexander

“I wish I had written a diary in my youth.” “I wish Mom or Dad (or Grandpa or Grandma had kept a diary.”  I often hear these sentiments. Pictures can tell us a lot, but words add the flesh and bring those pictures to life.

If you have not started a diary or journal for 2018 don’t worry, start today. All you need to start is a pen and paper, or a computer, or a keyboard on an electronic tablet or phone. But then what?

The diary was the focus of my PhD research and this, together with lived experience, led to publication of my creative work, Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders – The Diary Healer.  I share extracts from The Diary Healer with you in this post, to explore why writing a diary can be rewarding for the diarist. Thank you to fellow diarists who generously and bravely opened their hearts and their diaries to contribute to my research and The Diary Healer.

Narrative snapshots

Diary entries create a series of snapshots. Each entry is a snapshot recorded and fixed in time, reflecting your moods, feelings and insights at any moment. Each entry is individual, but together they preserve and reveal a reality, which cannot be changed but can be reflected on and re-storied to provide healing and guidance for today and tomorrow. The diary is potentially a great teacher. The challenge is to learn its lessons.

A gatherer of wisdom

Diary writing can help us to connect with our thoughts and feelings, and provide a foundation for valuable reflection, as friend and colleague, Jenni Schaefer describes:

“As a child, I wrote details of my day-to-day life in a little green book latched with a golden lock. This was my special diary—only I had the key—where an entry might read, “I went to a birthday party today. I had fun.” As I grew older and the world became more complicated, the word “diary,” for me, transformed into “journal.” My journal became a way for me to write my way through life’s challenges. In fact, various journal entries detailing my recovery from an eating disorder helped to shape my first book, Life Without Ed. Today, as an author of several books, I also blog on my website (www.jennischaefer.com/blog) about some of life’s lessons. My blog often includes wisdom gained from journaling. Each person’s view of a diary, journal, and blog will differ. These are simply mine.”

– Jenni Schaefer

Jenni and I are both avid diary writers, and have used our diaries over many years in many ways, both for personal growth and as a rich repository for our respective writing crafts.

You also can use your diary in many ways. Besides being a confidante, it can help with problem solving, organizing your day, time management, relaxing, trusting intuition, building self-belief and improving self-expression.

The diary offers much more than a place to store written words. It can be a tool to help you cultivate reflective and critical thinking, and discover and nurture helpful perspectives. Some people write more when happy, others write more when sad or confused. Any time is a good time to write.

Remembering your mindset

The diary can help you to heal, express, and extend yourself through establishing a narrative connection. Even when not facing a serious health challenge or other life issue, writing a diary can be beneficial. As a tool for communicating, it can help others to understand who you are – both now and a century later – and create opportunity for generating, belonging to, and enriching a community of caring.

“I always wanted to be able to use my past experience to do something positive in the future. Writing is a way of remembering my mindset when I’m in my darkest moments. It also provides a type of catharsis, helping to empty out my worries, stresses and thoughts, calming my mind before sleep.”

– Hayley

More than prose

Maybe you don’t like writing. The good news is that a diarist has options. For instance, my diaries look “much-loved” in a much-used sort of way. They bulge sideways on the bookshelves. Sheets of paper of different colors, textures, shapes, and sizes protrude beyond the covers, refusing to be neatly contained, and on more than several diaries the binding, stretched beyond its limits, is threadbare, split and worn. This is because, besides storing daily accounts, the diary is a depository for photographs, pictures, drawings, doodles, lists, maps, newspaper cuttings and tear-outs, letters, greeting cards, invitations, and other mementos collected during the course of a year. Every item adds to the narrative and dialogue of my story.

Anything that holds meaning for you, and has a date on it, can go in your diary. Some diarists write poetry, paint, take photographs and caption them, or create collages. Many today, like Jenni Schaefer and myself, post blogs or use other forms of social media. The diary is a place where thoughts and feelings can run free and whatever form of self-expression suits you, is right.

The diary helps me to know who I am, helps to keep me grounded and be mindful of self-care. I write for about 20 minutes daily and sometimes, several times in one day. I write anywhere and wherever I go, the diary goes too.

An important ‘but’

The diary, like a best friend, does not judge. But there is a “but.” Writing a diary can help you to analyze situations and experiences, and pursue the “right” path, but does not guarantee it. My own history reveals diary writing can also encourage disconnection from, and denial of, self.  This important issue is explored in The Diary Healer.

Let it all out

At stressful or momentous times, diary writing can provide a pause, slowing thoughts to writing pace. This process can help to put things in perspective and, ultimately, achieve inner calmness and comfort. Besides being a quiet companion, for instance, Robyn’s diary has been a protector of secrets, a puzzle solver, a conduit to her higher power, a sassy cheerleader, and a witness of life. Since age 14, Robyn has used diary writing to seek the truth, support and accept her frailties, and encourage strengths and creativity. In dark and vulnerable times, and in happy times, her diary has been the one place where “I can let it all out. Writing helps me find my voice, my passions and my purpose in life.”

Keeping track of what’s going on

The diary can help to attain clarity, routine, perspective and beauty. In Jesse’s words:

“Journal writing requires me to slow my mind down enough that I can locate, acknowledge and explore each thought. This is important because my thoughts often spiral out of control. Writing slows and prolongs a thought long enough for me to become closer to understanding it.

Daily journaling helps me to create a routine that is easily ticked off my daily to-do list.

When I’m dwelling, catastrophizing or fretting about a particular issue I feel instantly better for writing it down. This process also gives me perspective as putting thoughts to paper helps me realize how much I am struggling to justify this issue to myself, and how insignificant the worry is. For example, if I feel like my boyfriend is ignoring me, this issue can snowball in my head. But when I start to explain and elaborate the thoughts, emotions, and apparent reasoning on paper, I see how childish I sound as I whine about something that is most likely a misunderstanding.”

– Jesse

A safe place to flesh things out

The diary can support healing and cathartic relief, and be a place to safely vent, rant and rave. Kristin explains:

“Diary writing helps me get to the heart of the problem and flesh it out. I can work through issues by feeling free to write out the thoughts. It is a relief and a release.

In another way, writing is healing because even in a blog it is a form of honesty and accountability because it is not private. It is a decision of what is okay and safe to say and keeping yourself honest and accountable for those things.”

– Kristen

The many purposes of a diary include

Processing thoughts and feelings:

Jessie, who writes in her diary about three times a month, finds the writing process enriches her daily life by reducing shame, encouraging honesty, and developing positive coping skills. Documenting experiences allows her to reflect and identify themes, which is helpful in deciding how to respond to certain events.

Goal-setting, problem solving and a safe space to explore thoughts unable to be discussed with others:

The diary is a self-made tool, Jessie also finds, to identify connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, increase insight by exploring the relationship between the past and present, and uncover hidden truths. This process helps her to gain courage to face reality.

A place to process situations and emotions:

“As an introvert, diary-writing is usually the best processing technique for me, especially for thoughts that I feel unable to share verbally (or even at times don’t have the words for until I’m writing them down).”

– Lacey

A safe way to communicate when face-to-face encounters seem too difficult:

My diary enables me to express how I think, feel and understand things without the fear and anxiety that arise in conversation and face-to-face discussion. There always have been inner voices [‘why did you say that?’, ‘don’t say that!’, ‘they think you are stupid.’] when engaging in a verbal conversation. Writing alleviates that anxiety and constant negative commentary.

– Mel

A record and reference-keeper:

Diary writing is a constant push to keep going. At the same time, it keeps track of my life. I can look back ten years and see who I was then. There are vital things I have been able to reference and process only through reading my diaries. If details of a trauma had not been written in my diaries, I would have felt haunted for a long time since there are holes in my memory of the event.

– Kristen

An assistant in organizing thoughts that otherwise feel scattered and overwhelming:

“From a very young age, my thoughts and feelings had nowhere to go except round and round in my head…the diary was quite simply the only outlet for describing, albeit for my eyes only, how I felt.”

– Renee

A pathfinder in the process of gaining freedom from an eating disorder:

“When starting to find out who I was in my recovery, I realized my dishonesty didn’t come out of calculated lies or wanting to leave little things out; it came from wanting to please others. I didn’t want to feel wrong, out of place, or regretful, so my story changed for everyone. Along the way, I forgot my own story and had no idea who I was. I had been imprisoned for a long time and the world seemed much larger without the confinement of my illness – almost too large with too many options. Through diary-writing, I began to find my truth and regain my story. As unglamorous and unfortunate as it might have seemed, this story was my own. Writing, along with my recovery and support team, has helped me get in touch with who I am (oh so slowly) and to decipher my thoughts and feelings.”

– Robyn

So, if you have not yet started to write a diary, start today, and you will be on the way to helping yourself have a fuller life – making your life count, not only today, but for all tomorrows as well.

June Alexander

About June Alexander

I have written nine books about eating disorders since my recovery (my “reconnection with true self”) from anorexia nervosa and other long term mental health challenges in 2006. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing). My contribution to the eating disorder field was recognised at the 2016 Academy for Eating Disorders International Conference in San Francisco where I was awarded the Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and Advocacy. I am currently a co-chair of the NEDC Steering Committee Evidence of Experience Group, a foundation steering committee member of the annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and an Advisory Panel member for F.E.A.S.T.

All articles by June Alexander

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